The Illegible & Illegitimate Author
What being a writer vs. being an author means to me
Something must be happening in those great astrological bodies again, because I find I’ve been having all these recent conversations about the work I’ve put out into the world and what it means to be a published author. What star has placed this burden on me now?
As I continue to aim for a transparent practice, I want to spend some time talking about what makes the writer experience different from the author experience for me. I also want to talk about the specific work I’ve put out into the world, and how it has a type of interdependent relationship with my idea of authorship and what it means for me to be both a writer and an author. What I mean by this is that my own subjective relationships with the categories of “writer” and “author” and how I define them cannot be removed from the specific writing I’ve created.
To begin to get us there (and it might take me a little bit for us to get there—time to get thrown into the hermeneutic circle, baby!), let’s talk about being an writer vs. being an author.
If you write, you are a writer. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. To be a writer is a private act. It’s when you begin to share your writing with a public—i.e., when you publish it—that you become an author. An author is a construction. It is this equation that involves your writing and all the way it is packaged and presented when it leaves your controlled worlds of notebooks and computers. It is an idea of yourself that is paradoxically both interconnected and entirely removed from the writing itself.
There are endless components that go into authorship. Take the author photo for example. You know: that headshot that appears somewhere on the book cover or inside the flap? This is at least one variable that you could control. If the photo of you is taken outside in front of a flowering bush, what does that say? Is your writing connecting to the natural world? Is your language floral? What does it mean to step out into the sunshine? And if you decide to sit inside instead? In that dimly lit room? On that hard wooden chair? With that dark green wall? And your posture? What does that communicate?
I ultimately decided to forgo an author photo for both of my books because there was a global pandemic going on and I didn’t want Richard Avedon over there to sneeze on me and kill me, but I also have to acknowledge that this personal reasoning (just like my writing) means nothing once it has left my hands. Someone is undoubtedly going to grab my book and think I’m either trying to cultivate an air of mystery or act as a contrarian to publishing standards. Or maybe they’ll think I’m just shy.
Now, that headshot is just one element to being an author. The other elements include every magazine you’ve ever been published in, every award and prize you’ve won, the schools you received your degree from, the schools you teach at, the grants you’ve received, whether your author bio mentions your pets or not, the writer residencies you’ve taken part in, the press you’ve received, who blurbed you, how many book reviews your book received and where those reviews appeared, the book festivals you are asked to read at, the contests you are asked to judge, all the post-publication awards, and so on.
I can use myself as an example again. Let’s talk about all the various places I’ve published. Did you know that my most recent poetry publication was with The New Yorker?
Well, that’s not true. Maybe you knew that, but did you second-guess yourself? For a very brief second, didn’t you begin to view me in a different light? Was my work suddenly more literary—or was it more important? Did your conception of “JD Scott” as an author become worthier of a certain kind of attention because The New Yorker deemed it of significance? Did you begin questioning my “career trajectory”?
Do you see how this is all both invented—yet a real thing with stakes because we all collectively have bought into it, even just a little? It’s a great con, but a great con most writers become invested in, nevertheless.
Speaking of elements outside of our control, it’s also a good deal of luck: both to be able to create something of and for the zeitgeist and to hit all the publishing notes to make you the literary darling of the season. To be one of the 31 flavors, you have to be a little bit of a populist, and to create something the ruling class can sell. It’s the equation of comps. Something familiar plus something familiar equals something familiar. It has to be able to be called, “luminous,” “searing,” “gorgeously written” (although it seldom is).
If I sound astringent, please know it’s not coming from a place of envy. At least, for the most part. I admittedly do have an envy for authors who are doing well enough for themselves that they can make money exclusively from their writing (or the proxy gigs that come with writing accolades, i.e.: public speaking) and be able to dedicate all of their time to their art without fussing with the gig economy or full-time jobs that steal time away from art-making. Lately I’ve found myself describing myself as “Patient Zero of the Great Recession.” What I mean by this is that I graduated college right when a financial meltdown happened, and I’ve been wading through gigs and careers and general economic instability for ~15 years. Which means I think about financial security a lot and what it would mean to be debt-free.
So, yes, for me personally, a life as an author sounds nice if you’re the type who gets the rare prize of economic stability. I’ve certainly fantasized about living entirely off my writing. I think that’s a mental lotto ticket we’ve all puchased and indulged in at one moment or another. It’s also something I cannot concern myself with at the moment.
