The Seven Gifts: What Poetry Offers Prose Writers  

October 30, 2019 § 22 Comments

emily_portraits-9By Emily K. Michael

As a writing teacher, I spend more time defending poetry than prose. When I tell my students, “We’ll be doing poetry today,” I hear groans and sighs. And when I share that I write poetry, people say, ‘I always had trouble with poetry.” Or even, “I never really liked poetry.” Only the occasional bright-eyed student preempts the discussion by asking, “Are we writing any poetry this year?”

I’ve never heard people react to prose in the same way. While most students don’t rush to write essays, they also don’t reflexively jerk away from prose. I’d like to navigate this reticence, to lead essayists and memoirists to the unruly garden where poetry writers wander.

Why should you take this walk with me, the avid poet? Because you’ll hear the black-capped chickadees and chimney swifts, smell the lavender and sage, find the world blooming and decaying all at once. Poetry has many gifts for the prose writer.

Let’s consider poetry not as a genre but as a mode of attention.

  1. Poetry uses language on a budget.

An obvious difference in genres is that prose writers have more words to work with. With the exception of flash fiction, poetry gives the reader less information; the language must work harder to achieve its effect.

Metaphor is the most economical use of language because it blends two networks of ideas concisely. In “The Piano Speaks,” Sandra Beasley describes how the piano is transformed as Erik Satie plays. She writes:

      For an hour I was a maple tree,
and under the summer of his fingers
the notes seeded and winged away

“The summer of his fingers” is a linguistic reduction, getting thick and glossy with meaning as it simmers in the poem. When a metaphor is apt, concise, and subtle, it delivers a concentrated dose of meaning in a handful of memorable syllables.

  1. Poetry reveals the emotional weight of objects.

In workshops, I ask writers to think of a room occupied by someone they love and list the objects the loved one leaves behind. These are the items the poet should bring onto the page for readers. This is poetry’s “objective correlative” – handling abstract feelings by picking up dirty coffee cups, worn pillows, chunky keychains, metallic evening bags. Tess Gallagher embraces the emotional weight of a personal artifact in “Black Silk,” where the speaker tries on her father’s old suit to understand his absence. Marie Howe uses the same technique in “The Copper Beech,” describing a beloved tree that shows her how to find resilience. In both cases, the object on the page is rich with significance and personality.

  1. Poetry invites you to break grammar rules.

In his song of praise, E.E. Cummings thanks God for the “leaping greenly spirits of trees.” If a prose writer attempts this unusual syntax, their beta readers are likely to sigh, and their editor will probably circle it. Of course prose writers can play with grammar rules, but poetry, with its reputation for being mysterious and complicated, welcomes the breaking of rules. We celebrate Dickinson’s dashes and capitals.

Breaking grammar rules helps us to understand what these rules actually accomplish. Our children’s books and nursery rhymes equip us to get the overall sense of “leaping greenly spirits of trees” while the unusual pattern emphasizes “greenly” rather than “leaping” or “spirits.”  Playing with syntax, punctuation, and other conventions can create novel and beautiful phrases.

  1. Poetry brings forward the native rhythms of language.

In a class on emotional dialogue, I gave students a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The student who volunteered to read the poem aloud asked if she could stand up and “walk the poem around the room.” As she walked and recited, her voice grew rich with the poem’s warm anger. She discovered, simply by moving with the poem, what “meter” really is: a poem’s pace and heartbeat. Are you ready to walk your prose?

  1. Poetry sharpens the language of character.

Because poems don’t have the space for repeated dialogue attribution, the poet must build character by paying greater attention to syntax, word choice, and punctuation. Consider Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” where the speaker comments on her own definition of poetry. The poem uses parentheses to differentiate between the speaker’s public, performance voice and the thoughts that drive it. Sylvia Plath uses a similar technique in “Mad Girl’s Love Song”; her parentheses invite us to question reality.

  1. Poetry is adventurous on the page.

Poetry collaborates with the white space of pages and screens. In addition to stanza breaks, writers can walk their lines across the white space. Caesuras create an elliptical effect just by adding more space between the words of a line. Visual poems are sprinkled over the writing surface – sometimes forming pictures, always inviting readers to wonder how language manages to make meaning.

