by Amanda Schuster
We, as humans, like to think of events as having a beginning, a middle and an end--things we can pack up neatly and put away, perhaps to take out to examine when we feel so called. The truth is, though, that many human experiences are not singular or finite. Certain patterns or events originating in the past, such as abuse or chronic illness, can persist into the present, perhaps never being fully over. Sometimes it feels impossible to get the distance required not to have a visceral emotional response. Other experiences, like living with racism or homophobia or misogyny, are continual, and while of course we can expect that a writer affected by these issues might gain a certain degree of perspective, expecting distance from something so pervasive just isn’t realistic.
During my first formal foray into creative nonfiction, I encountered this piece of advice in the textbook assigned by my mentor: “If you’re crying while crafting a piece of nonfiction, the tears will smudge the ink, making your work ultimately unreadable. If your hand shakes with anger as you write, your words will veer wildly across the page with no sense of control or design” (Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, p. 44).
The authors were encouraging their students to use discernment in deciding when they’re ready to write about something, and to leave it until later if it was something that still brought them to tears.
The thing is, I write about things that are intense for me. I write about things that make me cry. In the face of Miller and Paoloa’s words, I found myself asking: should I even be writing about the things I most want to write about right now? Am I relegated to writing only about things that don’t have a charge for me? Or can I find a way around it?
I really didn’t know what to do.
On the one hand, I understand the author's point about the need for perspective to create a work that can connect with a reader in a meaningful way. A myopic rant is not going to connect with a reader in the same way as a measured, carefully crafted portrayal of a situation. At the same time, I couldn’t accept staying away from work that was too emotionally charged, because I believe there are some things — some very important things — from which humans may never have distance.
For myself, queerness and being queer from a conservative background is one situation from which I’ll never have total distance. However, it’s a vital issue to write about, for me personally, and for society at large. When I first started trying to write on this topic, I was bleeding onto the page. Not only was it incredibly uncomfortable to share my work with others, but my writing was unstructured and full of abstraction, and just wouldn’t connect to a reader in the way I wanted it to.
That’s where imitation came in.
I don’t remember where I first picked up the idea of imitation (yes, it is ok to sound like your favorite author, and it’s not to be confused with plagiarism), but it’s a common tool writers use to break into their writing, and has also been taught to me in workshops at the Mile High MFA program where I’m currently a student. To use this practice, a writer chooses a piece of work they want to imitate, and sticks to the form--rhyme scheme, parts of speech, etc.--as closely as possible, but with a unique topic of their own choice.
I was reading a lot of Mary Szybist during this time, and her piece “Entrances and Exits” from her book Incarnadine moved me deeply--it is so full of concrete details and no abstraction, yet still deals up close with the immediate, emotional experiences of looking death in the face in ways both big and small.
So, I chose to use her work as a template for form, using the practice of imitation as a tool to develop my skill with detail, as well as to force myself to channel strong emotion into vivid imagery and ideally something that would convey my experiences in a way that would connect with rather than isolate a reader.
A few examples of lines from her work that I used as a structure for my own:
Duccio’s Annunciation sits open on my desk becomes Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept plays on my computer.
I think of honeybees becomes I think of skin cells
until it is empty, Olivia drinks becomes until it is silent, I breathe.
The pieces are similar in structure, but entirely different in tone and meaning. Not only did I find a way into my writing that allows for strong emotion and lack of distance, it was excellent practice for developing the particular craft skills that I need. After doing this a few times, I tried to write my own piece without imitating; it wasn’t perfect, but it was much improved on my previous, pre-imitation work, with detail instead of abstraction and much more appeal to a reader.
Through this experience, I found that forcing a charged topic into structure the perfect way to create some perspective when distance in time or emotion just isn’t possible. I still cried a little when writing my imitation pieces--the topics I am writing about affect me deeply and presently, and will continue to do so for some time--but the strict form helped keep me focused. As a result, my work became (I was told) more accessible to the reader and, hopefully, began to exhibit a sense of composure and design.