Life as a PhD student on top of an Instructor of Record (on top of the various other parts of my personhood and personal life that don’t belong on the internet) is already demanding enough. This is not to say that I haven’t concerned myself with notions of authorship before—or won’t actively concern myself with it again—only that, for right now, I don’t have the bandwidth to be both a teacher and a scholar and a writer and an author.
This is not to say I didn’t concern myself with authorship when I published my two books in a row either. I did. I worked exceptionally hard to bring those books into the world. I had my due diligence. I fantasized about possibilities, other futures. But it’s been over three years since Moonflower… came out and over two years since Mask for Mask came out, and personally speaking, they had their little lives, and if I were to still be obsessing over them instead of generating new writing, that would be a failure of artistry on my part. I would be in stagnation. The way I see it: my published work is now archival, i.e., it will continue to exist in some capacity, but I’m more excited about the writing I’m creating at this current moment rather than the books I have authored.
But I do want to talk about those books, because they are incredibly intertwined with my idea of authorship and publishing and illegibility (remember the newsletter title?) and mess-making too, and I promise, we’re getting there. It’s the hermeneutic circle, baby!
There’s not much I get out of talking about my books when I’m not getting paid to talk about my books. It doesn’t make me feel important, and mostly it’s when people who are somewhat unfamiliar with what I do, and it feels like we’re playing this elaborate Rumpelstiltskin game as I try to market my books to people who might not have any interest in reading what I write.
For full transparency: I don’t even get anything financially from my books (unless you buy Moonflower…’s ebook), so there’s not even a cash incentive for me to play the part of the salesperson. My story collection won an award that came with a $10,000 prize, which sounds very sexy on paper (the successful author!), but the truth is that cash prize was heavily taxed, and the money that wasn’t taxed went toward paying off my car loan, to help my family out, and then the money was gone. I need to surpass that same $10,000 in sales before I start earning royalties, and well, I’m not keeping track of that (and I have a feeling my publisher isn’t either).
As for my poetry collection, I received no advance in any form. Technically, I’m in the red from all the poetry manuscript contests I entered and didn’t win. I think I’ve received one royalty check that was maybe for around $30, and I got some takeout from the nearby Haitian-American restaurant, and that was that. The mac-and-cheese was exceptional. The curried chickpeas were fine.
Don’t get me wrong though. Being a published author feels good. It soothed something in me. I remember what I was like before I had published my two books, and it was a stream of a panicked anxiety, query letters, and poetry manuscript contests. I was sitting on all these piles of writing, and sometimes it felt like a hose connected to a balloon. If things stayed the way they were, something might have burst.
But I also believe that author hat is something that must come after the writing is done—not before. Too many people get mesmerized by that razzle-dazzle of public persona before the writing itself is finished or ready. And sometimes I’m not sure people have completely earned that reward yet. Yes, as much as I talk about authorship as a burden, it is also a reward too. It is the hat you put on to carry the completed writing toward the public, and there is something orphic about that act.
Currently, it feels like I’m allowed a type of calmness—the agency to try to sidestep the responsibility of authorship—because I have made peace with what I have created in the past, and I know there is work to be done before I can wear that hat again. And whether anything you have published or will publish is considered noteworthy or not by the powers-that-be, you are still a peer to everyone else who has ever published a book. We are.
I also know there are people in my life who view me as ‘just a little bit ahead of them’ and look up to me as someone who has been through various stages of the publishing gauntlet and came out the other side with some wisdom. I want to be there for those people in my life too. This is one of the reasons I keep writing newsletters about writing and publishing after all. Which also brings me to this point: I’m not completely absolving myself of a public author persona by continuing to update this newsletter, am I?
At the same time though, there are reasons I’ve taken on a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward myself as an author in the past year or so.
Let’s start with this one: I published my story collection in April 2020—right as the pandemic began. It was agonizing. Yes, there were parts of me that was excited about “debuting.” I even began planning a road trip for my book. Then, suddenly, the world shut down, and touring was not an option. The whole “Zoom reading” thing hadn’t quite been figured out yet (remember ‘Zoom-bombing’?). And to be honest, I’d go as far as to say there was some gaslighting (a term I don’t use lightly) on my publisher’s part for me to step in and fulfill their role of being the publisher. I was told if I wanted anything beyond just printing the book on paper, I would have to do it myself. So I did.
I was my own publicist. I made my own press/media kit, my own teaching guide. I sent review copies out myself, often posing as my own editor/publisher. I don’t say this with hubris. At the time, I had a lot of shame and embarrassment that I didn’t even have one person on my team trying to get my story collection out there. I guess this might be more usual than unusual though. I have a friend who won a very prestigious poetry award associated with an Ivy League school, and said prestigious award didn’t even have a cover artist, and the poet had to take on that responsibility themselves.