In “Poems with Disabilities,” Jim Ferris builds security by keeping the lines at similar lengths, but as the poem moves toward a climax of anxiety, the lines get shorter. The white space crowds the poem, eating away at the lines and intensifying the poem’s ending.

  1. Poetry nurtures borrowers and beginners.

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100” calls back to Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” – a collection of the things poetry is and is not. Poetry tolerates blatant imitation and subtle borrowing. Poets take up a form like the sonnet or the villanelle and eagerly copy canonical works. Whether overt or covert, this borrowing fails to upset most poets. We recognize that we did not invent the language or the forms: we work in a long tradition.

So why should prose writers read and write poetry?

Poetry emphasizes concision and rich language. It tests the strength of syntax. It fits itself to the scraps of paper at the bottom of your bag, the crumpled receipts in your drawer. It bundles big feelings into few words.

Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, The South Carolina Review, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and AWP Writer’s Notebook. Emily’s work centers on ecology, disability, and music. Find more of her work at her blog, On the Blink. Emily’s first book Neoteny: Poems is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press.

Losing Louise, Finding Joy: The Death of a Mentor and the Afterlife of Her Legacy

October 25, 2019 § 11 Comments

steeleby Cassie Premo Steele

I was young when I wrote the letter. I had finished my Ph.D. and had revised the dissertation and was hoping to publish it when I heard that Louise DeSalvo was coming to a nearby university as a visiting professor for a semester.

I wrote her a letter, telling her about my work, and asking if she’d like to help me get it published since our work—hers on Virginia Woolf and child sexual abuse, mine on multicultural women poets and the legacies of trauma in their lives and work—were similar.

And then I waited.

One Friday morning, the phone rang. It was Louise—her voice, a strong, determined pitch with a pinch of New Jersey despite the years of research in British literary scenes— saying, “Yes. The world needs this book.”

I did not know it then, but with that phone call, she put in motion the rest of my career—not the book itself which became We Heal From Memory: Sexton, Lorde, Anzaldúa and The Poetry of Witness—but the importance of the sentence itself as I gradually moved away from academia and into my own creative writing and writing coaching.

I learned to tell myself: The world needs this book.

I learned to tell others: The world needs this book.

Louise helped me in so many ways—by believing in me, by giving me foundational writing advice, and by modeling a life of balance.

desalvo and steele“You’re the real thing,” she said to me during a visit with her husband, Ernie, to their home in the Hamptons.

I know there are hundreds of other young writers who heard this from her, but at that moment with the Atlantic coast beside us, it felt like she’d offered me a whole ocean of faith in myself.

She also told me something that would forever change how I wrote and how I advised other writers.

“Virginia Woolf wrote for two hours a day,” she said. “And that might have been too much for her.”

It was a revelation that one of the greatest writers in world history only wrote for two hours a day.

I started adopting this practice. And indeed, I found that two hours of focused, uninterrupted, flowing writing is infinitely better than hours and hours of sitting, procrastinating, and distracting oneself.

(This was before the advent of the internet, and this two-hour rule is even more crucial now.)

I advise my clients to stick to this limit, and they tell me it changes everything, not only about their writing, but about their feelings about work and home and family.

Which brings me to the third lesson Louise taught me: a life of balance is not only preferable, it is necessary for good writing.

If we don’t want to follow (literally) in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps into the water, it is important to put self-care, time with family, and activities that nurture our minds, bodies and souls at the forefront of each day.

Whether it’s baking bread or shopping for eggplant, painting a dreamscape or kayaking or knitting, Louise modeled for me what a truly great writer does: she stays healthy, happy, and balanced.

When I heard that Louise had cancer, I reached out to her by email. I wanted to tell her what she’d meant to me.

Our last conversation was about knitting. I told her that I’d recently learned but I feared I wasn’t very good, and she encouraged me to try the Brooklyn tweed scarf. I did—in the muted colors of the stone and brick homes of northern New Jersey that always made me think of her.

The morning after I heard she had passed away, I woke before sunrise to make bread.

It was November—the Days of the Dead—and the house was dark and cold. But the oven and the memories of the warmth Louise had given me were a balm to my mourning.

