If you’ve been writing very long, you’ve probably experienced a condition common to all creatives: the imaginary audience. This figment group includes the “perfect” reader, the inherent critic, the smarter-than-you skeptic, and perhaps a few others you’ve conjured up. In all actuality, none of these audience members exists, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.
Let’s debunk the “perfect reader” myth first. Even your spouse, your parent, or your BFF is not going to deeply absorb everything you think you’ve put into your work. They will validate you and compliment your creativity, but even the most attuned reader will never “get” every ounce of meaning you’ve loaded into your words. So, to believe that there’s someone out there who will “suck all the marrow out” of your diction is a lovely notion, but ultimately fallacious. Sorry.
Next, the inherent critic: an invention of the ego just as potent as the perfect reader. “Someone out there is going to inspect and criticize every single word I’ve written.” Rubbish. Even if that person existed, consider how empty their life must be if it’s devoted to condemning the work of one other person. More than likely, the person who led you to believe that an inherent critic is out there is suffering from another symptom: jealousy. That workshop curmudgeon who noticed every comma placement is an aberration — they knew your work was better than theirs, and they vented their frustration through the microscopic pedantry that becomes the last resort of losers.
The skeptic probably exists, but not to the severity you’ve imagined. There’s always the person who’s concerned with the literal truth and the hard-and-fast reality of things. They’re present in every workshop, and they’ll point out things like how “scissors” and “shears” are not synonyms, based on their vast life experience. It’s sad, really. These are the same people who critiqued cartoons in their childhood, chiding the television with lines like “That could never happen.” Don’t get hung up on their feedback.
Being honest with yourself, you’ll find you know your “real” audience: family members, friends, long-time fans, and maybe a stranger or two who stumbled upon your work. Don’t let the strangers dominate. You’re writing for flesh-and-blood people — not characters. Who celebrates your victories? Who buys your stuff and appreciates it? Who has known you the longest? These are the people you write for. Forget the doubters, and aim for the believers.
Lots of talk has recently surrounded the subject of fasting. There’s intermittent fasting, carb fasting, even social media fasting (which I’ve done and enjoyed, frankly). For the past month, I’ve been engaged in another sort of fast — one intended to decrease my stress levels and simultaneously give me more time to create: The Submissions Fast.
You heard that right: For the last 22 days, I have not submitted any of my poetic work to any publisher or contest, large or small. “Why would a working poet do this?” you might ask. Here’s my answer…
I noticed about a month ago that my Submittable queue had grown to more than 30 submissions that were either “received” or “in progress.” This meant that publishers had my latest works in hand at a variety of venues. Some places looking at my poems were competitions, some were magazines I respected, and still others were small operations seeking poems for other purposes.
Whatever their mission, these diverse outlets were all considering some incarnation of my best 10 or 12 recently written poems (some in series of five, some in series of three, and others looking at just one, depending on guidelines and needs). These potential publishers were giving their editorial eye to essentially the same material. I knew it was time to lay off. I’m a fan of simultaneous submissions, but there comes a time when the business of writing must give way to the art of it.
And so, for the last several weeks, I’ve reined in my usual desire to submit, submit, submit. I’m letting these poems “rest” while I write, teach, and focus on other endeavors. When I see one of the ubiquitous calls for submissions, I ignore it and keep moving to other unrelated items. Doing so is hard; for decades now, I’ve lived under the expectation that “being a poet means putting your work out into the world” by submitting it. But at some point, enough is enough.
Despite my earnest desire to send off a packet of my poetry to a new journal or contest I see advertised, I’ve endured and persevered, and the results have been unexpected. I find myself gravitating more toward creative nonfiction as opposed to crafting new poems. Maybe it started as a way of coping with submission-loss: “If I’m writing and submitting stuff in a different genre, it doesn’t count.” Like the addict who insists a different brand of the same substance is exempt from restriction, I convinced myself that putting prose in front of editors was not (is not) like submitting poetry.
Writing reflectively about this decision demonstrates its fallacy, of course. Turning work in to potential publishers and getting that hope-driven dopamine rush is the same, no matter what kind of writing is involved. So, I’m just going to call those nonfiction submissions “cheat days” like certain diets would allow. That’s a reasonable justification, right?
The other effect that not submitting has had on me is a certain calm. No longer do I feel the need to frantically check the progress indicators on my present submissions, and no longer do I obsess over which editor might be viewing which work at what time. Leaving my work to do its thing is much like planting seeds. I know I have to wait for these little efforts to produce or fail. Stressing over them is a futile decision that induces unnecessary anxiety.
