The trials and tribulations of the writing life


By the time you read this, the 2013 August Poetry Postcard Fest will have concluded, and the hundreds of us who participated will be fingering through the postcards we've received from all around the globe, mumbling gratefully over the poems, and perhaps glancing wistfully at our mailboxes, which have brought such interesting tidings over the last month and now have reverted to a steady diet of junk mail and bills.

To stave off the worst withdrawal symptoms, I have embraced a brand new offering published by Seattle's Sasquatch Books: "What Poets Are Like," by Gary Soto.

Soto is regarded as one of the leading Chicano poets in the United States - his love poem "Oranges" is taught in classrooms across the country - and he is also known as the author of several well-received works of children's and young adult fiction.

Now in his early 60s, he offers this collection of 60 autobiographical essays that reflect on the life of a writer in late-20th and early-21st century America.

Ranging in length from a few paragraphs to several pages, these pieces fizz and spark with wit, anger, idealism and self-deprecation. It isn't easy to live the reflective life of a bard in a world that seems to have given itself over entirely to attention deficit disorder. And yet, dedicated people still manage to do it.

Soto sketches some of the moments he has had with friends, students and strangers over the course of his writing life. There are moments of pride and success, such as the small-town parade in his honor; and there are twinklings of promise, as when John Malkovich's production company optioned one of his stories for a film - which never got made.

But for every invitation to the White House (there was one, back when Laura Bush initiated the National Book Festival), Soto gets dozens of rejection letters from obscure literary magazines, not to mention the bookstore readings where no one shows up, or the book signings where someone has forgotten to order the books. Compounding this are the snarky comments of academics and critics - it's something every artist, in any medium, has to learn to live with.

Soto crystallizes these moments with vivid and often laugh-out-loud imagery - it's vital to have a sense of humor.

But there are times when he is dead-serious about his line of work, too. His essay "Photocopying" details one seemingly innocuous theft of intellectual property, and factors out the losses a writer or a creative worker of any type is apt to sustain in these times of technological expediency. As consumers of literature (or music, or movies), it's a lesson we all should bear in mind.

Feisty and funny, "What Poets Are Like" offers generous insights into the literary life.

In this queerly torqued age where schools are promoting STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) instruction at the expense of art, humanities and social studies, why on earth would anyone opt for a writing career? In spite of the numerous pitfalls, Gary Soto tells us why.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at

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