How I’ve Felt After Publications
By Jeff Salter
This week, we’re talking about how we’ve felt after our first few bylines or publications. I need to preface all this by clarifying that as long as I can remember, I’ve been a writer… and it has always been my dream to be a published author.
Lord knows why I’d feel called to this endeavor — since so many of the authors I’d studied had died before obtaining much or any recognition… and many died young (in poverty and/or depression). Among the authors considered to have produced “classics,” many (possibly most) appeared to have had unbalanced or very delicate psyches or egos. Did they develop those ills BECAUSE they were creative authors? Or were they driven to express themselves creatively because they already possessed those ills? I don’t know.
But, fortunately, I also had a few GOOD role models, including poet Robert Frost and my hometown novelist Walker Percy. Both lived good, long lives; both achieved popular success and critical acclaim; both seemed down-to-earth, well-balanced, and did not let their success go to their heads.
(All that said merely by way of introduction) to fully address this topic, I’ll have to group my responses into several categories.
As a sophomore, a very short story I wrote was selected by the faculty sponsor for inclusion in that year’s anthology. Wow, I thought I’d traveled to the moon! Not only did that teacher like my story, but another teacher complimented me. And, of course, my folks were proud and pleased. That’s the exhilaration and validation part. But the let-down set in because as quickly as the moment swooped in… it swooped back out — and nothing had changed in my writing career. I was still an adolescent with pimples… and no drivers licence.
While still in school, I – with a talented buddy – began an underground newspaper — it was the late 1960s, folks. It was too dangerous to use our real names, but a lot of people knew who we were (or guessed). In fact, the principal found out somehow — he dragged me into his office and threatened to suspend me if I didn’t cut it out. I pretended like I didn’t know what he was talking about. Ha. We published six or seven issues before we ran out of steam. It was a lark. A lot of creativity and effort went into the paper itself, but the thrill came from seeing the reaction we got from those articles… while trying to keep our identities secret!
Later, as a newly graduated senior, one of my poems won its category (and a cash award) in a major regional contest sponsored by a university. Unknown to me, the university’s contest coordinators sent a news release to my hometown paper, which not only published the article but also the full text of my winning poem — on the front page! Finally, recognized and published for everyone to see! Exhilaration and validation. But the let-down soon set in because as quickly as one weekly edition of the paper hits the streets, it’s immediately “old news” … and the following week there’s a brand new front page. Nothing had changed in my writing career… and I was soon to leave the state for college.
As a freshman at a small university in Georgia, I was named Features Editor for the campus weekly newspaper. There were three other feature writers on my staff. We had a great time and interviewed lots of cool celebrities. I loved seeing my own byline and I encouraged and assisted the writing of my staff members. But there was rarely any earth-moving recognition of my work. I remember one time the managing editor – passing me (going the opposite direction) on a walkway – said, “That was a good Shortkid article this week.” [Henry Wadsworth Shortkid was one of my pseudonyms for a humor column I wrote.] Wow, getting praise from our taciturn editor! Exhilaration and validation. But that, too, quickly had its own let-down. That editor left (or graduated… can’t recall which) and an election was held for a new editor. I had two acquaintances who campaigned for the job and the less talented one won. It wasn’t long before I left the official campus paper and started my own underground paper. My identity was not widely known, but it was a poorly kept secret since people would collect pocket change in meetings and hand me a cup full of coins to help pay for paper and other printing supplies.
Over the next couple of years I worked for a small town daily and then a small town weekly. Wrote a lot and got quite a few bylines for features and photos. Exhilaration at being a PAID writer (finally) and validation that an editor thought enough of my work to “promote” me from writing obituaries to handling features and news stories. But the ole let-down soon set in, because my real love was poetry and newspaper work did not seem likely to spin me into the stratosphere of acclaimed poets.