There’s plenty in my life to fret about without adding more to the menu. Submitting can be a rewarding learning experience. But when it gets out of hand, like anything else, it’s time to exercise some control. Doing so has allowed my mind to explore other avenues and relieve itself of a fetter that shouldn’t exist.
Maybe some of those 30 places will say yes. Many, I’m certain, will say no (my acceptance rate tells me so). But in the meantime, I’m not going to worry about it. Putting my work out there is supposed to be the enjoyable part of this literary life. When it becomes the opposite, stopping is the solution.
If this post had a soundtrack, it would be Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Here’s why: Yesterday my writing received an acceptance from a literary journal I’ve wanted my work to appear in for years. The poems they accepted had previously received favorable rejections (you know the kind: “We found much to admire, but…”). Everything I’ve ever learned from workshops, seminars, and personal experience told me that these pieces had quality. Nonetheless, they had been turned down several times. In fact, one of them was more than a year old and had yet to find a home.
I began to worry: Was my literary taste-o-meter just that far off? Was I overlooking some flagrant error that everybody else could see? What was the matter? The truth was, the poems were as good as I had thought (oh-so modestly), but other factors were at play. Space considerations, editor fatigue, and a whole host of other circumstances can often keep excellent poems out of journals’ pages, and it’s critical to remember just exactly how subjective the literary business is — All. The. Time.
Whatever previous editors’ reasons for turning these poems down, I kept on submitting them to respectable magazines and venues, knowing that somebody was going to appreciate them sooner or later. That persistence paid off, and no matter what well-meaning writing teachers may tell you, sometimes it doesn’t. It takes more than stubbornness or grit to get work accepted — there also has to be merit, value, and a certain amount of good fortune involved. This fact isn’t meant to discourage; it’s just what I’ve found to be true.
This latest acceptance also came at a time when I needed it most. For the past several months, I’ve been on a real rejection streak…so much so that I was reaching the dreaded point of asking, “Should I even continue?” Instead, I exhaled a quick “Thank You Lord” upon receiving this “yes” email, interpreting it as some assurance that I’m still using my talent well.
Just when you think you’re about done, something good happens to reaffirm your path. Sometimes believing in the worth of your own work is the answer. Have faith in the good things you produce, and keep putting them out there. Encouragement is waiting.
Not long ago, I assumed a new title within my organization. The new position involves thinking more like a manager and less like a classroom educator. This move has been a pretty big cognitive shift for someone who spent the last 15 years worrying about lesson planning, gradebook updates, project-based learning, community partnerships, and the latest instructional technology.
These days, the kinds of questions I’m asking are concerned with the bigger picture beyond the classroom: How is our organization performing? Are our customers being served in the optimal way? Who in our group needs help, and how might I provide it? Is our policy what it ought to be? What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT)?
To the literary-minded among you, I apologize. All this business talk is probably anathema to your very existence. But as one to whom it was equally foreign, I’ve had to adapt, and this change has made me think of another arena where business is sometimes perceived as the dark side: Poetry.
Yes, we poets would like to simply write our words and have them immediately recognized for their greatness and their beauty, but that’s not how it works. There is the sometimes-disgruntling submissions process, the signing of publishing contracts, the concern over rights and what constitutes “previously published,” and a million other little entanglements of the commercial or legal sort. Poets have to be business people, too. But so often we dread and disparage it.
Here’s a little secret: The business part can be as fun as the creative part. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but seriously, equal to the joy of a finished, polished poem is the hope felt when the “submit” button is pressed. Granted, sometimes that hope is dashed when rejection comes (and it does, more often than not), but the endorphins and dopamine produced while being an efficient, organized professional can rival those elicited by a really great line or stanza. The pleasures of logic and reason simply come from a different part of the brain than we creatives regularly use.
Moreover, when your “management” has paid off, it definitely makes the tedium worth it. Those hours spent on fellowship applications, the eye-wearying process of figuring out which works to submit to a particular contest, and the seemingly interminable wait for a magazine’s answer are all rewarded when the reply is a sweet-sounding yes.
When the answer is no, though, it can make you wonder why you bothered at all. I’ve been there: “Why did I wait six months for a reply from Magazine X (who won’t accept simultaneous submissions) when I could have sent these same poems to Magazine Y, who certainly would have accepted them?” or “I can’t believe I went through all the trouble of filling out that ream of documents for an award I didn’t even get.” Yep, I know the feeling. Disheartening, to say the least.
But trust me when I say that the occasional affirmative reply outweighs the saddening (and more regular) negative ones. As I’ve mentioned before, poetry has taken me to places — literal, geographic locations — I never would have seen on my own. But none of those journeys would have occurred if I hadn’t mustered up the left-brained moxie to apply, submit, or propose. And doing those parts, however contrary to my nature, made possible both memories and poems, rich rewards of their own sort.
