Does a Fog of Fantasy Obstruct the Harbor of Your Literary Dreams?

[Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.]

By Ethan Gilsdorf

I remember my first published piece. It was in the newsletter of a food co-op in a small town in Vermont. And I remember thinking, you gotta start somewhere. I was psyched.

But at the time, I was fairly naive. I had clear visions of New Yorker glory dancing in my head. This article about vegan recipes was going to be an easy stepping stone for me to major assignments from fancy, glossy magazines, then to the publication of my heartbreaking work of staggering geekiness.

Uh, no. That's not quite the arc of my literary career's plot.

Turns out, it's taken decades of learning the ropes, hard work, rejection, dead ends, missteps, stupid ideas, frustration (and other phrases that would describe the very much not A-to-B-to-C straight line path that my writing career has taken thus far). That path is more like how a sailing ship tacks back and forth, rather than sails full steam ahead. 

I have worked with hundreds of GrubStreet students, all of whom have desires and dreams of success — both success for them (defined individually), and success in the marketplace (defined by the world outside, getting stuff published).

It's fine to harbor those dreams of literary triumph. Just don't let a fog of fantasy obstruct that harbor so that your literary ship can never sail anywhere, well, real. Some thoughts:

1) Success out of gate is rare. That novel your former MFA colleague wrote while in grad school that got a six-figure advance and became a Fresh Air favorite overnight? Good for her. But only .01 percent of writers hit it big with their first effort. The rest of us, we need to keep plodding along.

2) (Therefore...) Take the long view. It's going to take a while to get both good at your craft, as well for that fresh, powerful thing you want to say — be it novel, poem, essay, or screenplay — to match up with the marketplace's fickle demands. Be patient. Brace yourself for the long haul. I know it's scary, but for some, this writing habit is going to require five, 10, 15, 20 years of care and feeding before you may get competent, even brilliant, at your craft, let alone find publication.

3) Bite off little pieces first. Got a novel in you? Want to write a book-length memoir? Great. But writing a 80,000 word book is hard. Even harder is getting it published. Knocking out a 1,200 word essay is much more attainable, and publishable. Along the way, by first mastering the basics of the craft in short personal essays, you will hone and polish the craft skills you need to master in order to write that successful memoir.

4) What is success? Answering that question, for you, will save you hours and days and years of heartbreak. If your goal is simply to write down your family history and pass it onto your kids, cool beans. But if you want that same memoir to be a New York Times Bestseller, then that not only requires it to be a much different book, but it's a much more unlikely outcome. Find a measure of success that works for you, at your stage in your writing career, now.

5) Make progress every day. Find ways to support and make progress on your Big Dream each time you sit down to write, or pick up a book (or laptop or tablet) to read. Be thinking, how is writing this poem/taking this workshop/hiring this consultant/applying to this residency helping me reach my bigger goal? Little steps are as important as keeping the bigger goals in mind.

Above all, you don't want to become discouraged during your ship's journey to that distant literary destination. When possible, temper your dreams with a reality check, and you should have years of smooth and successful sailing ahead of you.

Ethan Gilsdorf is teaching several spring classes at GrubStreet in nonfiction craft, character, pitch letters, book promotion, op-ed writing, new work generation, plus his ongojng Freelance Essentials series, and more. He's also teaching a seminar at the Muse and the Marketplace this year, called "Essentials of the Personal Essay" (1:30pm-3:30pm on Friday, May 2nd).

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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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by Ethan Gilsdorf


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