Well, since the war in and around Vietnam was still going on and the draft was running hot, I knew I’d soon be called up. Didn’t want to slog through rice paddies under fire, so I enlisted in the Air Force instead. By some miracle, they assigned me to direct duty as an information specialist — which, in the luck of the Information Office slotting, led me to three different Air Force Base newspapers. I was editor of two and assistant editor of the third. Again, lots of bylines (for stories and photos). And, fortunately, I got several positive mentions from higher headquarters, namely 12th Air Force Office of Information (at one base) and I won the competition for Information Technician of the year for 21st Air Division (at another base). Among the other honors posted to my account was a trip to the Pentagon (with some dozen other base newspaper editors) to receive an award from the AF Chief of Staff (Gen. John D. Ryan) for the best paper in my division. [I’ve forgotten the category, but it was for small bases.] Exhilaration and validation. But that, too, wore off rather quickly. The only person at my home base (Thule AB, Greenland) who even commented about that honor was the base executive officer, a major, who happened to proofread my article – about the TDY to the Pentagon – before it was printed.
Along the way, I won more poetry contest (and other writing) awards — some three dozen in all, I think. That includes three from the National Writers’ Club and several from regional contests. Most, however, were from the annual contests of a writers’ club which covered a two-parish area in northwest Louisiana.
I’d also had many more poems published by that point… including a few dozen in a regional literary quarterly. But nothing “big” and nothing that rocked the foundations of the literary world.
As a professional librarian, I had several articles and book reviews published — including some in the major national journals of librarianship. These looked good on my resume and were “pluses” on my application (every five years) to have my Executive Certificate renewed by the State Board of Library Examiners. But, locally, nobody cared that I was in print.
None of those earlier bylines, contest awards, or publications ever allowed me, however, to consider myself an official AUTHOR. Without a “book” featuring my name on the cover, I still thought of myself merely as a published writer.
That changed in 1988 when Libraries Unlimited – at that time, one of the top three publishers of professional materials for librarians and libraries – published the hardcover book my brother and I co-authored, “On the Frontlines — Coping with the Library’s Problem Patrons”. The book was a success! With several very positive reviews in almost all the major library journals, sales were brisk and it quickly sold out both the first and second printings. Our book was even listed in the publisher’s printed catalog as a “bestseller” for a couple of years. Later, a third printing was ordered… just before the sales abruptly slumped, inexplicably, and never really recovered. But it was that book which finally promoted me from “published writer” to “author”! Getting royalty checks was a real kick, too. The success of that book led my brother and me to conduct a series of workshops and got us at least three other contracts (for a signed chapter in another book, for a signed article in a specialty encyclopedia, and for formal consultation in a pending court case). It also led directly to my appointment teaching a graduate library science course. So even though this new strata brought considerable exhilaration and validation, it also was followed by a considerable let-down. I was still in the same job, still in the same town — and being a published author wouldn’t even get me a cup of coffee unless I also handed over 75 cents.
After retirement from the library world, I began writing fiction. Surprised the heck out of me, since I had imagined continuing with poetry and book reviews. Wrote like crazy for five full years before my seventh complete manuscript got my first publishing contract. Getting that email from a small royalty publisher offering a conditional contract – if I was willing to make some changes in the manuscript – was the thrill of a lifetime.
Over the next six years, I had 10 novels and four novellas released through three different small royalty publishers. Every time I get an offer of contract, I feel elated and validated. [The editing process tends to drag me pretty low, however.] Then each new release gives me a huge boost of satisfaction and energy. But, alas, none of my titles have “taken off” yet. I’ve hit no bestseller lists (yet). Nobody has optioned any of my titles for a movie (yet). Oprah has not invited me on her show — or does she still have a show? Anyway, I have not yet hit the big time.
Will I ever? Hard to say. My mantra has been that I’m one reader away from breaking through to popular and/or critical success. I just need one national celebrity or other notable individual to wave my book in front of a sizable crowd and say, “this guy writes terrific stories… you need to read him.”
[JLS # 345]