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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on Writing on Your Own Terms

“When the publishing industry decides, our work suffers.”

This essay was originally presented as a talk at the Tin House Summer Workshop. You can listen to it on Between the Covers, a literary radio show and podcast.

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When I was a kid, and I said I wanted to be a writer, my grandmother, who was a visual artist, told me that most great writers never got published. I don’t think she meant this to be encouraging, but it was actually the best thing anyone could have said. It taught me that writing on my own terms would mean writing against the world, and I already knew this was the only way to become an artist.

When I started reading the Paris Review in high school, and in each issue it said they wanted to discover new writers, I submitted my poetry, and of course they rejected it, but this didn’t discourage me. Because most great writers never got published.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting the Paris Review should have published my high school poems, and I’m not suggesting the Paris Review should exist, all I’m saying is that when my grandmother told me that most great writers never got published, I knew this didn’t relate to the value of their work. The problem was the people who decided what mattered.

And this is still the problem—the gatekeepers, the publishing industry, the tyranny of the market, the branding of creativity, the myth of universality, however you phrase it. I remember once, going to a public conversation between two Great Straight White Male Writers. We’ve all made the mistake of going to this conversation at least once, right?

After Great Straight White Male Writer 1 read, it was time for the Q&A. This is where we’re supposed to find profound insight. The questions are always the same, so the answers can shine all the more brilliantly.

“If writing is what allows us to dream, to engage with the world, to say everything that it feels like we cannot say … then we need to write on our own terms, don’t we?”

So Great Straight White Male Writer 2 said to Great Straight White Male Writer 1: Who is your ideal audience?

And Great Straight White Male Writer 1 said: Everyone in my ideal audience is dead.

And, just when I thought that Great Straight White Male Writer 1 might elaborate, and say something predictable like “my grandmother” or “that elementary school English teacher who taught me everything,” it got worse. Because then he added, “You know, Virgil, Homer, Shakespeare”—I’m serious, that’s what he said! Here he was onstage in a gorgeous turn-of-the-century theater with hundreds of people in the audience who had each paid $20 to see him, but no, none of us mattered, it was only about all those long-dead men of the canon.

It’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to literature than questions about audience. Then again, it’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to literature than literature.

When we write on our own terms, with all the specificity, nuance, complication, messiness, contradiction, emotion, confusion, weirdness, devastation, wildness and intimacy, when we write against the demand for closure or explication, we write against the canonical imperative, and instead write toward the people who might actually appreciate our work on its own terms. I mean we write toward our selves. We also write toward change. A canon is a cannon is a canon. Wait, don’t shoot me, I’m already dead.

Over and over again we are told that in order to make our work accessible, we have to speak to an imagined center where the terms are still basically straight, white, male, and Christian. When we write on our own terms, and by this I mean when we reject the gatekeepers who tell us we must diminish our work in order for it to matter, we may be kept out of the centers of power and attention, this is for sure. And yet, if writing is what keeps us alive—and I mean this literally—if writing is what allows us to dream, to engage with the world, to say everything that it feels like we cannot say, everything that makes us feel like we might die if we say it, and yet we say it, so we can go on living—if this is what writing means, then we need to write on our own terms, don’t we?

I know there’s something called a writing career, so if that’s what you’re looking for, maybe I’m not the one to listen to. I just don’t know how I would survive without writing. And if I was writing for a market, then I know I wouldn’t. This doesn’t mean you wouldn’t, but it might mean that your work would not be able to reach its fullest potential.

Nothing is universal, not even the period at the end of this sentence. Okay, maybe trauma is universal, but not what trauma, who is traumatized, or how it feels to each of us, certainly not in language. Isn’t this why we write? Sure, we all must breathe to stay alive, but we all breathe differently. What language can we conjure to shift the breath? Sure, we all experience rain, sun, water, earth. But as soon as we write about them, they change too. Try it. See if we can all agree about any of this. Eileen Myles writes, “As soon as I hit the keyboard I’m lying,” and we all know the truth in this.

The world is full of liars, and the ones in power get to decide what is true. This is what it means to be part of the publishing industry, or that’s what the industry tells us. To believe in the lie involves its own art, but not the art that allows us to breathe.

When I sent my first novel out to agents 20 years ago, I would get responses that said something like “I love what you’re doing here, the voice is incredible, no one else is writing like this, but I just wouldn’t know how to market it.”

Of course, an agent’s job is to market the work they love, but most agents don’t think this way. They don’t want to change the market, they want to fit the work they represent into the market. So nothing ever changes.