Recently, my wife and I were visiting my poetry publisher, Annmarie Lockhart, who lives near where Louise used to live, and I mentioned that I was reading Louise’s posthumous memoir, The House of Early Sorrows, so she was on my mind.

Always a Jersey Italian go-getter, Annmarie exclaimed, “Let’s go!” and drove us around until we located the house.

I jumped out and took a quick picture. The home was exactly how I remembered it but smaller. I thought of Virginia Woolf’s “angel in the house,” the spirit that encourages women to neglect their creative lives for housework and domestic activities, and it felt as if a different angel had taken residence in Louise’s old house – and in mine.

It was an angel who spoke quickly. An angel who loved being a wife and mother and did it with the same fierceness she brought to everything. Who cooked and ate with the conviction that good, healthy food held magic. Whose writing was as sharp and truth-telling as she was in real life.

And an angel with a wicked sense of humor.

As I turned from the house and went to get back in the car, an alarm went off.

It seems that Annmarie had gone to the end of the street to turn around and I’d tried to get in someone else’s car.

We laughed hysterically once I realized the mistake—and hightailed it out of there.

“Holy moly,” I said to Annmarie. “Now I can’t write about this!”

“Oh, yes, you can!” she said. “This is exactly what the world needs!”

And the joy Louise had taught me in convincing me that it was perfectly fine to believe in my work and live a happy life came back to me fully then.

I couldn’t wait to pick up the pen.

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is the author of 16 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and lives with her wife in South Carolina where she coaches writing clients from around the world and offers an audio writing coaching series called JOYWORK. Her website is and she’s on Twitter at






Notes to Self (On How to Write)

October 23, 2019 § 9 Comments

Heidi BarrBy Heidi Barr

Remember to be grateful for what is already good.  There will always be things that feel stressful, like they won’t ever work, that keep you up at night.  Don’t give your attention, and the energy doing so requires, to things that don’t deserve it, or to things that don’t exist.  If you must pay attention to something you would rather not, or that is hard because of life’s circumstances, or that is draining because of all the things that can cause something to take instead of give, reserve some of your energy: pay attention to it if you must, but don’t give all your reserves away. Save at least some of your energy for that which returns it in kind.

Give your attention to that which lights you up with aliveness. To that which leaves you bursting with radiance.  To that which adds peace to the tumult that is part of existing on an evolving planet.  Find delight.  Revel in pleasure.  Cherish your body, and give it what it needs.  Honor your mind. Nourish it with curiosity and enough rest to be curious for another day.  Feel your spirit join with something greater than yourself, and remember the oneness that makes the world pulse with love.  Feel all the nuances of joy, even the parts that make you wonder if you’ve gone completely mad.  Let the perplexing beauty of a human experience fill your being with luminosity and reverence.  Keep going outside, even when it’s cold, or too hot.  Notice the way ice cracks in the sun and how a pen feels in your hand as you scribble in a journal. (Especially important after many days of tapping a keyboard.) Notice the burst of red when a cardinal visits the dead tree outside your office window.  Allow fresh air to direct your attention to breathing, even when it isn’t comfortable.  Slip into fresh bed sheets on a cool summer’s evening.  Turn just picked strawberries over in your hand on a warm day, lifting them to your face to inhale their sweetness.  Let rushing water caress your bare ankles as you walk upstream.

Practice noticing. Build your capacity for attentiveness, and give voice to the bits of astonishment that gather in the wake of doing so.  Be attentive to the way gratitude polishes the rough edges of human experience, and give in to wonder. The world needs you to keep wonder alive.  Mary Oliver wrote,  “May I stay forever in the stream.”  Take her lead. Stay forever in the stream, and let it be a stream of gratitude for what already is.  Let that stream return the energy you need to continue on for another day.

Remember to be grateful for what is already good.

Co-founder of 12 Tiny Things, Heidi Barr lives in Minnesota with her family where they tend a large garden, explore nature and do their best to live simply. Author of four books, she is committed to cultivating ways of being that are life-giving and sustainable for people, communities and the planet.   Visit her at

Instagram: @heidibarrwriter and @12tinythings

Twitter: @embodyabundance


Shame, Shame, Shame: On Brené Brown, Diamond Formation, and the Writing Life

October 21, 2019 § 27 Comments

livingstonblueBy Sonja Livingston

I’ve recently fallen into a YouTube rabbit hole.