Don’t fear the paperwork. Don’t call it bureaucracy. No matter how much we disdain them, the processes and the logistics that lead to literary opportunities are necessary, and the sooner we get friendly with them, the more successful we will become. Why not start today?
9/11/01 gave Americans pause. We paused to mourn, we paused to reflect, and we paused to resolve. Along with that pause, though, came poetry. People needed catharsis amid crisis, and poems, no matter how good or bad, helped us. Some of the stanzas written were angry, some were sad, and others were just reaching and exploring to make sense of immense tragedy.
Americans wrote poems of every conceivable stripe. Now, as the vivid images of 9/11 turn “adult” by reaching an 18th anniversary, poetry writing has waxed and waned. There have been national events that have spurred on the creation of more poems, certainly, but the problem is one of motivation: Once the flames of inspiration have cooled, so do passions for writing.
As people accept whatever happened, be that a terrorist attack or a personal milestone, their desire to produce poems is seen as a mere whim — something brought on by extraordinary circumstances, and definitely not something to continue in “normal” times. But this line of thinking is flawed; after all, poetry has historically served as the documentation of our everyday lives in the present. Why should today be any different?
Billy Collins writes about Cheerios and the forgetfulness of old age. Tracy K. Smith writes of museums and cathedrals. Aimee Nezhukumatathil pens pieces about baked goods and auctions. Everything (literally everything) is the stuff of poetry — why should we reserve a whole genre for some special occasion, treating it like the good silver or the fine china? Life is too short to keep our words safely untarnished in credenzas of the mind; break out the good stuff and use it now! Not just for the funeral, the wedding, or the remembrance.
Eighteen years ago, more than three thousand people breathed their last. What poems passed with them? We who remain are charged with an obligation — to communicate our selves so that others may learn, recall, and understand their own humanity. The absolute best way to accomplish this task is through poetry. Don’t wait for another tragedy, another landmark in personal history, or another ceremony to strike your creative fancy. There are poems within you right now. Write about the unconsidered objects in your office, that funny thing a child does, the weather wherever you aren’t. Write about a long-forgotten item buried in a drawer. Write the smells on your daily commute. Write poems. America needs them.
A statue of Robert Frost, one poet whose legacy I admire.
I am mentoring a young writer, and I am grateful for her willingness to accept critiques and guidance. This woman is truly interested in making her unique work the best it can be while exploring the masterpieces of prior poets. Her outlook and attitude are precisely what they should be to achieve learning. She is well on her way to the next step in her maturity as a poet.
Too often, writing mentorships can evolve into counterproductivity for a number of reasons, beginning with a mentee’s desire to precisely emulate a mentor’s path. The truth is, no matter how badly we may wish to trace the steps of others, our journeys, literary or otherwise, will forever be our own.
Over the last twenty years or so, I’ve admired a number of poets whose trails have been admirable: They’ve won awards, published in esteemed venues, taught in prestigious institutions, and achieved many of the milestones that poets (rightly or wrongly) value. As a much younger man, I wanted to try to walk in the footsteps of those who had done the things I wanted to do and had been to the places I wanted to go, even going so far as to seek their same publishers or apply to their same fellowship opportunities.
I found, however, that those things weren’t right for me. Just as my mentors had experiences and encounters that were suitable to them as individuals, I likewise needed to forge my own path. Some authors are meant for the lights of New York City; I am not. Some authors revel in writing the grotesque and the disturbing; I do not. And still some authors hide from their readers and the public in general; I will not. I believe in celebrating the simple, recording the beautiful, and engaging earnestly with others. Some of my mentors have shared these traits, and some have not.
And while I’m grateful to have learned from a variety of literary personalities, I would be foolish to think that my road will look exactly like theirs. To extend the metaphor, my two-lane country gravel path is a far cry from their eight-lane high-speed interstates, and that’s really okay. This loud, bumpy ride I’m on has its own charms.
I hope that my current mentee finds her own way. If some of my voyage becomes hers, that’s fine. But each of us must blaze our own course. The fellow wayfarers who go before us, join us, or follow us just make the trip more interesting. Fare thee well, readers — enjoy the journey.
Once upon a time, there was a poet. He was ambitious, as poets happen to be, and he was terribly concerned with making a name for himself. All day every day, he sat around thinking about what his literary legacy would be, and how future generations would look back upon his work.
This was pretty funny, considering his work had only been carried in a dozen or so literary journals of modest reputation, and his first book had been bought by only a handful of family and friends. Nonetheless, Poet was quite certain that one day, his rhymes and stanzas would wind up in the hands of adoring students who would romanticize his life, documentary-style, and he would receive the reverential treatment of other great canonized writers.