“When the publishing industry decides, our work suffers.”

Then, with my second novel, I started to receive responses from agents that said “I love what you’re doing here, but I think it needs a stronger narrative structure to take it to the next level.” Of course, this narrative structure was exactly what the book was resisting.

More bluntly, I would receive responses that said, “I love what you’re doing here, but the publishing industry is just too conservative.“ But how will that ever shift, if these are the people in charge of whose work gets attention.

Then there are the editors who echo the same narratives. And, maybe even more jarring, there are the editors who love everything about the manuscript, but then they don’t have the power to do their job, and acquire the work they love. And, this happens in both corporate and independent publishing.

Then, of course, there are the editors and agents who say something like, “I love what you’re doing here, no one else is doing anything like it, but I just don’t find myself relating on a deep enough level, and so I don’t think I’m the right person to truly champion your work, and make sure it receives the attention it deserves.” But if an editor or publisher has to relate to everything they publish, then publishing is only for the people who make these decisions.

Things do change over time, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. We are in a moment right now where certain queer and trans authors are achieving a kind of access that wasn’t possible even a decade ago—especially for trans authors, and queer authors of color. But there was a moment like this in the ’90s, when queer work was suddenly allowed on mainstream corporate presses, and people were like: “Oh my God, everything’s changing.” And then the door slammed shut. So, I think that’s always a danger when we rely on multinational corporations to determine what is considered literature. When the publishing industry decides, our work suffers.

My most recent book, The Freezer Door, came out in November 2020. I wrote it in what I considered the present, but then the present changed dramatically with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, and so I found myself worried about how the hell people were going to relate to this strange lyric essay on desire and its impossibility, gentrification and the foreclosure of public intimacy, but what ended up happening is that people related more deeply, I think, especially to the themes of alienation and urban loneliness and even to the fragmentation of the form in search of its own embodiment. Before, some people would have understood loneliness, but now everyone did. We were in this together. My book tour was virtual, but I could still feel the connection, I mean there was a charge and we were creating it, all of us together in our own rooms.

Not only that, but The Freezer Door was getting reviewing on its own terms. And, in commodity publications that had never paid attention to me before, right from the beginning. You could say that this means the publishing industry is changing, and there might be a small window that has opened right now for queer and trans work that creates its own forms, but as long as we have the same system of publishing, that window could close at any moment. There’s too much attention paid to the exception to the rules, as if this proves that the rules have changed. As long as we have the same pedigree of MFA, agents, residencies, fellowships, corporate publishers, and awards that open the doors, the doors will always remain closed for most authors.

Over and over again, we see the way that the publishing industry decides to tokenize one demographic for a little while, and then boom, the publishing industry decides these people or this topic or this style of writing isn’t marketable anymore, and then everything gets pushed back out to the margins.

So, for example, in the ‘90s, at the height of the AIDS pandemic in the United States, after a decade of mass death, corporate publishers decided that creative work about AIDS could now appear in the mainstream. But by the end of the ‘90s, when effective treatments finally made HIV into a manageable condition for many, writing about AIDS was no longer considered marketable, and so it disappeared. And it took two decades for the publishing industry to decide that writing about AIDS could once again become acceptable. But what trauma did this forced exclusion enact, and what distorted narratives did this further?

Now that we’ve come from a year of mass Black Lives Matter protests against racist police brutality, the publishing industry has decided that white supremacy, slavery, and anti-Blackness are marketable topics. But, since this is a country that was founded on slavery and genocide, if the publishing industry actually wanted to challenge structural oppression, it would have been doing this the whole time. But the publishing industry will always further oppression, as long as oppression remains marketable.

Of course, there are independent publishers that feature and promote the work kept out of corporate publishing, but also, more often than not, these publishers end up echoing the same hierarchical methods and are barely more accessible to writers without a proven audience or cachet.

And independent bookstores, too, they often further the same institutional imbalances when over and over again they feature the corporate or commodity independent press books already proven to sell, whatever’s in the New York Times or the New Yorker or on NPR or on the oxymoronic “Indie Next” list of big-budget books with huge publicity and marketing budgets, and then they banish everything else to the back.

Sure, they say this is how they stay in business—that midnight Harry Potter release, or the entire front window of the store covered with whatever movie tie-in or whichever ex-President’s new memoir. But couldn’t they also do this for titles without huge marketing budgets, which actually rely on the support of independent bookstores? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen this.