This is partly because I cancelled Netflix and am hard up for video content, but also because I have a book just out and no one tells you how tender that space is. The last three videos I watched were: Alain de Botton’s “On Love,” Patty Griffin and Robert Plant singing “Ohio,” and an extended clip of bestselling author and inspirational speaker, Brené Brown. I admire Brené Brown and trust her. She has the kind of haircut I’m always after and a Texas accent which she uses to say hot and wise things.

You either walk inside your story and own it, Brené says. Or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.

Brown is famous for her talks on vulnerability and shame.

In fact, she’s a shame researcher, which makes her one of my people. Shame is my first language. I grew up on its fumes. If shame were a small island nation, I’d be given a cardboard crown and made its chronically self-conscious queen. Shame arises in two basic forms, according to Brown: 1.) You’re not good enough, and 2.) Who do you think you are?

Growing up poor and female in America means proficiency in both. But, no matter our gender or social class, most of us suffer some degree of shame. Long before YouTube or Brené Brown, Carl Jung was clear about its toll, calling shame a soul-eating emotion.

Shame distances us from our own skin, and clearly, limits our growth as a culture and as human beings. But while it’s toxic in our actual lives, shame can be a guidepost in our writing lives.

Because I did not begin to write seriously until I was nearly thirty, I had a storehouse of shameful memories to tap into: Our electricity being cut off for nonpayment; the stack of unopened bills on our kitchen table; the sound of a social worker interviewing my mother about the loss of her factory job and our missing fathers while I listened from the bedroom, noticing how young my mother suddenly sounded, how small. I carried all of this with me. The bad clothes, the bill collectors, the food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. When I began to write, it leapt right onto the page.

Whew, I said when I finished my first book, I’m glad I got that out of my system.

Think again, I learned. There’s always more.

Next I wrote about the female body, especially fertility and infertility and what those things can mean. Again, I thought I was finished with shame. I mean, I’d gone and put my ovaries on the page, so certainly I was done. But when it comes to shame and vulnerability, the supply line is unending.

Now it’s religion. Which is the trickiest topic of all, because unlike the scarce resources or lackluster ovaries I was born with, returning to my old Catholic church is something that, as an educated progressive woman, I actually chose. Which is why my Catholic essays caused me more grief than any other subject. Embracing Catholicism, especially in this present cultural moment, makes no obvious sense. My shame flared. What would people think? Why risk misunderstanding? Especially when I wasn’t even sure why I’d gone back to Mass?

It’s as tempting in writing as in life to avoid what makes us feel exposed.

But whatever you believe makes you wrong in the eyes of the world is what makes you right on the page. Shame is an arrow pointing toward the ripest fruit. Fruit. Unlike embarrassment, which may also provide good stories but is situational and fleeting, shame is seeing ourselves as unworthy in some essential way. Its doggedness is precisely what makes it so rich.

This makes me think of how diamonds are made. They begin as bits of carbon-based grit deep within the Earth. Caught there for ages, they stew under a hundred miles of rock and rubble. Eventually, the combination of intense pressure and heat from the Earth’s core spurs crystal formation and turns them ever-so-slowly into gems.

Shame can work similarly for writers. Grit makes its way inside you. Your mother calls you clumsy or your father shushes you in public one too many times. Your pants are too plaid or some kid in kindergarten points out your cowlick, laughing over the way your hair sprays like a geyser from the rear quadrant of your head. You push down those perceived deficiencies and guard them so tenaciously, they harden over the years and become the core of who you are. Until, one day, you suffer some sort of beautiful rupture (such as taking up writing) and it rises to the surface. This is not always comfortable, but, if we allow it into the work, can be a source of unexpected treasure.

Shame derives its power from being unspeakable, Brené Brown says.

Writing derives its power by noticing the unspeakable and going there.

I don’t suggest mining your most troubling secrets or tapping into crippling sources of shame. Instead, notice what you hope no one sees, the little things you hide from even your best friend. Maybe it’s the line of candy corn you did after the faculty meeting, how you haven’t spoken to your mother in a proper decade, or how you still worry about cutlery—which fork and when? Maybe it’s the dimpled skin of your upper arms or the fact that even your midlife crisis is massively uncool—that instead of submitting to a red rose vining along your collarbone or developing a decent yoga habit, you’ve returned to a fading Catholic church. All the stuff you’re convinced makes you goofy and wrong and weird. Write this.