Imitation as Inspiration: An Exercise for Writers
Guest Blog: Using Imitation To Learn Writing Skills
Sentence Imitation: Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms
Develop your writing muscle through imitation
Writing Exercise: 3 Reasons to Write Imitations of Your Favorite Authors
Freedom to Write—Through Imitation
Writing is Learned by Imitation
Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism
Imitation Vs. Plagiarism
Creative inspiration vs. imitation – when does copying turn into plagiarism
Imitation is really important, because it’s a very fundamental part of human social interaction
By Ginny Short
Submitting work for publication is a daunting process for many writers, and one that each writer must find their own way around. In this post, poet Ginny Short shares the process she went through when she first started submitting during her time as an MFA candidate at the Mile High MFA program at Regis University, and offers guidelines for how writers can make submitting a part of their own writing practice.
For me, overcoming my fears of submitting my work to journals meant starting small. l started by looking at journals that I liked, ones that published nature or ecological themes, which I often wrote about, and journals that published the work of poets that I like. I found The Avocet, a small nature poetry magazine that I decided to submit to. It had the advantage of having published, at one point, the work of Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. I decided not to aim big at first: no New Yorker — in fact, no big-name magazines at all. I went for smaller, cozier, lesser-known journals, both in print and online. I did get some rejections, but I was also accepted into two! Those acceptances were enough to give me the courage to keep trying, and led me to one of my first important “lessons learned”: how to own my work.
In my first summer in the Mile-High MFA, I decided to try submitting some of my tanka poems. Sometimes defined as “five phrases on five lines,” tanka is a Japanese form that has a strong imagistic approach connecting human emotions with nature imagery. In particular, I like a form called tanka prose – essentially a prose poem accompanied by a tanka. I submitted several of my favorites to Ribbons, the journal of the Tanka Society of America. A while later, I got a lovely rejection letter --not a form letter, but a personal one, where the editor made comments and gave me advice about the poems, then thanked me and said “not this time”. Her suggestions seemed reasonable (although I was a bit unsure), so as part of my poetry semester I rewrote and submitted the poems as part of one of my assignments. I told my faculty mentor what the editor had suggested, and he read them. His advice back to me was essentially that he disagreed with the editors; he felt that by making the suggested revisions, I had taken the heart out of the pieces. After a long talk with him, I realized that it wasn’t about whether my poems were good or bad, but whether this journal was the right home for these pieces. There was nothing wrong with what the editor asked, but it did not reflect what I was trying to do.
I learned that the trick in publishing is finding the right home for my work, and realizing that, in the end, it is my artistic decisions that matter. This makes rejection less painful; after all why would I want my heart to be laid open for someone who doesn’t want to see it, or wants me to change it substantially for them to like it? It is not always easy to discern what should stay and what should go, but following my voice has never set me wrong.
Between fears of rejection and the challenge of staying true to your work, submitting can be daunting. But we don’t need to let it be. Instead, we can see it as part of our writing practice. Bring to it the same attention and awareness that you do writing the piece.
There are a few guidelines I have found that help in the submitting aspect of my writing practice:
First: read widely. By perusing the many journals and websites that offer a platform for your work, you will have the pleasure of being exposed to dozens of writers, and many, many pieces of work you might not have encountered otherwise. I find that this enriches my own writing; exposure to other writers’ works is critical.
Second: peruse the website of a potential journal. There will be clues within its pages, both subtle and overt, that might help you determine if your work would be a good fit. Read any sample pieces you can find. Do you like what you read? Can you see your piece sitting next to that one you just read? Most journals have some samples available on their website. Some tell you authors that they like. Pay attention. Browse through them. Enjoy. Savor.
Third: follow their guidelines. They will tell you how many words or pages to submit, the subject matter they are interested in (sometimes they have a theme) and what, exactly, they want. Do follow directions. It may not get your work in, but it will prevent your manuscript from being thrown on the editing floor before even being considered. So, read, pay attention, follow directions. Simple but important.
Fourth: keep track of what and where you are submitting. Some journals ask that you do not submit to another journal while they are considering your work (although I find this is rare), others don’t care (but you should let them know if a piece you submitted is accepted elsewhere). Start a regular submissions log using Excel or Word or a lovely handmade ledger.
However you do it, keep track of both rejections and acceptances. You are in good company; own them with pride. Golding's The Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before being accepted. Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having one published. (YIKES!) Beatrix Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Rudyard Kipling was told he did not know how to use the English language. Who knew?