A final gripe about publisher placing publisher responsibilities on the author-writer: I had to entirely take ownership for post-publication award considerations too (which is why I know so much about them—I had to all the research myself). Every week I was going to the post office with my N-95 and a tote bag full of books, which I paid to send out myself. I also paid for all the expensive post-publication award entry fees up front (and had to fight to be reimbursed by my publisher!). Authorship is not always glamourous!
Some may say this isn’t the author’s responsibility, but what else was I do to? What were my options? The truth is, if you publish a book, there are very specific windows that certain benchmarks must be met, and if your publisher (or you, acting as a proxy publisher) doesn’t hit them, author opportunities slip away. Thankfully, when my poetry book came out a year later in 2021 (on an entirely different press), that editor was much, much more proactive about working with me to try to get my book out there in the world, but I still had to actively make a calendar of deadlines and advocate for my book so my publisher could hit them to submit to awards. Although I don’t think my poetry collection even received one longlist nomination for a post-publication award. Sorry I was a bad return-on-investment, Nayt.
So if you want to know one of many reasons I’m less concerned with authorship at the moment, it’s because even to this day I’m still recovering from the burnout I experienced between 2019–2021. Because when I was acting as an author I also had to be my own publicist, marketing team, graphic designer (I designed both my book covers!), ebook dev (I coded Moonflower…’s ebook myself!), and beyond—on top of being a writer. Needless to say, the writing itself took a back-burner to this new task of being an author. The well of creativity and creative energy is not an infinite resource—at least for me. Once the water is gone, it takes time to fill back up. Especially when one is trying to work a full-time job during a global pandemic. Which is why I can say with confidence that I didn’t write much in 2019, 2020, 2021, and even the first half of 2022.
Before I go on to talk a little bit more about what it’s important for me to focus on being a “writer” at the moment instead of an “author,” I also wanted to just say that all these psychogeographic borders of author categories are mostly meaningless (outside of rules for contests/fellowships). What do I mean by author categories? Oh, you know: “emerging writer,” “emerged writer,” “established writer,” “debut writer,” “midlist writer,” “mid-career writer,” and so on. These categories are mostly vexatious to the writer, yet we are tasked with concerning ourselves with them.
So, what am I? I couldn’t tell you. I’m well aware that I have two books published on two university presses, but beyond a very small readership, I’m just one of many obscure, little-known working writers who published a book or two, got very minor attention, and then had to go back to the drawing board to begin again. I published my first poetry chapbook as a teenager nearly 20 years ago, but it’s possible that if I were to publish a first novel there would be language trying to depict me a some new, emerging, debut author when mentally I’m already in the nursing home waiting for Bingo Night.
Publishing the books I have published may help me secure future opportunities—including if I go on the academic job market one day—but otherwise they have not changed my life at all any more than the self-published poetry chapbooks I printed at Kinko’s in the mid-2000s and sold on LiveJournal and open mic feature nights did.
Which is also to say: authorship is hard and it’s not a sustainable state of being for most of us. So you—yes, you—stop comparing yourselves to all those people you follow on the internet. We are constantly barraged with messages of what successful and sustained authorship looks like, even if we might not consciously think about it that way. This is especially true with the ever-increasingly parasocial, panoptic growth of social media. I can’t even log into Twitter now without seeing a periwinkle-hued screencap of someone’s Publishers Marketplace announcement, but I also remember even five years ago when this trend doesn’t exist. We learn from each other, we witness other notions of authorship, and we replicate it. Social media seems to increasingly amplify perceptions of successes instead of all the failures that build up toward that success (AKA the ‘iceberg illusion,’ which I talked about before). And then we all start mimicking other people’s ideas of success, yada-yada. It’s awful. We’re awful. Let’s keep going. It’s the hermeneutic circle, baby!
Before I go on and dive a little bit deeper to talk about my own writing (I mean it this time!), I want to say (as I always do): this is all extremely subjective. And also, as I will continue to emphasize, entirely out of my (and your) control. Maybe if my books had won dazzling prizes or gotten reviews in primo publications, I wouldn’t be sitting here now reflecting on why I’m less concerned with the life of an author at the moment—because someone would have given me a handsome advance for a novel, and I would be churning that out instead and wearing my author hat far more often. Maybe I wouldn’t even have gone back to get my doctorate if my books had emerged with a certain kairos that had resulted in being connected to a tenure-track teaching job that would have been a good fit for me.