Sonja Livingston is the author of four books of literary nonfiction, including the most recent, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotionand the award-winning memoir, GhostbreadRecent essays appear in LitHub, Kenyon Review, and Salon. Sonja teaches creative nonfiction writing at Virginia Commonwealth University where she serves as the Faculty Editor for Blackbird.

Find her here on social media: Twitter@sonjalivingston / instagram: sonjalivvy / FB: sonjalivingston

How to Overcome Writer’s Block in 5 Simple Steps

October 7, 2019 § 12 Comments

SwetaVikram_Headshot_Brevityby Sweta Srivastava Vikram

If you are a writer, you have most definitely met your worst enemy: writer’s block. Aside from the inner critic that wins at ripping apart the writerly confidence, writer’s block can be a real catastrophe too. It can make you question your creative abilities, send you into a spiral about your identity, and make you ponder over your future, amongst other things. Writer’s block, like the indignant cold & cough, is impartial; it impacts most writers from time to time. Be it because of waning passion or unrealistic expectations or burn out or real-world distractions, most of us get stalled in our creative work.

Getting out of this sterile, uncreative funk is in the writer’s hands. While some might think that procrastinating or waiting for the muse to show up or writing only when you feel inspired or wallowing in self-pity or watching nonstop television or making excuses for the dry, creative spell might help overcome writer’s block…that’s not the case. Overcoming writer’s block takes sincere efforts. To get out of the funk, you have to take active steps and create momentum:

  1. Create a routine: After months of not being able to write because of personal and professional commitments in life, I open my laptop and a journal. Guess what? Nothing happens. Not even a word. For six days in a row, I show up. I swallow my pride (After having written and traditionally published 12 books inside 9 years, battling writer’s block isn’t easy for me), embrace my frustrations, and deal with another non-creative day before leaving for work. On the 7th day, I show up to my words and this time, my words transform into sentences and inside an hour, I write this essay. I am not trying to tell you that I am a genius: This productivity is attributed to conditioned response, something I learned from studying Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov’s, experiment with his dog. In a nutshell, whenever the dog heard the bell, he started to salivate. This was an association that Pavlov cultivated. I don’t have the luxury of being a full-time writer, so I have been training my mind to make an association when it sees my laptop and/or journal at the same time every day. A simple trick to get words moving on the page using conditioned response. The only guaranteed way of overcoming writer’s block is by writing. So, create a routine and follow it diligently. Practice. Practice. Practice.
  2. Free write: I was telling a dear friend of mine—who happens to be a psychotherapist—about the unintentional distance between me and words of late. Between my day job, running a business, and managing the home front, I don’t always find the creative juices flow instantaneously. She suggested changing how I envision writing. “Write for the joy of writing. Write for yourself. Not for the editor or publisher or to sell a piece.” She continued, “It doesn’t always have to be a completed essay or a blog post or an article or X number of words from a new book. Don’t try to say or produce anything; just get some words on paper or your laptop. A scribble in the journal. A tweet. An Instagram post—they all make for writing.” Aah, the power of free writing. I have to say…there is something liberating about writing without an agenda or a deadline or filters. The catharsis is real. You start to see words pour onto the page and morph into sentences and then paragraphs.
  3. Create bullet points on paper for ideas and brainstorming: I always bring a tiny journal with me wherever I go. Writing by hand connects you with the words and allows your brain to focus on them, understand them, and learn from them. Bullet points helps to stay organized and work as sunken treasures you can dip into when looking for ideas on a barren day. Writing down ideas in an organized way by hand gives your brain the space to think and concentrate on what it is you are writing about. Handwriting can be particularly useful during goal setting and brainstorming because it’s slower and more deliberate. It also helps improve memory. Research shows that writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters…the sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information. Writing on paper also allows us to break predefined formats and layouts.
  4. Change your environment: One other thing that helps me get out of the non-writing funk, aka writer’s block, is being mindful of my environment. What do I mean by that? Given that I haven’t hit the jackpot yet (*inserts sarcastic smile*), there is only so much space my New York City apartment can offer. I find parks and coffee shops and trains and make them home to my writing. But here is the deal: I keep each environment sacred to a particular genre. For instance, if my favorite coffee shop in the neighborhood is where I write nonfiction, I would never bring my poetry or fictional writing into that space. If poems pour in subways, nonfiction and fiction stay buried during the commute. Changing the environment can help with creativity.
  5. Walk away the block: Walking offers unique advantages to improve health and boost creativity. Research tells us that when a creative professional doesn’t get to write and express their creativity, they can get into depression. A nice brisk walk might be just what you need to stimulate your brain’s creativity and get you back in writing mode as walking unleashes creativity. Researchers from Stanford University have found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined the creativity levels of persons while they were walking and while they were sitting down. On average the creativity level of the walking people increased by 60 percent. Walking helps release creative juices along with endorphins. It circulates more oxygen and blood to the brain.


