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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Foolishness of Belief

Yesterday I had the blessing to sit on a panel at the National Black Writers Conference, and the week before that, the honor to join authors Ayesha Harruna Attah and NoViolet Bulawayo in a conversation that was recorded for SaharaTV. In both sessions, and at many readings, lectures, panels and events I've attended or participated in, the same question came up: "What steps do you advise the aspiring writer take to enter the profession?"

It's a great question I don't think any writer really has the official answer to. One can advise all day long about joining a writing group or honing your craft or networking with the literary community -- good advice, by the way -- but i've decided what it really boils down to is the foolishness of belief.

When I examine my desire and ambition to become a published writer, I can only marvel at my own foolishness. I consider myself to be gifted when it comes to stringing words together in a pleasant way, but who am/was I to think my words deserved to be in print? Now that I have a little better understanding of the publishing industry and how it works, I can understand (sort of) why agent after agent rejected me for all those years before I ultimately got signed and sold my manuscript.

(from right to left) National Black Writers Conference Honorees Ishmael Reed, Dr. Howard Dodson, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, student winner of poetry prize, poet Sonia Sanchez, student winner of fiction prize, board & staff members, South Africa's Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsil, and NY1's Cheryl Wills

I am not a celebrity with instant name recognition or a massive following. Nor am I "connected" to anyone in the literary world. All I have are the stories in my mind and heart. And my belief in myself to write the stories I want to read; stories I believe others will be blessed by in some way shape or form.

So, in answer to the million dollar question about what steps to take to become a professional writer, the only advice I have is be foolish enough to believe you're good enough, that what you have to say matters. It starts there. Then, of course, you must focus on meeting the height of your belief.

For some it may take one letter to an agent who totally gets your voice, followed shortly thereafter by a substantial deal with a prominent publisher, sold film rights, etc. For one or two it will happen in some yet to be heard of way involving a yet to be invented app/social publishing tool for writers/etc. For most it will take a variation/combination of years of diligent study, getting into a prestigious MFA program, fastidious and constant honing of your craft, zealous and relentless networking, membership in multiple writing groups, voracious reading, building your social media followers numbers, etc.

Even if you are able to check every box twice, a literary agent and/or publisher may never sign you. You may have to self-publish and sell your books out the trunk of your car like Terry McMillan and E. Lynn Harris did. Through it all, whatever your path ends up becoming, you have to believe.

Faith is the only "formula" I know of that works. It will get you through the countless rejections you may face, the bad/mixed reviews your (finally!) published/self-published work will get, the sparse attendance at your readings, no one at your exhibitors table (the exhibitors table you spent $25 to $400 to reserve!), and slow sales. You need it when you're pitching and pushing month after month, year after year...

You may feel foolish at times, and question why you're even bothering, but in the end, when you come out on the other side of fulfillment no one will have to tell you it was worth it.

Happy April Fool's Day!