The poet Andrea Rexilius (1) used transfer paper to print all of her rejection letters on a slip…and she wore her rejection slip! Check out this post for more other famous people who experienced rejections for their writing. It will make you feel better, guaranteed: you are in good company.
Getting published takes persistence. Don’t give up.
Fifth: don’t be discouraged. (See paragraph above.) It is a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and submitting often. Having good work is only a part of it. Remember that all rejections – and for that matter comments or critique – are subjective. I have several pieces that were reviewed by three or more people and got three very different responses. You have to keep submitting. It is not a reflection of your work that you get rejections. Fiction writer Rachel Weaver (2) offered advice early on in the MFA program that I always remember: if more than one person gives you the same advice, pay attention. Go back. Revise. But in the end, you are your own creative director.
Sixth: set yourself a goal. Set aside one evening (or morning if you are a morning person) and plan to submit at least one piece on that day. My goal is to submit at least once a week. You can set your goal according to your time. For novel or memoir writers, there are also places that accept excerpts of novels, novellas or longer bodies of work, like A Public Space, Missouri Review or Literary Mama. Or maybe you have some shorter pieces, short stories or flash fiction you can submit. Whatever you have ready to submit, just set yourself a goal and do it. Learn to see submitting as part of your writing practice.
I’ve followed these guidelines, and this is what it looks like for me: My goal is to submit at least one piece a week (I make it a rule to submit two pieces for every rejection). I am trying out all sorts of journals, even ones I know are a long shot because, well, you just never know. The process of submitting is educational. You discover artists that you never knew you loved, and you begin to see yourself as a contender.
There are a plethora of journals out there and discovering where to submit can be daunting. I used Duotrope which is a searchable subscription service that catalogs dozens of journals for all genres. Access is $5 a month and it has been worth it to me. My submission log keeps me hopeful: I currently have 35 rejections, 17 acceptances, and one poem republished in the “best of 2017” category for that journal as well. I have four essays and 15 poems being reviewed. It isn’t going to happen by magic, getting published that is. It’s going to happen by submitting work.
This week I received two letters: one was a form rejection, the other wrote that they “adored” three of my poems, which will be published in the November issue of Mojave River Review. I couldn’t be happier. Well, getting my first book published might make me happier. It’ll only happen if I submit it. I am working on that. Not that long ago, I had nothing being rejected, reviewed, or accepted, because I wasn’t submitting anything at all. You cannot predict if your work will be accepted or rejected but know that, either way, it is about taking a chance and submitting, because you never know what that journal needs at that moment. So, take heart. At times it may seem that no matter how much you think your piece might fit in, they will disagree. Then sometimes when you least expect it, they love it. The point is, if you arrive at a place where you can own your work, you’ll always feel motivated to submit.
1. Dr. Andrea Rexilius is the program coordination and Poetry faculty mentor at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. She is the author of five books of poetry.
2. Rachel Weaver is the author of Point of Direction and a faculty mentor for fiction at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University.
by Allissa Woodson
I have always felt that my writing was an act of independence, and an assertion that I had control of my emotions. When I first started writing, it felt good to me that, even though my emotions were written out on paper, I had the sole right to them. It felt like therapy. It made me feel strong and capable. I found solace in my solitary practice, and I liked having physical control over my thoughts and feelings. Here they are, sorted out in a way that feels right to me on the page and I can share that or throw it away.
Sometimes, though, my writing felt selfish. When I got serious about it, my time became less dispensable. The people I loved (often not writers themselves) felt neglected because in addition to the time I was taking to write, I was also busy with biology homework and handing out pancakes at the local IHOP--the normal undergrad gig. There weren’t many in my life who fully saw the value of the work I created, or the necessity of writing as a form of therapy. There were times I felt unsure and frustrated, and even times when I felt totally uninspired because of the lack of support. So naturally, it became my own responsibility to take care of my writing needs, and to do what I needed to do to stay sane. But writing all alone is a difficult practice, and hard to sustain without support.
