Two weeks ago, I heard Daniel Coshnear talk on “The Balanced Life.”  It was the final day of UC Berkeley Extension’s Fiction Writing Intensive, and we’d gathered four panelists to talk about Where to Go From Here:  Sustaining the Momentum.  The idea was to give the students – with varying degrees of writing experience – some practical and inspirational ideas for moving their work forward.

Mimi Albert, a writer and longtime UC Extension insructor, talked about online classes.   Heather Cameron gave an overview on publishing.  Deborah Lichtman covered the pros and cons of MFA programs.  And Dan talked about making a balanced life as a writer.  Somewhere in the process, he word “successful” slipped in there.

And that’s where it got interesting.

Every writer wants to know how to make it.  In 90 percent of the classes I’ve taught for more than ten years, the inevitable question comes up over the seltzer and hummus at our final class meeting:  How do you find an agent?

On the panel two weeks ago, Heather offered up the encouraging and true fact that every publisher is looking for good books.  The trick, of course, is what makes “good” and who decides?  The industry? the market?  The writer?

For years, self-publishing carried the stigma of “vanity press,” implying sloppy standards and poor product.  That’s largely changed, though self-publishing has other daunting considerations (marketing, promotion, etc.)  But many writers consider self-publishing for the wrong reasons.  Four or five rejections, and it’s all the industry’s fault.  There’s plenty to complain about in the industry, and there always has been, but your novel’s being rejected doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than the fact that your novel needs more work.

And that’s where Dan and Laurie Ann Doyle – the other workshop leader in the Fiction Intensive – come in.

The discussion had been tipped for more than twenty minutes toward the publishing end of the table when Laurie chimed in from the back of the room.  “Your goal as writers” – and here the room grew still, pens poised waiting to hear the trick – “is not to get published.  Your goal as writers is to make your story the best story it can be.”

Her point is essential.  Sure, publication is a goal – but not necessarily the goal.  (Anne Lamott says this better than I can, in Bird by Bird.) I knew a guy in grad school who studied The Atlantic and The New Yorker for their stories in the belief that if he wrote one with the right formula, those magazines would accept it.  He titled one work “Guns and Lovers.”  He imitated Hemingway.  Nothing wrong with aiming for the top, publication-wise, or stealing from a master, or alluding  to a famous modernist in a story title.  But to give the market what you think it wants does not strike me as the way to success as a writer.  As a byline, maybe. Which, come to think of it, I’ve never seen in that guy’s name…

I may be old-fashioned, or not savvy enough, or just plain lame – or preachy – but I prefer Dan’s definition.  Read it for yourself, from the online version of the Los Angeles Review (scroll down to find “The Balanced Life”).

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