Long Live the Writing Mycelium

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on my now-defunct blog about aspiring writers comparing them to mycelium. The world is full of so many dedicated, hardworking writers out there slaving away on their stories and novels and never getting published.

The reasons for this lack of success are varied. Some mycelium dwelling writers need time to develop, some need a lucky break (which you either get or don’t get), some are writing work that, for whatever reason, isn’t considered “marketable,” some are, let’s face it, just not very good. Burning writerly ambition matched with a general lack of talent is sad indeed, but it still has its own kind of value. The mycelium has room for everyone.

We mycelium writers are everywhere, unseen, slaving away on our sentences and propping up the writers whose fruiting bodies have managed to break through the surface. To be a literary toadstool on the publishing forest floor, wowza, what a dream.

Photo by Mihajlo Horvat on Unsplash

So here’s my two cents about debut writers. Debut literally means a “person’s first appearance or performance in a particular capacity or role,” and a debut novel, like the one I’m currently trying to publish, is your first work.

But unless your the luckiest son of a bitch ever, if you are a debut writer you have already been in the trenches a long time, bleeding all over the page, nearly giving up a hundred times because no one cares about your work and perhaps never will.

You get lost in your stories while dealing with the pain of your utter invisibility not to mention the sad state of your bank account if you haven’t sold out and gone to law school even though you’re heart’s not in it, or done some other soulless office job where your purpose is basically to make money for others and then act all pumped and motivated about it, like, yes, I’m so happy to be reachable for work basically 24/7 and work overtime for free because my company provides a free all-day breakfast bar!

Yes, I live in a place with the tech industry is booming, where the cogs are expected to be all jazzed up and enthusiastic, because working for a venture capital-backed app that is so going to fold once the funding runs out (and yet it never does seem to run out which is…weird) is the same as life purpose, right? Like, gag me with a spoon.

I’ve always been glad that I’m a relatively fast writer who loves the writing process and believes in my stories and abilities to tell them. I’m in my (later) 40s now and if I were plagued with self-doubt or unable to just throw myself into the writing process I doubt very seriously I would still be writing.

Which brings me to my next complaint: ageism in the publishing industry. Supposedly this doesn’t exist. Supposedly it’s the talent that counts, not the number of years the person has spent on the planet.

Sounds, great, right?

And yet when I see pictures of those beautiful, tender-skinned debut writers in magazines–and they always do seem to be beautiful and eerily fragile, like fruit that bruises no matter how carefully you pack it into your shopping bag–they are always at least ten or fifteen years younger than I am. If I don’t manage to get an agent and/or my novel never sells, pretty soon these literary debut darlings will be young enough to be my kids. Egads!

If you read the deal reports on Publishers Marketplace–and yes, that is a rabbit hole I’ve fallen down on my quest to find an agent–the blurb about the majority of the (literary fiction) debut writers starts with “Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate’s debut novel,” “Columbia MFA writer’s debut collection,” etc. etc. You don’t land in these types of programs on accident; you have to have the means and the access and be a high achiever in that American cult of success kind of way to even get in, which I find more alienating the longer I live abroad.

Oh for god’s sake, Rebeccah, stop complaining. A whiny writing mycelium strand, how annoying and predictable is that?

The fact is, being a writer is hard for just about anyone. That beautiful, tender-skinned debut writer is likely filled with imposter syndrome and a looming sense of anxiety about their writing career–after all, a published debut novel that does not sell well means difficulty publishing in the future and/or dwindling advances.

And maybe I’m wrong about the age thing anyway. Yes, a lot of the deal reports start with the name of an MFA program, but maybe the debut writer in question got their MFA in 1994, who knows? And even writers with a fancy MFA are not likely to make a living on their writing alone.

Publishing is a (shrinking?) business, and I’ve worked enough marketing jobs to understand the need for spin and ROI.

Long story short, fiction writing is a tough business whether you’re the invisible (yet thriving) mycelium, a small fruiting fungus, a tree fungus higher up the the publishing trunk. Hell, probably even writers at the crown of the publishing tree have it tough from time to time.

They say “Only write if you have to,” but they left off the rest of the sentence, which goes: “because you’d be crazy otherwise.”

Write away, my dear fellow mycelium, and never say die. See you someday at the top of the trees.