By Jesica Carson Davis
The identity of a writer can be a slippery, tricky one. For years, I hesitated to call myself a poet, even though I was writing poetry. Really though, it’s pretty simple: if you write, you’re a writer.
One thing that can help a writer to own that identity is to establish a regular writing practice. It doesn’t have to be every day — having time, space, energy, and ability to maintain a daily writing practice is a huge privilege — but finding a way to make a habit out of creative practices can drastically affect a writer’s output, as well as their sense of self. I always feel more me, in touch with more layers of my secret selves when I’ve been writing because it gives me a chance to work through and out all the impressions, fears, and wonder that swirls in my head.
I first developed a writing practice the year I moved to Berlin to process the death of my best friend. It was still cheap then (2006), and I’d saved up enough money to take some time off work. Once the initial shock wore off, I’d sit at my desk every weekday and write for five or six hours. Showing up to that practice was the first time I really felt like a writer — because I was writing almost every day. I was showing up for myself, actually doing the thing I always wished I had more time for. I learned that the act of writing, detached from any outcome, makes me happy, makes time disappear in an almost magical way: even when I’m struggling with a piece, I can get lost in word choice, a quest to find a crystalline expression, forgetting myself to become more myself. When I look at the clock, hours have passed, as if hypnotized by concentration.
However, when I came back to the United States and started working again, my writing time slipped away to just few hours a month. I was living in Brooklyn, and even though I was taking workshops at The New School, NYU, and Poets House, my writing practice was sporadic at best. I stopped introducing myself as a poet; as the practice faded, so did my link to the identity.
Things changed when I moved to Denver in 2013. Suddenly isolated from many of my old friends, I had more empty hours to fill, and writing was one way to do so. It helped me feel less lonely, even if I was just communicating with myself. I began spending four or five hours every Saturday at my desk, and more started coming out. The practice helped me to remember who I was (a poet who used to extensively, someone with a huge family both blood and chosen) even though I was far and detached from what had been my life up till then. I wrote about formative, older times as well as my then-current sense of displacement until they eventually wove together to reconcile disparate identities.
When I finally settled into a regular writing practice, I was fed up with myself for wasting time scrolling the internet and watching too much TV. (I still do these things; everyone needs down time, but now I do them in smaller amounts.) So I made myself a quick, handwritten sign and pinned it over my desk: “Make yourself do stuff.” I also printed out the squirrel of judgment and tacked it up next to my sign. Once again, I began to tell people that I was a poet, but more importantly: I felt like one.
Writing regularly, for me, can be a self-reinforcing act. If I’ve worked on a poem or read some poetry in the morning, my day takes on a poetic cast; I’m much more receptive to seeing kernels of potential poems, and more likely to jot them down in a notebook to act on later.
Two years later, that sign I made for myself feels much less urgent; I do and make things pretty regularly now. But the sign stays up; it’s good to have reminders. Michelangelo would agree.
Still, there are times when, no matter how long I sit, the writing just won’t come. It’s important for me to maintain the practice, even when not feeling creative, so during those times, I:
Through establishing a writing practice, one with a structure that suits my physiology and schedule, I’ve established a discipline that makes me proud. The concept of publication doesn’t matter much to me (OK, it does a little, most writers want to be read), because I’ve grown to love the practice itself.
It reminds me of the power of language, that I can believe in myself as a poet, even on the tough days when words just thud, because I have faith that if I hold the practice, the flow will come back; it reminds me of what I can do: alchemize words, thoughts, and images into a piece that (hopefully) conveys something, perhaps a fleeting feeling, that lives beyond the realm of ordinary communication. And that’s magical.
Showing up to my writing practice taught me that I can show up for myself. I’ve learned to trust that though I have bad days, uncreative slumps, if I keep working at it and hold space for the practice, they will pass. The point is to keep practicing it. As Alexander Chee remembers Annie Dillard’s advice:
“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”
When you get down to it, the practice of writing is an action. You do it, or you don’t, and either way, you learn something about who you are. My writing practice taught me that doing what I love makes me happy, regardless of outside judgement; what does yours say about you?
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.