But that’s not the case for me. And it probably is not (or will not) be the case for you either.
The truth is, I am a slow writer, so it’s going to be awhile before I have to prostrate myself before the publishing gods again. My unpublished manuscripts are myriad and fragmentary. My books, at the moment, all exist in the past tense. I wrote the books I did, I published them, they had their little lives, and now I’m starting over with my writing again. I also now have enough hindsight where the fog has cleared and that “let’s buy a lotto ticket and dream of everything we would buy with a million dollars” mindset has faded away.
What I mean by this is I have a little more clarity on what success looks like in the genres I write in, and what my writing is like compared to others. I don’t mean the quality of the writing as this objective thing, only various cultures of value that surround various genres. I know I’ve been talking in a way that centers prestige literary fiction and poetry, but if my brain could churn out a successful boiler-plate John-Grisham-style thriller once every six weeks, I’d also be sitting in a resort in Mykonos right now drinking an Ouzo cocktail—not writing a newsletter about the construction of the author at 12:29AM as I sip gas station coffee.
But that’s not what my brain does, and that’s not what my art is. As time goes on, I see that my writing can be difficult, strange, mystical, campy, disguised, excessive, cross-genre, disruptive, self-indulgent, and unconcerned with everyday language or unadorned prose (i.e.: legibility). I am an illegible writer, which has [partially] resulted in me being an illegitimate author. This isn’t a forever truth, but it is one truth of this moment. Maybe something I create in the future will be deemed worthier in the way that certain writing is deemed worthy, but once again, it is not up to me to guide my writing through the gates. We can only guide it into the world where other people can find it and read it.
Anyway, with that hindsight I spoke of I can now see how the qualities of my writing generally don’t have a great deal of overlap with the types of writing the snag the prizes and the spotlights that result in the author hat being worn more frequently. And you may be saying, “JD, if you are able to put your finger on the pulse and see what type of writing finds success, why not replicate that? If you understand what makes an airport novel an airport novel, why not write something of that genre? That vacation in Greece can be yours!”
And I would understand that question and where it came from, but ultimately that is another question about authorship, and I am approaching this as a writer. And if you are a writer too, you knew that answer already. And the writer, like the leopard, cannot change its spots. I can try to make my writing less wild or less weird or less lyrical or less pulpy or less overwrought, but my impulses are my impulses. My voice is my voice and my style is my style. So is yours.
Maybe an editor can shape some of my writing in a way toward a specific audience, but the editor, much like the writer, is a different hat and a different brain that not all of us wear at all times (or wear well). There can only be so many compromises while upholding one’s own artistic integrity and immovable soul.
The me who is coming to you as a critic and an analyst and an essayist at the moment is not the same me who sits down to the blank page as a poet and a novelist and a story writer. I could go to all the recent prize winner lists for the National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, PEN, and so forth to look at what novels won and what patterns they share. We could all be razor-sharp researchers trying to distill the successes of prize culture and its tastes. What we’d all probably encounter—at least in the present moment in the United States—is naturalistic, mimetic writing that connects to the immediacy of our current global politics, culture wars, and identities which are legible, familiar, and easily consumed. You’ll find mirrors held up to the evening news.
And at the moment, frankly, this is not what I am doing and not what I’m interested in, whether it makes my writing noteworthy or not. I’m not saying this to be overly defiant, or to position myself hierarchically above or below any other writer. It’s not that type of relation. I’m saying this to be candid. You have to had some perception of your writing and how it connects to publishing and readership and audience if you ever want to excel at authorship.
I am also not placing a judgment on those types of books, by the way (okay, beyond those snarky comments about “gorgeously written” and formulaically published books I made earlier—I’m not above cattiness!). I am many things, but I try not to be an elitist. This is maybe my teacher hat speaking—that version of me who wants all students to feel welcome. I also try not to be a hypocrite, and it would be hypocritical for me to pine for a potential economic stability that might come with accolades while suggesting some fault in award-winners or best-sellers who find their successes. Or those who write in popular genres. I have many writer friends who have published award-winning and/or best-selling commercial hits that I have loved. But this is not the work I have created, and if their type of success happens to me, it will largely feel outside of my control.
