This article was originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Soundings.
Katrina Hays (RWW 2010) and I were talking about whether listing participant publications in Soundings is or is not a good idea. Well, it is, and not. Not—if it makes you feel depressed. Is—if those accomplishments can be seen to be just that—hard-won accomplishments that someone earned through the long, slow process of first writing, then submitting, then weathering the storms of submission.
When to begin that process depends on any given writer’s sensibility—and vulnerability. What you want to keep in mind is that publication is, yes, the natural desire of any writer (even Emily Dickinson, who claimed she wanted all her poems burned, wrote in riddles—and have any of you ever, even once, told a riddle to yourself?). But the issues of when, how much, where, why, even how (notice I leave out who and what)—those questions are highly individual.
As far as the program is concerned, Soundings is a great place for achievements to be announced, and celebrated, and we can go about our business of structuring the program without having to send out numerous emails. But we honor anyone’s choice to use these years for learning, for making room for experimentation and the pleasure of writing without the distractions of that other world. The idea is that you’ll work toward that next step and you’ll take it when you feel you’re ready. Publication is NOT, repeat NOT, what the program itself is about: it’s about process, process, process.
To that end, I’ll give you the sum total of my wisdom (which comes from my limited experience) on the subject, and then some playful tidbits that came floating up from who knows where.
Ten Points on Publishing
1) There’s an editor out there who will respond to your work, but there’s no quick way to find him/her.
2) I’ve only met one person who had never received a rejection slip.
3) The best way to fight rejection blues is to have an envelope ready and addressed so that when something comes back, you just send it out again—THEN you can curse.
4) It’s normal to be a bit disappointed, especially if you are confident that what you sent is absolutely the best you can do and does have merit—but if you find yourself obsessed with the process, pull back and wait because creating the work is so much more fun than publishing it.
5) You can’t know how true #4 is until you are published and you discover that it does not change your life.
6) Well, maybe it does, because you begin to realize that it’s a good feeling, yes, but not a necessary one.
7) To get that feeling, my advice is to aim high—wait until you think your work is the quality you admire in the magazines you admire, then send to them.
8) That’s a good word—wait. Give yourself room enough—and time—to develop your style, your content, your confidence.
9) Remember that just as soon as you’ve found the right editors, established yourself, and your work seems to be going somewhere, some editor will wish you would send the kind of work you “used to send”.
10) Then you have a choice: compromise and do what you know you CAN do—or start all over again, looking for an editor who responds to your new work so you can explore where your writing still has to take you.
Ten More Personal Points
1) I only determined that I wanted Stan Lindberg to be my editor because I heard his name three times in one week (not a very scientific, or literary, way of settling on any object of desire).
2) I submitted work 17 times to The Georgia Review before any was accepted. This makes me think that often we stop too soon, just when an editor is finally getting used to the voice or the style, just before an editor is sure that you have staying power.
3) By the end, I was sending somewhat cheeky (not threatening) letters along with my submission.
4) Before that, to avoid what I felt might be crippling rejection, I gave myself a “five-year-plan” where I would not send out but would simply allow myself room for experimentation—and then I stuck to it. I also rely on finding at least one good reader, someone whose critical sense I really trust, and if that reader sees what I’m trying for, then I dig my heels in when it comes to resisting those who would have me change it.
5) By the time my work was being published, I was too old for it to matter all that much (in a “career” sense) and besides, I was addicted to experimenting, which was a good thing because absolutely nothing changed—certainly not my bank account.
6) But, yes, it did make it easier to get some jobs, though I promise that after the fact they do not seem like jobs anyone would want to get.
7) This is covered in #2 above, but I did also learn that the same rule applies to book publishers.
8) Every time I finished a manuscript, I had a long waiting period before I found new material or a new angle of approach. That waiting period is not writer’s block, but necessary regrouping.
9) I’ve done a whole lot of this kind of re-fitting, and this is partly due to the fact that I’ve tried so many genres but also because I suspected I could easily become a parody of myself.
10) Anyone know where I should send out that new manuscript I’ve just finished?
If you stood on the street corner and yelled out the name of the most famous writer you could think of (and this includes Shakespeare), only a few people would turn their heads and know who you were talking about. If you stood there and yelled out the name of ANY contemporary literary writer, no one would turn and recognize the name. If you yelled out your own name, they’d KNOW you were crazy.
Everyone is supposed to like my writing. I do, so why shouldn’t everyone else? But then, I don’t like everyone else’s writing. In fact, there are whole lists of people whose work I don’t like, so why should I expect them to like mine? But why don’t they like mine? I mean, mine isn’t as bad as theirs, right? Right. They should recognize that.
There’s always a “they.” They aren’t fair. They only want left-handed women who have lost a big toe. They wouldn’t see a right-handed man with six toes if one stared them in the face. They are everywhere. They control everything. They make the rules. It’s them or us. If we made the rules, we’d become a “they” to someone else.
If your writing is not failing, it’s not succeeding. If it’s not failing to live up to what you intuitively sense it might become, then you know your standards are not high enough. That’s because—for most of us at least—the critical sense is always a step ahead of the creative abilities. You “feel” what you ought to be able to do long before you can actually do it. You know what you want your work to achieve even when you haven’t yet honed the skills to make that happen. The best thing you can say to yourself is “That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.” Trust old Prufrock—he’s over thirty!