In the end, don’t wait for the perfect moment, optimum word, or seamless spot to start writing and overcome writer’s block. Start somewhere, anywhere. A few words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Write something. Anything. Definitely don’t make excuses or justifications for not writing. Don’t be bogged down by perfectionism and eloquence. Start today wherever you are. It’s easier to pick up speed when you are in the habit of writing. You’ll be writing before you know it—conquering writer’s block and returning to creative work in due course. The idea is to get words on the page. Eventually, the writer’s block will become a distant memory.

Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a mindset & wellness coach, global speaker, and best-selling author of 12 books, including, the recent Louisiana Catch. She helps entrepreneurs and creative professionals increase productivity through health and wellness. Winner of the “Voices of the Year Award” (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton and founders of the #MeToo movement), Sweta is also a five-times Pushcart Prize nominee. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications, across nine countries on three continents. A graduate of Columbia University, Sweta lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is also the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, which helps women share their stories, heal from trauma, and empower their mental health and lives using Ayurveda, yoga, and storytelling. Find her on: TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

The Biggest Loser, or How to Start Your Own Rejection Club

September 23, 2019 § 15 Comments

rejectionsBy Suzanne Roberts

Before my memoir was published, I received a rejection from someone I’ll call Professor X; he told me how much he hated my characters, especially the narrator, who he called “appallingly self-conscious, overly obsessed with men and how she appears to them, and—finally—just plain untrustworthy on a deep emotional level.” He also didn’t appreciate “being dragged through the dull, narcissistic terrain of the narrator’s psyche.” He suggested I forget about revision because my writing is “neurotic and often pretentious,” and that the “palsied humor,” which I “have no talent for” was “embarrassing and unseemly.” When I showed one of my well-published mentors this litany of my shortcomings, she called it “mild.” She said if I wanted to be a writer I had better “soldier up,” because there would be much worse ahead. She reminded me that a critic said the person who wrote Wuthering Heights must have been deranged and should have killed “himself.” Criticism and rejection are part of the writers’ life.

I drove home from my mentor’s house and was stopped at a traffic light, wondering what sort of horrible little man would use the archaic word “unseemly.” That’s when I noticed him—a giant furry dolphin with a sign that read “Car Wash, Next Right.” He was jumping around, twirling his sign, urging passing motorists into the car wash. His plastic face was fixed into a frozen pink smile, the cartoonish blue eyes bulging. I watched him prance about and burst into tears, not because I felt sorry for this poor asshole, dancing on a street corner in a dolphin suit. No, I felt sorry for me. I could only think about how many people had said no and how they didn’t like my narrator, who is, of course, me. I thought about how I didn’t want to “soldier up,” and how I should have hiked up mountains or skied down them with all those hours spent writing. Mr. Dolphin noticed me crying; he put his sign down and waved at me with both flippers. I waved back and figured that if he could do what he was doing with all that dolphin dignity, I could very well keep writing and sending out my work.

I went home and Googled “famous literary rejections.” Harry Potter was rejected by 12 presses; Stephen King’s first novel Carrie was rejected 30 times; and William Saroyan received 7,000 rejections before he published a story. These famous literary rejections made me realize comparing my own rejections with another writer or group of writers would make me feel better.

