Does Publication Make Writers Happy?

The satisfactions (and inevitable disappointments) of sharing work with readers

“Getting published won’t make you happy,” cautions the author of Page after Page, a handbook designed to motivate would-be writers to write. In trying to drive home the therapeutic benefits of the writing process, I shared this warning with my writing students—but I have to admit I didn’t believe it myself. The author, Heather Sellers, must simply be trying to discourage competition, I reasoned. How could getting published not make me happy? It’s what I’ve been striving for much of my adult life: recognition of my literary talents and, as such, indirect acknowledgment of my personal worth, my contributions to the literary world as a thoughtful person. Everyone who dares to claim the title of writer dreams of the day. . . .

I’ve achieved some success publishing in a variety of media, and it does make me happy—at first. The validation. My name in figurative lights.

Then, reality strikes, with its inevitable disappointments. A friend calls to say my name doesn’t appear in the printable version of the online edition. I notice the formatting is goofed up, and the editor botched the very first paragraph after I spent hours perfecting the hook to the story. And the title has been changed to something humdrum.

I futilely edit the now-published piece, wishing I’d used different phrasing, even though I spent hundreds of hours on it prior to submission.

I then take a deep breath. It’s OK. Nobody’s going to notice the nitpicky stuff that’s tormenting me, bruising my ego. So I wait for the reader comments. (Hel-looo? Did anyone read what I wrote?) Some challenge my assumptions, and others share their personal stories, more consumed with their own sagas than with my brilliance. And then the comments slow down. Too soon, my brand-new publication has become old news.

It’s not the rapturous experience I’d imagined; I’m emotionally spent. Getting published has made me many things: anxious, self-critical, frustrated, and even angry at times. But I typically don’t end up all that happy. It turns out Heather Sellers is correct.

Even so, every time I reach the end of the process, the chase begins again because, despite the drawbacks, it’s a rush!

It seems to be addictive, this quest to be published. And, like any addiction, it has some drawbacks. What if the rush, the thrill, overshadows the deeper satisfactions of writing? Will it ever again be enough to write just for my own self-reflection and discernment? I ask because I’ve discovered that I’m no longer content to write just for the sake of writing.

Publishing gives my writing purpose—a destination and a deadline. Publishing improves my writing; I work harder at it knowing a professional editor will critique it. Publishing allows my voice to be heard on a wider scale and enables others to benefit from my experience. And sometimes, it even gives me a little extra cash for a new toner cartridge.

Of course, it’s not for everyone. Pursuing publication is hard on the ego. Worse, it can stifle a writer’s most creative and truest self. One of my writing students, Dee, has transcended the impulse. “Getting published isn’t important to me anymore,” she confesses. “Been there, done that. There’s no more thrill for me. I just don’t care about it now.”

Dee is eighty-two years old, a caregiver for her husband with Alzheimer’s. Her energy is now directed toward basic survival, limiting her ability to pursue self-actualization. “I just want to survive as me,” she says. “I don’t want anyone or anything to take away from who I really am.” Because of this, Dee has turned to journaling, recording her personal reflections in a stream of consciousness meant for her eyes only.

In fact, journaling is considered one of the most effective means of accelerating personal development. Research also cites health benefits, including a reduction in stress-related illnesses. Complicit with truth’s mercurial nature, journaling is a forgiving practice, allowing us to question and contradict others and ourselves. It helps us question what we think and peel back the layers of an experience toward a greater understanding of what happened.

Perhaps it’s in the pages of her private journal—not in some third-party publication—where Dee will best survive as herself. When we calibrate our reflections to appeal to the masses, we often begin to worry about what others think, how they will judge us. (For this reason, Dee is trying not to worry about who will find and read her journals when she’s gone.) We lose control of our own story when it becomes public property. I know this from experience; the intensely private relationship I had with my journal for more than forty years was destroyed the minute I transformed my spiral-bound confidante into three hundred perfect-bound vignettes about my parents’ end-of-life journeys and published the story of my parental caregiving experience. As a result, thousands of complete strangers now know of my guilt, my fears, my use of antidepressants and sleeping pills, my jealousy, my lack of faith, and my sibling conflict during that time. The lined pages, crinkled by my private tears, became a public drama.

I have no regrets about publishing my journal; so many have benefitted from my truth-telling about parental loss. But it is also true that my journaling practice is screwed up now; I can’t help but wonder if my latest entry will be good enough to publish, and that simple thought changes what I now choose to explore in my journal and how. Considering an audience definitely changes a writer’s degree of authenticity.

But does that have to be the case? Perhaps writers should just commit to truth-telling, no matter the medium, genre, or consequence. Ernest Hemingway wrote in his 1964 memoir, A Moveable Feast, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Even though truth is a moving target—ever-changing, fleeting, and situational—it’s worth approaching. As psychologist Carl Rogers reminds us, “The most private, personal feelings are often those which, if shared, would speak to others most directly.”

Are we still poets if no one recites our poems? Storytellers if no one hears our stories? Writers if no one reads our carefully chosen words? Absolutely. Yet, in the end, publishing remains the Holy Grail for most of us, a way to make a connection with others and, perhaps, to be understood. And so, we brush ourselves off and try again and again. Even as I bring these personal musings to a close, I can’t help but wonder if they might be worthy of publication . . . and I think that would make me happy. For a while.

About the Author

Patricia A. Nugent

Patricia A. Nugent is the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of vignettes portraying the stages of caring for and saying goodbye to a loved one. 

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