I met the person who would become my friend and my writing partner in January of 2017. Pj and I clicked right away. We were the only two poetry students in our cohort at the Regis’s low-residency Mile-High MFA, so we were instantly paired off together. The person that you write with doesn’t have to be someone who shares the same beliefs or that writes the same way; my work was winding and abstract while Pj’s was imagistic and compact. However, I always valued her advice and insight, and because of our mutual visions, our work naturally moved in a similar way towards a complex web of emotions and ideas that we are both happier with.
Pj is from Houston, and for ten days every January and July, we attended lectures and workshops together. Most importantly, though, during that time, we wrote. While we got so much done during those ten days, it still didn’t feel like enough time. After the first residency, we didn’t do a great job of keeping in contact. We sent a text message here or there, but nothing organized or planned.
The most important part of having someone to write with is that you hold each other accountable. Finally, knowing I had to take action if we wanted to stay in touch with our creative partnership, I set a notification on my phone for every Friday: “Check in on Pj.” Whenever the notification went off, I sent Pj a quick “How are you?” text, which inevitably led to a conversation about our latest projects and our lives. I quickly fell into this Friday routine, and even the simple back and forth check-in had me feeling like I needed to write more and feeling more inspired.
It wasn’t until the the third Mile-High MFA residency when program coordinator and fiction writer David Hicks, along with his colleague and close friend, Sophfronia Scott, gave a powerful lecture about their relationship as “writing buddies”. The idea instantly clicked. I knew that Pj and I would be able to write together in the same way. We already had started a habit of maintaining contact, which seemed to be the biggest hurdle. David and Sophfronia discussed how they had used various video chat services. We took that advice and ran with it, so when the residency came to an end, our writing buddy relationship didn’t.
The concept of writing buddies is not a new one. It's no secret that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound exchanged letters and that Pound heavily edited Eliot’s draft of The Waste Land. The New York School of Writers, which included writers such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest, were known for their collaborative work both amongst themselves and with painters. In The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Works, Kenneth Koch writes, “We were very close friends, John, Frank, and I, and poetry was a big part of it... we inspired each other, we envied each other…we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support” (213).
With inspiration from other writers who had done the same before us, the weekly text message between Pj and I turned into a weekly video chat. With that method of communication, we developed a routine that works for us, and we now cover a lot more ground. We always spend the first half of the chat talking about what we are up to and how our writing is going, which is always the most valuable aspect of the chat for me. The weekly writing feedback and advice that I get from Pj, and hearing about her own struggles as a writer, all come together to inform my writing. Because of that, I never begin the second half of the chat, (that is, the writing part), feeling like I don’t know what to write.
Elizabeth Bishop describes her first talk with her lifelong friend Robert Lowell about writing poetry as "exchanging recipes for making a cake." Pj is always showing me new recipes, and it saves a lot of time; where I might be experimenting with too much salt or licorice, Pj may have already tried it and be able to give me the feedback that helps me get to my desired result more quickly.
One of the other benefits of having a writing buddy is that it is much harder to slack off when you have a camera pointed at you (or another set of eyes on you, if you are in person). For our sessions, Pj sets a timer, or we just go until one of us is tired. Sometimes I read instead of writing, or do whatever else it is that I need to do. Sometimes only the chatting gets done, and not the writing. Sometimes our planned writing schedule gets postponed three times in a row. No matter what, though, we plan the next chat.
The distance between Houston and Denver no longer feels as far as it once did. Writing together with Pj via video chat versus in person has still had the ability to transform my work. We have both learned to find what is lacking in our own work by seeing the strength in one another’s. We share our words and worlds. That experience adds a new vocabulary and allows me to see the power of a single image or the impact of a well-placed line break. Having a writing buddy has meant receiving and offering insights, making suggestions and asking questions, and it has helped me make significant changes to what and how I write. Not only do I get more writing done, but the quality of the work I create has improved along with my feeling of confidence and self-worth. The writing buddy relationship we have built is genuine, and I feel only great work can come out of it.
Because of establishing this writing buddy relationship, I no longer feel the guilt of neglecting others around me. I no longer feel selfish in taking this time to write, because it’s not just about me. Having a writing buddy is about making a commitment to support someone else in their writing. It’s about holding each other accountable to the work. But it’s more than that: We erase the doubt that we have for ourselves about our potential as writers and the difficult aspects of our own work.
Koch, Kenneth. The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.
Preview Koch’s book here