Some writers think being relegated to a particular section of the store is the problem, and they don’t want to be banished to that section, but it’s the banishment that’s the issue, not the section. I love the queer section, and I love being in it. The queer section is where I have found so much of the work that matters to me, and it’s where people often find my work, so please, let’s make this section expansive and boisterous and revelatory. All of our sections.

“You know I don’t have answers, right? Other than demolishing the whole publishing industry, and rebuilding it.”

When I go into a store and there isn’t a queer section, and they try to tell me there are queer books everywhere, I know they’re lying. But of course queer work should also be on the front tables, in literature and memoir and essay and biography and among regional writers and staff picks and in every other section. And the same is true, of course, for the books in sections labeled African American or Latino or Native American or Asian American or shelved under Disability or Gender Studies or Essay or Current Affairs or Poetry or any other marketing niche the publishing industry decides belongs.

Imagine if you went into a bookstore and they had one tiny section for Straight White Men, way in the back, maybe it was so hard to find that you had to ask for it several times? I guarantee that any of us, when looking for the work that most closely resembles our life experiences, has had to ask these questions to ourselves and to the world, over and over and over.

But access is not enough—it’s not the same thing as structural change. Tokenism is not transformation. As soon as they let you in, they want you to become a gatekeeper, and as soon as you become a gatekeeper, you’re keeping people out.

When we hoard knowledge or guard access, this damages the potential for structural change. And, honestly, I think it damages our work too, because it keeps it from growing in all directions. It keeps us from trusting one another.

You know I don’t have answers, right? Other than demolishing the whole publishing industry, and rebuilding it.

Often writers ask me about how to write about people they know, what to keep in and what to keep out. And my first answer is always: write everything. Write it all. Especially the parts you are most worried about. You can decide later what to keep, but don’t hold yourself back, because then you’re censoring your work before it even has a chance to exist on the page. Before it has a chance to grow.

When I’m working on a new book, I just put everything in one document, with no intention of plot or structure, and I see what happens. Sometimes I do this for years, before I take a look at it as a whole. I want the form to emerge from the writing itself, and not the other way around. I don’t look at it as a whole until I sense that I have arrived somewhere, even if I don’t know where I’ve arrived I can sense that there’s a current in this text and now I need to guide it.

As I’m writing, I become interested in particular themes or subjects, certain cadences or explorations, obsessions or emotions, moments of brokenness or possibility, and I keep coming back to them. Maybe it’s the way the light looks on a building at a particular time of day, the terrible overpriced clothes in the window of a yoga boutique, or the search for connection in a world that refuses it. Maybe it’s language itself, the way it circles around to find its own embodiment. I want to be there for this whole process. Because I want to be here.

So it keeps growing, this text. Maybe I’m dancing, or I’m thinking about dancing but I don’t have enough energy, or I have enough energy but I don’t have anywhere to go. Maybe I’m writing about the trauma of everyday survival, the daily interactions that leave me feeling hollowed out, but also there’s that sudden moment on the street that might change everything, and how I’m always searching for that moment.

Sometimes the writing becomes declarative, expository, explosive, inquisitive, maybe I already know some of this needs to go but I keep it anyway, because at the end of five pages there might be the sentence that matters. Maybe I needed those five pages to get to that sentence.

Maybe sometimes I can only write one sentence in the day, that’s okay, one sentence a day can add up. I just keep it all in one document, the text is in conversation with itself, and I’m in conversation with the conversation. Maybe it’s about me, and maybe it’s about you. We are always in this text together, right?

Maybe sometimes I’m writing into the gaps, and maybe sometimes I’m writing out of them. If I’m writing towards closure, but I never get there, isn’t this why we write? Not to close off, not to close in—an opening: this is what I’m after.

Sometimes I get lost in the text, and sometimes I know exactly where I’m going. Sometimes I know exactly where I’m going, but then I get lost. And sometimes it’s everything at once.

Language is a search for more language. To say what we can’t say. So we can say it.

Maybe I hear something preposterous on the radio, and that goes into the document. Maybe someone calls me on the phone, and there’s something about the conversation that I need to write down. Maybe I’m sobbing or maybe I’m screaming or maybe I’m trying to feel something, anything except this feeling of feeling like I’m not feeling, not feeling enough. Or not feeling enough of what I want to feel. And then the writing takes over. I can feel this.

Maybe I’m writing about war or poverty or structural racism, gentrification or hypocrisy or the never-ending tragedy of gay assimilation, maybe I’m writing about the trees, have you looked at the trees recently? Have you leaned against them? What does this make you feel?

