Thoughts on the Soviet Union, Self-Publishing, and Creative Stagnation

I’ve been reading a book on modern Russian history, covering the years 1917 until the present. I had known that writers in the Soviet Union functioned under severe repression, but I hadn’t known how extreme it really was or that it lasted for almost six decades. The writers and intellectuals of this time used a phrase amongst themselves, “writing for the desk drawer,” to describe the common knowledge that it was useless to try to publish one’s work because any writer with a dissident view would be censored, if not punished. “Writing for the desk drawer” hit home for me big time, because I know so many writers today—in free countries—who are still carrying on the practice.

The difference is that in the former Soviet Union there were actual outside forces preventing a writer from putting their work out into the world. There was real danger. For writing and sharing anything critical of the supreme leaders or the regime, penalties ranged from years of forced labor in prison camps in Siberia to execution of the writer and the writer’s entire family. Terror on this scale is unthinkable to most current citizens of the Western world. In this context, even “writing for the desk drawer” becomes a sobering act of sheer courage.

Writers in free countries, however, have still had to grapple with their own barriers. The traditional commercial publishing world has never been easy to enter. There are scores of gatekeepers and countless hoops to jump through. And even if an author does land that long-wished-for agent or publishing deal, they still might not have control over the way their book is printed, marketed, or sold. Many writers have given up on finishing their novels because they’ve been discouraged about the reports of how tough it is to make it as an unknown name, or because they’ve had a bad experience with the debut of their first book.

Whether we’re talking about the former Soviet Union or today’s Big 5 Publishers, the essence remains the same. So many writers in the past have had to wait on “the authorities” to decide if their book can be shared with the world at large. But then the internet came along and changed everything. This technological catalyst catapulted total freedom of choice right into the author’s own hands. No matter what happened, one thing was for sure. Nothing would ever be the same again.

What’s really interesting is the response that came from the writing world when self-publishing first began to surge forward, turning from a basic trend to a formidable wave as it gathered power and support. I worked at a startup in 2007 that launched a website for writers and I heard a lot of moaning and wailing, and saw a lot of hand-wringing, as self-publishing gained in popularity. Some said that it was the death of quality literature because now “anyone could get in.” Some said that paper books would cease to exist and everyone would stop reading novels as we moved into a more digital world. Across the board, it seemed that most people were filled with fear about this new change of events.

Looking back, I now realize that so much fear showed up because our version of “the authorities” had been taken away from us. There was no one to halt our progress now. There was no one to tell us that we couldn’t do it or that we weren’t good enough, or that we weren’t writing the thing the world wanted to see. There was no one to stop us now but ourselves, and that is a very scary thing for a person to realize.

Because if no one is stopping you but yourself, then you have no one else to blame.

This is something I see frequently with those writers I meet who are still “writing for the desk drawer,” if they’re writing at all. They’ve reached a point of creative stagnation and only a handful of them are aware that the responsibility for their arrested creative development lies with them. They will usually tell me that there’s no point in trying to publish their work because they’re not writing anything like the Twilight series (or whatever else happens to be really hot right now). Or that they’ve already been rejected a few times so it’s useless to submit anything ever again. Some say that the self-publishing scene is too competitive now, there are too many voices trying to be heard and theirs will only be lost in all the noise.

All of these excuses are the ways that we writers have dreamt up a new set of “authorities” to tell us we can’t, we shouldn’t, or we don’t dare.

The truth is that there is always a way. Always. The way may not be clear, and you might not know all the details when you set out on it, but it does exist. Following it requires trust on your part, and faith in yourself. And because of the internet, there’s a ton of support out there available to you from other writers if you choose to seek it. You’re not alone in this. All of us are somewhat scared of this brave new writing world where we really do get to do whatever we want. Freedom can be intimidating even if you’ve waited a long time for it.

If you are a writer who is currently “writing for the desk drawer” now is the time to start telling the truth to yourself. What’s holding you back? And most importantly, are you ready to make a change?

This is your time. Let’s start cleaning out the desk drawers.

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