473_suzanneroberts22My first recruit for the rejection contest was a teaching colleague. We kept a sheet of paper taped to our office wall, and we wrote the names of the journals that rejected us underneath our names. Students came into our office and assumed our lists were places we’d been published. When we explained that they were our rejections, they laughed, thinking us strange. However, more often than not, they were relieved: not only were their teachers getting rejected, they weren’t ashamed to post it on the wall. The longer my list grew, the more accomplished I felt. At least I was doing something. But my officemate found it depressing, so she declared me the winner and ripped the sheet off the wall.

When our list was gone, I missed that reminder of just how hard I was trying. I knew what I had to do: I solicited members for the Rejection Club.

How the Rejection Club Works

This club is based solely on sending out work and tallying rejections, so it works differently than a Writing Group (which I wrote about here); therefore, you might never see your fellow club member’s work, though if you have, it will allow you to make suggestions of where to send rejected work next time.

Each member of the Rejection Club forwards her rejection to the group via email, allowing the other members to comment on the editors’ poor taste and lack of judgement. Certainly, we all know that perhaps our piece wasn’t ready or doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of the journal, but what’s the fun in that? Poking fun at the diction, grammar, and tone gives us a chance to reject our rejections, which is a necessary first step in coming to terms with the fact that the editor might be right. You have to be careful not to reply to the editor with your witty repartee by mistake, which will then require an apology and explanation that can only make you sound like a crazy person and will ensure that the journal in question will never take your future work. I know this from experience.

Each submission packet counts as one rejection, whether it’s one prose piece or five poems. Anything you submit your writing to—contests, grants, fellowships, panel proposals, residencies—counts. In my little group, the competition has become fierce, and the biggest loser will end up with over 100 rejections. At the end of the year, whoever has the most rejections, is the new Rejection King or Queen.  We keep track from one AWP conference to the next, ending with a celebratory dinner. The winner/ biggest loser gets dinner paid for, but more importantly, she earns bragging rights for the entire year. We’ve been at it for four months, and I’m in the lead with 40, though one of my MFA students is closing in, so it’s looking like I’ll have to up my game.

Why Join a Rejection Club?

The Rejection Club makes those “Fuck you, Dear Writer” messages fun. One RC member calls it “a sick reverse-psychology game that’s pretty cool.” Losing is winning. That’s better than a dude in a dolphin suit, waving at you.  But more than anything, being in a Rejection Club forces you to send out your work. It’s a game of odds, and in order to publish, you have to gamble on yourself. As you might guess, the person who gets the most rejections usually ends up placing the most work. The more you submit, the more you will publish.

The writer’s life is full of rejection, so you might as well get used to it. When your book is accepted for publication, there are new rejections to face—your book won’t win that contest; you won’t get that fellowship; Oprah never calls; and no movie deal for you. And the Amazon trolls will give you one star because they could have written your book better than you did. There’s always something else to lose. You will not be happy when ____________ happens, if you aren’t happy now. You must find your happiness in the writing; that’s the only thing you can control.

So be an employee to your art—spend time with your words and then offer them to the world. While it’s true that many people don’t want what you’ve written, it’s your job to find the reader who needs your words. The path to that reader isn’t always easy, but that’s where your Rejection Club comes in. They will cheer you along the way and keep you accountable. You cannot participate in a Rejection Club unless you have things to send out, which means you’re writing.

And the only real way to fail at writing is not writing.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, CNN, The Rumpus, Longreads, and The Normal School, but she has been rejected by many others. She teaches for the MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. More information may be found on her website: or follow her on Instagram: @suzanneroberts28

Untangling Environmental Stories

September 20, 2019 § 1 Comment

Ana Maria Spagna Craft PhotoIn the craft essay from our new issue, Ana Maria Spagna explains how the complicated threads of environmental stories can be untangled by embracing contradictions. She acknowledges that tackling these vital stories is a challenge and hopes her contradictory lessons will compel more creative writers to explore this theme.

Here’s an excerpt:

So often what draws me to environmental stories is the sheer energy of people fighting on the fringes, exploring solutions, working with shovels and saws, with computers and maps, with megaphones and musical instruments. Super heroes proliferate on the big screen, in the realm of so-called make-believe. They also surround us every day: sheep shearers, oyster farmers, citizen scientists, teachers, students, writers. Always writers.

Read the rest in our latest issue.


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