On Continuing to Love and Support My Favorite Literary Journals That Have Rejected Me and Knowing When It’s Time to Cancel
April 7, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Melody Heide
The short essay took several years, dozens of drafts, and multiple peer critiques but finally, finally, it felt ready—the last image, the last metaphor clicked into place to make the whole thing come together in what felt like, to me, a satisfying read.
I sent it out to my top four literary journals—the ones I subscribe to, the ones I read cover to cover, the ones I felt might be a good home for this little essay. Four literary journals is my own personal magic number right now; it is what I have the time and resources for and this past year I decided to try and only submit to the literary journals I regularly read and support.
Rejections came quickly from three of them; I was sad and disappointed but also, if I’m honest, angry. I’ve financially supported these journals for years! I bought gift subscriptions! I talked them up on social media! I even went to journal sponsored conferences! I felt that dangerous You owe me.
I dwelled in this cocktail of hurt feelings for over a week. I thought, I’ll show you! I’ll stop subscribing, I’ll stop reading, I’ll stop sharing. But when I toyed with this decision a wave of grief came —I truly love these journals.
These journals have enlivened my interior life; they’ve given me poems and stories that I’ve returned to over and over, that I’ve shared with friends and with students. They’ve provided opportunities through conferences and workshops for time and space to work on my own writing, to work with brilliant writers and thinkers. In those places and spaces I’ve made life-long friends.
I do not subscribe and support these journals solely because if I do so they’ll publish my work (though of course I hope they will); first and foremost I subscribe and support because they give to the world beauty, thoughtfulness, and a diversity of voices and perspectives. I’ll continue honing my work—I’d still like to see my writing in their pages—but, at least through a cycle of three rejections, I’ll also continue reading, sharing, supporting, and attending conferences and classes.
Yes, a cycle of three rejections. I have given myself another rule because I believe boundaries are important, I believe it’s essential to protect time and resources, and I believe in believing your own work is good and worthy of publication—after the third rejection from each journal, I re-evaluate. Perhaps the things I’m writing do not fit with the aesthetic of the journal, perhaps it’s time to start looking elsewhere, perhaps it’s time to discover a new journal, a new world, a new place for my writing to hopefully call home.
The relationship between a writer and a literary journal is a strange one. Who owes who what? Literary journals can’t survive without subscriptions and support and it’s hard for writers, who generally aren’t getting paid, to survive, to grow, without validation and encouragement. You owe me feels icky—an internalized, Americanized type of transactional relationship. But writers want and need to publish and literary journals want and need subscribers. Even though the literary journal can’t survive without its subscribers, it still holds most of the power.
And that’s why my rules for submitting, subscribing, and knowing when it’s time to cancel and start discovering other literary journals makes sense for me right now. I don’t want to unsubscribe out of anger or even out of a flex for power; I want to say thank you for what you’ve given me, maybe it’s time for me to discover something new.
Melody Heide’s writing has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Switchback Magazine, and the anthology Love & Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise, and Intense Tales of Teenage Life. She lives in Minnesota and teaches writing classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
March 29, 2021 § 20 Comments
In my transition from Doctor to Writer, I thought the hardest lesson would be moving from emotionless, “objective” medical writing to the feelings and scenes and stories of creative nonfiction. But there are harder, more painful lessons.
When my essay “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” was anthologized in Tales From Six Feet Apart, my family was scandalized that I’d described being quarantined with my mother-in-law and her memory loss. Our relationship had been rocky, and I wrote about the difficulty of living with someone in the recurring loops of forgetfulness, as well as recalling some Not-Nice events of the past. I thought I described the understanding we came to, and our learning to care for each other, resolving past hurts in our relationship now.
My mother-in-law unfortunately died (not related to the pandemic) just before publication. The timing was unfortunate, although I’m not sure the family would have approved of my telling about her at any time. I told them I was writing my truth.
My sister-in-law said my story “May be your truth, but it’s not the whole truth. It says more bad things than good.”
My daughter said, “We tell each other half-truths all the time to be polite, why do you have to write your truth when it offends others?”
I tell stories to make sense of the world, and want to reach others, hoping to help them make sense of their world too. I hope my writing can create a truth broader than its specifics. Comments on my story told me it rang true.
My daughter started me thinking, though. Is it ethical to tell a story when it hurts others?
My mother-in-law didn’t like me very much at first. Her firstborn son was one year out of her home when I stole him from her. I was three years older. Her son had become someone with long hair and ripped jeans and suddenly radical notions about the Viet Nam war and racism and over-packaging. It must be my bad influence.
I also had radical ideas for 1972: that women could work, and after my first daughter, that women with children could get higher education.
She was embarrassed. Her conservative neighborhood would not approve.
My grandparents died young. I missed that connection with my history, something I wanted my children to have. So I kept returning, to the relationship and my mother-in-law. We both kept up the dance of niceness through the years. But the decades of sitting around a family table sharing food from recipes we gave each other; telling favorite stories about my children/her grandchildren; me making a meal to serve her family, or she making one to serve us, created fondness under the niceness.
Toward the end I participated in her care, the same as her children. I was a part, though always apart. The events of the past were never discussed, nor ever to be discussed. That wouldn’t be nice.
Acknowledging those events now is “an expression of repressed anger,” according to the family. They seem minor: my mother-in-law giving my baby a bath when I asked her not to, making my child cry as soon as I left the room; her saying she was done with kids and didn’t want to babysit ours; the “helpful” articles handed to me on how to raise children and the damaging effects of a working mother; the calls to tell me what baby food was appropriate. I wrote that I felt she was judging me from under lidded eyes. “Makes her look like a snake,” per my sister-in-law.