Driven by his lust for immortality and renown, Poet began assembling his most recently published works into a collection. He’d already self-published one book (see “bought only by family and friends” above), and he’d even gone to a terribly expensive liberal arts college to earn the coveted MFA — which he reminded people regularly was a “terminal degree.” So he knew how to put a poetry collection together and how to find a publisher.
When the day came to submit his manuscript, Poet was shaking with excitement. He sent the book to publishers great and small, hoping oh so adamantly that one would see the merit and value in his clever diction and intense imagery. As luck would have it, one did!
This publisher was a very good publisher, too. The press had a 40-year history of getting poets’ work in front of readers and libraries alike, and much of the poetry it published was like that of our hero. Joy and elation filled Poet’s mind! How great! How rewarding! He could hardly wait to hold this new book in his hands. The manager of the press was very kind, and the cover art for his book was beautiful. Likewise, the pagination, the formatting, and the production quality of the book were all incredible. Before the book hit the presses, the kindly publisher had advertised its arrival through major outlets, and critics were eager to read it. Poet was as happy as he had ever been. The book sold several hundred copies, a very positive return for a new book of poems from a virtually unknown author.
As months passed, however, Poet began to think too highly of himself. After all, his work had now been published in “better” venues with bigger names, and established writers had been singing Poet’s praises. Surely he deserved to have his work seen and appreciated by people beyond his geographic region.
“London!” Poet exclaimed. “I must have my work published in London!”
The warm light of Big Ben flashed in his mind along with scenes of major publishing houses he had seen in magazines and in movies. If only he could find his own! London became an obsession — even England would do, if not the capital city. After all, the home of Byron, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Donne would certainly benefit from his writing as well. He was just as deserving as they, he told himself.
More of his poetry was picked up by magazines, contests, and anthologies (thanks somewhat to the book that had been put out by his good former publisher), and soon, Poet had a whole new manuscript ready to go. Rather than sending the book to his highly proficient previous publisher, though, Poet decided to go a different route (aside: consider this part “going off the path in the woods”, a la Goldilocks).
An English publisher had recently set up shop, and the manager of that press approached Poet. “What a nice manuscript you have there,” said the British publisher in exquisite queen’s English. “Wouldn’t it be delightful to have it turned into a book? I’m very qualified.” Publisher licked his lips and his eye gleamed.
“Yes! Yes!” Poet shouted without a moment’s hesitation. “My book will be published in [gasp] Europe!”
And so, Poet handed over his work, a collection of award-winning poems previously published in reputable magazines. New Publisher extended his claws, clasped the manuscript greedily, and slithered back to the deep, dark woods of unknown England.
Some months later, a book from Hickshire, UK arrived. Its interior was on cheap, plain white pages, many of the poems had been incorrectly printed, and the back-cover blurbs from prestigious members of the literary community were barely visible due to New Publisher’s poor design sense. Poet’s dream of overseas publication was becoming a nightmare. He could hardly believe his eyes! Moreover, New Publisher had not done anything for publicity or marketing of Poet’s newest manuscript, and so no one knew about it, aside from people who knew Poet already. It sold maybe 100 copies, and many of those purchases were “pity sales,” people who felt so badly for Poet that they bought copies just to ease his suffering.
If only he could undo this decision; if only he could go back in time and send this precious manuscript to a publisher that he knew would treat it professionally and artistically. But alas, it was too late. Poet’s bad decision would now haunt him forever, even when, in a few short months, New Publisher closed its doors leaving all its writers in the lurch, including Poet. What was he to do now?
With a humbled spirit and a wiser perspective, Poet began working on fresh poems. He sent them out to magazines, contests, and other venues, and soon, many of them found loving homes. In a few years, Poet had regained the ground he’d lost due to his own hubris. Editors recognized his name, contest judges identified his work by its unique style, and fellow writers appreciated his judicious perspectives. However, this time, Poet kept his ego in check. As the acceptances poured in and the award nominations mounted, Poet began assembling another collection. And this time, he swore he would not be lured off course by the promise of exotic publication.
Upon finishing the last pages of the book, he humbly submitted it exclusively to the publisher he’d known before — the one who had so richly contributed to his prior successes and victories. There, his newest book received a warm reception and all the editorial attention it deserved. The kind publisher was elated to see Poet return! The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller in the poetry category, it received multiple accolades and awards, and everyone lived happily ever after. THE END.
The moral of this story, boys and girls, is not to let your pride go before a fall. Beware the wolves and snakes of the publishing industry who capitalize on self-important people. Avoid falling prey to the traps and snares that Poet encountered, and you too will be wiser and happier all your livelong days.