I know I went a little overboard previously in my two-part narratological series on all the ways we build fictional worlds, but from a craft standpoint, there are many advantages to knowing thyself (even if you can’t always control your artistic tastes and impulses). And when I know myself, I know that my writing didn’t go to an Ivy League school. It wasn’t a gifted student. It wasn’t intellectually manufactured, and it’s not erudite, and to pretend it was/is would be dishonest. My creative writing comes from swampy depths. It came from buying Sutter Home at the drive-thru cigarette shack when I was sixteen. It is secretive and bratty. Even my queerness is not something I want to make static and package in the way that the bourgeoisie wants me to package it. I believe in my own sacredness and the mysterious language that comes from the dream realms, from the unconscious. I aim to stay true toward this artist soul, and I hold vigil that another human will find value in what I do and try to elevate it via publication so it can find other readers.
And time and time again, someone has believed in those mysteries, and published them, and I am grateful, and they exist in the world if you would like to find them.
So when questions come up (and they have seem to come up often lately!) such as “Why do you downplay yourself as an author?” or “Why don’t you talk about your books more?” or “Why do you take a passive or even evasive stance when the topics of your books come up?” there are multiple answers.
My ego does not require me to hype myself up as a published author to talk about the writing I’m doing and what I’m creatively and intellectually stimulated by at the moment. I’m personally fairly turned off when other writers try to clumsily namedrop and strongarm their prestige as an author into a conversation, and I’d rather be the self-deprecating coquette than the oafish self-aggrandizer.
I’m more interested in being present in my communities as a fellow writer at the moment. I am in about half a dozen different writing communities that share work (both in-person and on Zoom), and these have everything to do with me as a writer and nothing to do with me as an author. Additionally, many of the communities I’m part of are full writers who have not published, and I would not want to jeopardize our friendships and artistic relationships by attaching myself to authorship in a way that might inadvertently create a hierarchy among us. If fellow writers view me as a resource, I want it to be inside of our network we share together.
I have taken time to invest in myself as an author. I have a meticulously created author website I built myself, which has links to more than enough information that you’d ever want to know about me as an author. How to buy books! Reviews of said books! Interviews! Individual publications! I promise you, I’m not evading or hiding. It’s all out there, if you would like to find it.
From a very candid standpoint, I don’t want to sell someone on my book only for them to hate it. I’m confident in the work that I’m doing, but I also know that my work can be illegible, experimental, hyper-lyrical, weird, and so on, and that’s the type of writing that tends to find the reader itself—not something that needs an elevator pitch. My writing is not for everyone. Trying to speak about my writing catholically in the language of marketing and publicity in a way to make it seem like it’s for everyone feels ethically dubious.
I’m confident in the quality of the work I’ve published regardless if it has a wide readership, celebrity attached to it, cult status, the accolades of prize culture, and so on. I don’t need to sell anyone on it. That’s my publisher’s job (or should be!).
Which is perhaps, all to say, I’m assured in my writing, my creativity, and my intellect, and I don’t always want to be tasked with the burden of authorship—and I hope this gives you permission to take the same stance, if you need to. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone either. Write. And if there comes a time to bring that writing into the world as a published author, do so with grace.
I dream of a publishing landscape in which we all spend more time opening the gates for those in our periphery than trying to convince someone else to open a gate for us.
Be kind to yourself as well and the situations you’re in and the time and energy you have available. A little bit of story-writing now and then is all I can delegate my creative energy to at the moment. I say this to be honest about my own struggles. Teaching is hard. Completing a PhD is hard. I wonder if there’s any cake left in the fridge.
One day (if I’m lucky) I will have to put on my author hat again for a longer period of time to try to get my writing out there in the world, but if that writing results in best-seller lists or receives some type of laurels, that’s all truly out of my hands. We should all aim to be satisfied with our own creative writing whether it results in a certain type of lauded authorship or not.
My role is to write toward the occult and the oracular, not try to strongarm my writing into what the bourgeoisie wants me to produce or chase after a zeitgeist that might be gone by the time I get there. This isn’t about humbleness or faux-humility, and it isn’t about deservedness or entitlement either. It is about being honest with oneself as an artist, and this is as honest I can be at the moment.
How can you be honest with yourself about your own writing—your own notions of yourself as an author?
For me, I spent a few years being an author, and now I am back to being a writer (and a teacher… and an academic… and… it’s the hermeneu—ah, you get it—the bit’s over…).
Perhaps one day the type of writing I create will put me in a position where I have to be placed in the role of author more frequently and consistently, but for now I am comfortable sitting in all the mysterious starless darks and lacunae of my language, my words.
And there is no place I’d rather be.
Until next time,