Maybe I’m writing about how my body will never let go, and I don’t want to let go of my body. Maybe I’m writing about trauma, there it is again, I knew it would be here but I didn’t know where. There’s an inside, and an out. Writing is both.

I write through the not-writing to get to the writing about not-writing, which is also writing about writing, which is also writing. Is there a pace to this, a tempo, a rhythm to this text, maybe I can feel something building.

Maybe I’m writing about history or feeling, a history of feeling, feeling history. Maybe I’m writing about direct action and my body’s limitations. Maybe I’m writing about pain, maybe I’m writing through pain, maybe I’m writing through. I mean I’m through. But I’m not through writing.

So I’m sensing all of this, or none of it. I think of a great sentence, yes, that’s the one, and it goes into the document. I wake up with an entire essay in my head, and then I sit down at the computer and it’s all gone. But I have to pull something out. Something needs to go into this document, so I can remember.

I mean I’m writing to remember. I’m writing to remember. I’m writing to remember.

But also I’m writing to challenge memory. We’re back to the gaps, the places where language stops. Let me in.

I’m writing to figure out the rhythm, can you hear that? Can you hear that beat? It’s language. Maybe I’m writing about dry skin, intestinal pain, desire that doesn’t quite feel like desire, a craving, seasonal affective disorder, the disaster of everyday alienation. Maybe I’m writing about loss. Maybe I’m writing so I don’t feel so much loss. Maybe I’m writing so I don’t feel so lost.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m writing about at all, I’m just writing.

Sometimes all of this becomes central to the book, and sometimes it doesn’t. But all the writing matters. Even when I start with 1200 pages, and end up with less than 200. Especially when I start with 1200 pages, and end up with less than 200. Because I’m a neurotic editor. I will edit and edit and edit until I get to the place where the writing sings. I will sing with it. Because the revision process, this is also what creates the structure. Language shouldn’t be static, unless it’s the static created by an electrical current. Allow the shape to shift, so we can move with it.

I guess what I’m wondering right now, is what would happen if all of us put our work together in one document, without any intention of form or structure. What surprises would emerge, in the gaps and in the repetitions, the uncomfortable juxtapositions and frayed edges, the nonsense and wild revelations, the conversations between and beyond the sentences? What new forms might we create by allowing everything into this explosion of words, instead of squeezing it tight and policing the borders of who or what belongs.

What if being a writer meant that when you were out in the world you would exchange notes with random people on the street, notes prepared and notes written on the spot? A sentence here, a sentence there—everything we need, and everything we don’t. All together now. You would be out there, just waiting for words, but you wouldn’t need to wait, because we would have each other’s words.

Hold this sentence: a temptation for feeling.

Hold this: I went to the store to get another hot chocolate.

Hold this: I’m hungry for change, can you spare me.

Hold this: Last night, when she was in bed, she dreamed for a bed that wasn’t like this bed. Good night, she said, to the princess in the pea. And then when I went to my vegetable garden everything was dead.

Hold this: Third person is the person without the shame of intimacy.

Hold this: A garden garden a garden, I’m guarding the garden from the guard. I am the guard, and I am the garden.

What would happen, if we put this all together: I went to the store for change, a temptation in bed, feeling the vegetable garden without the shame of intimacy. I’m guarding the store for feeling. In the garden, I’m hungry for the guard. Last night, a temptation for change, and then I went to bed.

I’m just playing now. But this is what I mean. Let’s play together.

All together now. All together. All.

Everyone is a writer, we would say, and this wouldn’t just be aspirational. Because, all of us, as soon as we went outside, we would approach one another to exchange sentences and build a structure that could hold us.

What if, in the document that included all our work-in-progress, which kept growing and growing, what if every now and then we would pull out one sentence, any sentence, to see if it could breathe. To see if we could breathe together. What if a writing process was by definition a process of mutual coexistence in the world? What if all writing involved an exchange? I mean it does. We all know this. But what if we acknowledged it all the time? That document with all our words would keep growing and growing, and so would we.

No writer is a writer without other writers. So let’s do this together.

Featured photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is the author, most recently, of The Freezer Door, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, one of Oprah Magazine’s Best LGBTQ Books of 2020, and a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Her previous nonfiction title, The End of San Francisco, won a Lambda Literary Award, and her novel Sketchtasy was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Sycamore is the author of two nonfiction titles and three novels, as well as the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her sixth anthology, Between Certain Death and a Possible Future: Queer Writing on Growing up with the AIDS Crisis, was published in October, 2021.





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