Monday, July 9, 2018

My First Time: Vanessa Blakeslee

My First Time Saying No

When my first book, Train Shots, was published, I wrote a guest post for a literary magazine’s blog advising writers to say yes to opportunities. As with many such interviews and panel discussions, I encouraged my young audience to start a reading series in their local community, review books, interview authors, and participate in the literary community. And I don’t retract or regret that advice. Consider this an addendum, if you will, or a Part B. Why this addendum, why now? Because at a certain point—maybe mid-career, or mid-life—a shift happens, where a writer realizes she must say no.

The subject of “saying no” has been well-trod territory in mainstream magazines such as O, where writers have lamented the difficulty of the polite but firm decline. For some, having a child forces the priority shifts and time constraints. But what about saying no when one doesn’t have the constraints of, say, children or aging parents to care for (yet)? Shouldn’t one be more obligated to say yes, to fulfill duty to community? What precipitates such a shift?

The shift happened for me after my second book was published, a novel called Juventud, which I pushed out with troop-rallying gusto. I contacted MFA alumni, conference chums and literary magazine editors, arranged for interviews and kept a massive spreadsheet. I invented a playlist for the site Largehearted Boy, an appropriately-themed menu for another site, and wrote numerous guest blog posts giving advice, research notes, “Top Ten Tips,” etc. A massive effort, and yet even this felt like not enough—after all, authors are told we have a “brief window” when a book is new to get it noticed, before our work is cast off into spinster territory.

Crucially, did all this effort and writing-about-writing succeed in selling more copies of the book? Looking back, I am left with the distinct impression that all this accomplished was to add to the information glut we’re bombarded with—too much content, all the time. I sold the bulk of the first print run at events, and continue to do so, face-to-face with readers. Just a few years ago, I recall somewhat making light of two older professors of mine with books coming out, who weren’t planning on undertaking much promotion aside from a local launch party and a couple of readings. Are they crazy? I thought, it’s the Internet Age. You have to market. Be an indie entrepreneur.

Now, I conclude, not so much. Swiftly, too, the times did change. Just a couple of years later, and the promotional climate has changed, I sense, with the steady onslaught of terrible daily news. As our republic disintegrates toward inevitable totalitarianism in tandem with the decline of cheap oil, as the biosphere rapidly unravels, as mass shooters wipe out dozens in crowds, where does promoting one’s art fit in? Not so much that doing so is seemingly distasteful or insensitive, but is this truly the best use of a creative writer’s energy and time?

Diverting my efforts for those six months prior to the novel release away from writing fiction and toward promotion not only placed me in a headspace I found exhausting, but caused me to lose more steam with the other fiction projects I had underway than I ever would have guessed. This loss of focus and momentum is what ultimately caused me to sit back and assess how to go forward—and to start saying no. I stopped taking on book review assignments; while I’ve enjoyed reviewing, doing so detracts from my own work too much, for now. I don’t blurb, but I will write letters of recommendation, as I consider those a more worthwhile endeavor. My attending AWP Tampa earlier this year, I decided, would probably be my last. I find writing residencies (where I am writing this), a far more productive and enjoyable use of away-time.

What I’ve found is that you can pick and choose, and not feel guilty about declining yet another interview, conference panel proposal, or advance reading copy to review. And if what I’ve uncovered in my last eighteen months of diving deep into climate research is correct, the remainder of our collective lives is likely far shorter than we’d like to think. Once, as a 19-year-old undergrad, I decided to study abroad in Australia because I mistakenly (amusingly) believed I was dying; now, we’re faced with a planet that we’ll soon have made uninhabitable. My advice, not so much as a mid-career writer to other writers, but as a human to fellow humans, is to practice weighing what you truly value, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Decide to say no and do so often, to make room for what matters.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her novel Juventud won the 2015 IPPY Bronze Medal in Literary Fiction, was a finalist for Foreword Review’s Book of the Year, and a runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award. Her debut story collection Train Shots won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. Her new short story collection, Perfect Conditions, is now out from Curbside Splendor. Find her online at

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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