A Stupid, Noble Responsibility

The following essay was included in the 2015 collection Paper Camera: A Half Century With New Rivers Press. Follow the links to find out more about Paper Camera and about New Rivers Press, including information on how to purchase the collection.

Joe Stracci’s debut novel, Whitney, won the 2011 New Rivers Press Many Voices Project prize for prose. Stracci’s essay describes the angst and joy of working with his book team and New Rivers Press.

Like most writers, I spend a lot of time in my head. Sometimes, it’s a great place to be—I know a lot of trivia and obscure facts; I can do decent impersonations; and I can wax poetic on writing and reading; art and music; politics and sociology—a sort of Liberal Arts degree monsoon of Intro To’s. And I’ve always placed value in this kind of approach to life—a rabbinical-esque pursuit of Knowledge.

But other times, quite frankly, my head is a shitty place to be. I get hung up on these—let’s call them quests—for the knowledge mentioned above. For example: before I finally forced myself to sit down and write this essay, I was attempting to compile the original source material for nine Daft Punk samples on their seminal album “Discovery,” spurred on by a YouTube video. But my two streaming music sources, Rdio and Spotify, didn’t have all nine of the songs in their catalogs. YouTube only had the original video, but that was only snippets of each song. I then spent some time trying to decide if I should just create one all-encompassing “Dance” playlist, since during the Daft Punk jag, I was also obsessing over Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” since hearing it in American Hustle and then hearing it again on KCRW’s Guest DJ Project podcast (The guest DJ was Ru Paul.)

But then I thought to myself: what if all of the Daft Punk songs aren’t necessarily all Dance songs?

Having dealt with this type of imaginary completist demon before, I forced myself to be okay with only being able to find six of the songs; added the DS song to my “Did You Hear That Song? (2014)” playlist (a place where I keep all the random songs I hear over the course of the year that make me say, well, you can probably guess), and said: okay, done, time to write.

But then, a frozen dagger of panic: what if I want to hear the DS song and then transition right into the Daft Punk playlist? That will require switching back and forth and you know something always goes wrong with that maneuver. And what if I’m doing this while DJing a party? How will that look?

And on and on and on.

So what the fuck does this all have to do with anything? Especially considering I was told that “the idea [of this essay] is to expose others to what it's like to be a writer, a New Rivers Press award winner, and a published author.”

Let’s try a different story.

When I started grad school, the urgency to Get Published began ticking inside of me like a time bomb. I’d never much considered it before as a reality, but being around others who did think it a reality (if it wasn’t already for them) poked at my competitive nerve. As a sports fan, I quickly came to believe that to Get Published was the equivalent of being called up to The Big Leagues; it meant you’d made it to the pros.

On the final day of my third workshop (I went to Bennington College, a low-residency program; there are four workshops in toto, one every six months), both instructors, David Gates and Tom Bissell, wanted to leave us with a sort of—summation, two final bits of advice or thoughts to chew on for the next few months. Tom Bissell told us, and I’m paraphrasing:

Before you’ve published your first short story, you’re going to think: if I could only publish a story. Everything will be different for me as a writer once I’ve published a story.

And then you’ll publish your first story, probably in a lower-profile journal or magazine. You’ll have that buzz for a day—a real, live, published story!—and then you’ll start to think: if I could only publish a story in a big-time magazine. Everything will be different for me as a writer once I’ve published a story in a big-time magazine.

And then you’ll publish a story in a big-time magazine. And you’ll get the first day buzz again and then you’ll start to think: if I could only sign with an agent. Everything will be different for me as a writer once I sign with an agent.

And then you’ll sign with an agent. You’ll get the first day buzz again and then you’ll start to think: if I could only sell my first book. Everything will be different for me as a writer once I sell my first book.

And then you’ll sell your first book. And eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll realize that none of those milestones changed you; that you’re still the same writer. And the same hard, lonely work that was required to write that first story is still required to write the second or third book. If you’re really lucky, you’ll even realize that, rather than easier, it might now be harder to continue on maintaining that career of selling books.

Eight hundred words in and I’ve hardly mentioned New Rivers Press. So let’s start with an honest admission: NRP, the 2011 Many Voices Project, was the end. Whitney, my debut novel, had been rejected by more than 37 agents (I stopped counting at 37) when I finally wrote to Amy Hempel for help. She suggested that I get a copy of Poets & Writers, find some suitable contests, and enter the manuscript. I entered three and, since you’re reading this, you can probably guess—I won one.

