A FRIEND OF MINE is finishing his MFA, and told me earlier this week about a class he is taking.
"It's on getting published," he said. "How to get an agent, how to read a contract: stuff like that."
I told him that sounded like a great idea. They'd certainly had nothing like that when I earned my MFA; we'd mostly found out about the dark side of publishing over pizzas with people who'd found their way into print.
I asked my friend who was teaching the class, and it was no one I'd heard of. So I asked what books this professor had written.
"He just sold his first one," my friend said.
Now, I hope there's more to the story than this. Maybe the fellow teaching the class is a current or former literary agent. Or perhaps he has decades of experience as an acquisitions editor with major publishing houses.
But I doubt that's the case because, on God's green earth, there is very little that can match the conceit, the hubris, and the smug confidence of a writer who has just sold his or her first novel.
This is a subject with which I am intimately familiar because, a decade-and-a-half ago or so, I was that writer.
Granted, first-time novelists are generally helped along toward that opinion. In my own case, I had a group of friends who, like me, were all struggling writers. When I was the first of our group to make it into print, they instantly elevated me to rock-star status and were dying for information about how I did it. Add to that my imprint's publicist, who was churning out releases about how deftly I walked on water, and in no time at all, I decided I was a superstar. And the world desperately needed to benefit from my wisdom.
Doorways had to be widened so I could fit my head through. I doled out advice to others with unpublished manuscripts still in their hands, and they gave me their rapt attention.
Then my publisher at the time invited me to a retreat. Practically all of the novelists in its current stable would be attending. And I happily agreed to take my rightful place among the elite.
Now, bear in mind that, at this time, my first novel wasn't even released yet. And when I got to the retreat, two things quickly dawned on me.
The first was that I was the only one there with just a single title to my credit. Everyone else was published many times over. Some had dozens of titles in print. And although they treated me as a peer, they were being extraordinarily gracious.
And the second thing that dawned on me was that none of these deeply published novelists seemed anywhere near as cocksure as I felt. Most were relatively humble and forthright people: people who'd come to this retreat to learn and become better writers.
Slowly it dawned on me that, in all of my life, I'd never learned anything while I was talking, and maybe I'd better just shut my mouth and listen. Eight novels later, I still believe there are volumes to be learned about this whole business of writing and getting published, and there always will be, because this is a business that changes. Daily. So while I still dispense advice (I'm doing it right now), I try to do so from the perspective of a student, not a teacher.
Now, not all writers greet success with the arrogance of someone who has just snatched the sword from the stone when others could not. Some accept publication far more gracefully. Some realize that the only reason they are published is because their manuscript was read by a persuasive acquisitions editor who just happened to be on their wavelength ... that their success hinges upon more, worlds more, than their simple skill at the keyboard.
I wish I had been one of those writers. But I wasn't, and the time machine is broken, won't turn over at all, so I cannot go back and make it right.
But I can share with others that publication is a mantle that will never fit well unless worn gracefully.
And, hopefully, I just did.