Publish it Forward: Who Decides?

It’s been a few weeks now since Amanda Palmer took the stage at the Muse as part of our NEA- funded Publish it Forward series.

If you missed it, you should grab a coffee and spend 30 minutes watching her Publish It Forward talk "Connecting The Dots" right now.  It’s the best talk I’ve ever seen on what it means to be a writer in the digital age.

I was moved by her entire talk, but one idea in particular, the question of “who decides” is still rattling around in my head.

Who gets to decide that you are a writer?  Who gives you permission?

It used to be that writers would have to get through the gatekeepers in order to be considered legitimate writers.  If they didn’t manage that, then the next best thing was a personal testimonial from a trusted source.  Amanda talks about the wish to have an older established author call you the “real deal” at a cocktail party.

This struck a chord with me because as a young graduate of BU’s creative writing program, feeling very insecure about my own writing, I had the audacity to launch Grub Street by teaching classes out in the community.  My credentials were thin:  I had taught one creative writing course at BU and I had zero publications.   I wasn’t even sure I was going to keep on writing but I knew I was a good teacher and I thought I could explore my writing with fellow fledgling writers.

Still, friends and neighbors questioned how I could just put a flyer on a tree and start teaching on my own without any backing.  Who gave me permission?

I still cringe when I think about a summer afternoon more than a decade ago, when I was walking around Coolidge Corner and I ran into an old childhood friend and her mother.  When my friend mentioned Grub Street, her mother began to talk in detail about a writer friend of hers on the Cape who was teaching and who was really qualified and experienced.  She started listing all of her publications.  I felt so ashamed that I quickly excused myself and went to buy a packet of cigarettes even though I hadn’t smoked in years.    

What right do you have to do what you are doing?

Another common reaction involved questioning the legitimacy of my students. What were they thinking?  How could they be any good? They didn't have to apply to get in?  The subtext again: what right do they have to write?

I was often made to feel as if we were doing something dirty.

Here’s what we were doing: meeting in synagogues and churches under dim lights to share stories and respond to them as a group with honesty and love.

Why was this so deeply threatening?

I became expert at explaining the value of our workshops in any and all of the following ways:

  • Writing makes you examine your life with honesty and care which makes you a better wife, mother, co-worker, partner, person.

  • Knowing what it takes to write makes you a better reader.

  • The act of writing is transformative.

  • Reading other people’s work helps you understand other possible perspectives.    

I still believe all of these things to be true, but what strikes me now is how much I was undervaluing the writing of our students.  I was justifying our right to exist on the premise that writing was good for their souls, like soup.   What I wasn’t appreciating at the time – and what comes into sharper focus with each passing day –is what these writers had to offer to each other and the world.

They were giving each other permission to, in Amanda’s words, “connect the dots” for one another.  When their writing resonated, it had impact, had the power to change a life, save a life, guide a life.

At AWP this March, I ran into an esteemed and very lovely member of Boston’s literary establishment who came over to warmly congratulate me on Grub Street’s success.   He said: Grub Street has become a “real institution.”

I smiled and thanked him, but his comments unsettled me and I didn’t quite know why until I heard Amanda’s talk.

Yes, we’ve become legitimate. We’ve accumulated enough generally accepted markers of success – teacher and student publications, testimonials from trusted sources – that I no longer have to defend our right to exist and that’s a beautiful thing.

But if I can help it, we will never become an institution.  Too often, institutions are closed systems, walled off from the community;  high on a hill, they work with a few chosen artists and then invite others in for performances or readings.  Grub Street was born in the streets and that’s where we need to stay.  We are best when we view ourselves as facilitators of an open community of writers.

The growth of self-publishing has challenged this openness some.   I sometimes sense that the community views an author backed by a New York publishing house as somehow more “legitimate” than an author who has chosen to self-publish.  Last year, at the Muse, an author told me she was chatting happily with another author until that author learned that she was self-published whereupon she turned on her heels and walked away.  The self-published author was left feeling rejected and shamed.

Self-published authors – like me over a decade ago – are subverting the proper power channels and giving themselves permission.  This might be deeply threatening to many but it shouldn’t be to us.   What we care about is the quality of the work, not who is packaging it.

What matters most is whether, to quote Amanda, your writing “can scratch an opening in the scarred up heart of a human being.”

P.S. -- Here's a song Amanda played on her ukulele:

About the Author

Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse by expanding offerings to better educate and equip writers in the digital age, launching new, innovative programming for advanced students, and significantly expanding scholarship opportunities to ensure access. Eve curated GrubStreet’s NEA-funded Publish it Forward lecture series and our innovative Launch Lab, led GrubStreet’s Diversity Task force, laying the foundation for GrubStreet’s next chapter, and was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston. Eve’s work has been recognized by Boston Magazine, who named her one of Boston’s 50 most powerful women in 2010, and by ​BostInno Magazine who gave her their 2014 Arts and Entertainment Award for driving innovation in Boston. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on publishing, the future of publishing, and on what it takes to build a literary arts center at numerous conferences, including AWP, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change, GrubStreet’s own The Muse and the Marketplace, Whidbey Island Writers Conference, The Sanibel Island Writers Conference, and Writers at Work. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse.  Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.

See other articles by Eve Bridburg
by Eve Bridburg


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