The year and a half-long process of turning Whitney into an actual book was relatively painless (if not a sobering example of why a Dead Trees-centered Book Publishing Industry, as it exists now, is not a sustainable model)—there were no wholesale rewrites of my words, plenty of my input was taken to heart and acted upon, and I worked with good people who genuinely seemed to care about the process and my book. Each update—a cover, a proof—made the day I received that update the best day of the week, the month. I’ll likely be spoiled forever by the experience.

And the size of the press, the informality of much of our interactions, the hands-on spirit that permeated throughout, resonated deeply with my DIY/punk roots. As Suzzanne Kelly, NRP’s Managing Editor and Co-Director wrote to me, “As a small press entering its 46th year, we're a bit of rarity, and to have spent a decade as a teaching press, we are even more unusual.” In the age of #LongReads and Content Creation, rarities like NRP are a tremendously important counterweight.

But there’s another side to that truth.

I’m often nagged by the feeling that I made my way into The Big Leagues via a back door; a technicality. I won a contest, which, colloquially, is almost the same as a sweepstakes. The people that put the wood behind Whitney’s arrow are half a country away. Spending time with them for the launch of the book, which I was fortunate enough to do, was surreal—here they were, the people I had only ever emailed with, and here I was, intruding on their home turf, as we came together because of our common bond—my words.

And I’ve told myself many times that in some ways, Whitney maybe earned some extra “cred” as a published book by coming to market in the manner that it did—no favors, no I Know Somebody, no connections. It literally rose above the rest of its competition. But, and I’m emotionally raw enough at the moment to write this—I don’t really believe that.

Like all artists, I imagined my creation, upon release, being met with stampeding herds, gasped Oh, my god—have you heard about’s, and librarians protesting calls for bans in the Midwest. And with that, I would finally become A Writer, the last person to walk into the room at readings, the person who, once the crowd of wannabes, up-and-comers, and literary scenesters saw had arrived, made it clear that this Literary Event can begin now.

And please, please understand: I hate myself for thinking this. I don’t much like literary events, writers—people, for that matter. But it’s true. And as a writer, I feel a stupid, noble responsibility to honoring the truth, no matter how messy or unflattering, even if, since Whitney’s publication, there have been no herds, no gasps, no librarians,  no bans for them to protest.

When I write personal essays, I always start with the assumption that at some point I will use a form of the phrase: I’ve got no idea what this all means. I like beginning with that doubt. It means that the potential (honest) notion that this is all bullshit is organically a part of the DNA of the piece.

Like scientific truth, personal victories are few and far between, usually undermined by our insistence on wondering what bigger personal victories can be derived from them. Artists take it a masochistic step further, as they have to fight the realization that every step towards success takes them further away from the painful place that spurred them on. And then there are writers, who “write for themselves” and when they’re finished, ask the world: want to see what I wrote?

So here goes—I have no clue if any of this will mean anything one day—Whitney, New Rivers Press, my career as a writer, etc. If we’re speaking only in terms of probability, then let’s be honest—it will probably mean nothing. The world is full, literally, of used books that sell for pennies on the internet. And in a sad, pessimistic way, at this point, I’d be happy to see used copies of Whitney selling for pennies, as it would mean someone bought it in the first place.

As far as I see it, I have two choices: I can tread water in my head for nothing, get nothing out of it. I can make playlists and listen to podcasts and rifle through the mental filing cabinets, looking and feeling busy, filling them with stuff, jotting down my descriptions of the world, impressing the three of four people who see my words, all while chasing the next artistic Choose Your Own Adventure buzz, dreaming about the fortune and fame that awaits me when I finally get my Agent, when I finally step up the plate in The Big Leagues, wearing the uniform of a Big Publishing House.


I can think back to the day, July 12, 2012, that Al Davis called me to tell me that Debra Marquart has chosen Whitney as the prose winner of the 2011 Many Voices Project. I was sitting at my desk at my 9-5 job, imagining what life would be like once I finally sold my first book. After I hung up, I called my wife at work. When she answered, I simply said, “I won.”

I can think back to my trip to Moorhead, Minnesota, to New Rivers Press, glorious time spent in my head; real quality there’s-synergy-in-everything-around-me, way-down-the-rabbit-hole type time spent in my head. The cigarettes I smoked while enjoying the perfectly cinematically mundane view outside of my hotel of the highway and the commercial landscape. The people I met. The cold. My broken leather jacket zipper. The blur and buzz of five flights in three days. The readings. The music I listened to. How much sense it all made. Feeling for three days like I’d made it to the Big Leagues.

Want to be a writer?

Learn how to soak all of that in, wring yourself out, and move on—and then get to work on the next thing.

The next thing will change everything.