They don’t want their friends to see me mention my published piece on Facebook, because that’s where tributes are posted, the memories of her goodness. Which is not negated by me telling the other truth: that she was human.
I didn’t tell the story to let out repressed anger, but to set free a truth: that not-nice things happen, and yet can be overcome. It was not written with malice or an intent to malign. I am tempted to paraphrase Anne Lamott: If they wanted me to say nice things about her, they should have asked her to treat me better.
And yet, I keep returning to the question of ethics.
Is it ethical to present their mother in a bad light if it offends them?
The ethics of silence are just as tricky. Is it ethical to keep the stories hidden? If I am to be silenced in the name of niceness, are we not also suppressing the whole truth? Half-truths linger silently, a monument to missed opportunities, a quietness of suppression.
Reading stories lets us say “Yes, that also speaks for me.” If we don’t tell stories that allow us to speak to and for our common humanity, what is lost? As Suzanne Roberts says, “The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice.” Perhaps what’s being silenced is the voice of common experience: I hear you and understand.
Why write my truth if it alienates the family? Because, although it may not be the whole truth, whatever is? As has been said so often, we each have our own truth. To be honest and ethical, it needs to be told.
Sandra Hager Eliason is a retired Family Practice physician, now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine writing contest in 2016, and her work has appeared in the Brevity Blog and Bluestem Magazine She is finishing a memoir, and lives with her husband and a spoiled cat in St. Anthony Park, Minnesota. Find her on Twitter at @SandraHEliason1 or reach her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
March 26, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Lisa J. Wise, M.Ed.
Dear Rejection Letters,
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my submissions. Writing has recently become my deepest passion as I pour my heart and soul into every word count. When you are a polite yet brief six-word “no” – screaming auto-reply form letter – it hurts. When you are a charming, personable, upbeat “no thanks!”, you offer hope. But when you are complimentary, speaking admiringly of my voice, inviting me to submit again, taking the time to personalize your message, you lift up my soul. The subtle encouragement of your gracious “thank you, no” makes me believe in my publishing dreams coming to fruition and validates the promise of good things to come to those who wait patiently by their inboxes (maybe). That is enough to keep me writing and submitting.
I have been cautioned by the writing elders not to take any of your rejections personally. They preach that a spoonful of thick skin, strong ego and a dash of narcissism helps the dismissal go down. Acceptances are merely a matter of timing, personal taste, hitting the right tone and errant wizardry. But mining my most heartfelt memories for clutch material and using them as my creative tools makes it tough to shake off an editor’s hard pass (or seven). That does not stop me from persevering because writing for an audience is addictive. Once you have drunk from the fountain of publication and public praise, nothing can keep you from desperately returning for more. Seeing your words in print next to your own name is intoxicating.
So please be kind, dear Rejection Letters, as you pile up with greater frequency. We will be seeing more of each other as I bravely put my voice out there. My goal in 2021 is to collect 100 of you as a testament that I have taken risks, put my words in the hands of others, trusted the process, and tried my best to get published. Accumulating as many ‘no thanks’ as I can handle is my celebration of that risk. Rejection paves the only path to that one treasured, golden ‘Yes please!’ While you collect in my inbox, I humbly offer my Writer’s Invocation over your stack:
May you not diminish the fun of writing one iota.
May you never make me question my passionate dream.
May your glints of encouragement fuel my drive as I speak my truth.
May your mounting tower act as a powerful reminder of how badly I want my voice heard.
Thanks for reaching out. We noticed that you have been quite busy sending a slew of submissions and we appreciate your efforts. Sorry if our rejections are getting you down. It must be tough to keep hearing ‘no’. Your note sounds like you might be getting a tad dejected (some of us thought bitter). Kindly consider asking yourself these three questions before submitting any further:
1. Who are you writing for, really?
If it is because you need to write in the same way that you need to breathe, eat and sleep, then bravo and stick with it! If it is because you long for only that cloying ego stroke of external validation through publication, find another career. The ‘yeses’ are few, the hours are long, the pay is pitiful. Do this because your heart must be heard and your soul can do nothing else but speak. Fame is a sham.
2. What do you want to say, really?
Are you holding back? Perhaps submitting what you think we want to hear in the style you think we like to see? Are you changing your truest voice in an attempt to grab our attention? Stop doing that. Stay authentic and speak genuinely. Be clear about your own truths. Don’t alter your tone to suit anyone else’s view but your own. Trust your voice more and us a little less.
3, Why the rush, really?
You love writing. It brings you sheer joy every day. Why not bask in that and let the rest follow? Don’t chase what is not yet yours. Instead, enjoy the soothing company of your weathered journal, your favorite purple pen, your steaming mug warming that peaceful time of stillness. We see you perched contentedly at your cozy desk, scribbling away in the early morning light. Let that be enough for today. Who knows who will knock on the door at tea-time tomorrow? Leave out your grandmother’s best china cup and saucer alongside the sugar bowl and a hint of hope. Good things are coming your way (maybe). But either way, be sure to write today.
Your Rejection Letters
Lisa J. Wise lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her husband of 30 years. The proud mom of 23-year-old fraternal twin sons, one of whom carries the diagnoses of Crouzon Syndrome and Hydrocephalous, their family has learned how to manage life with multiple complex chronic conditions. Born into a cancer-cluster family, Lisa navigated the palliative care journey with three of her immediate family members. Her experiences with illness guide her work of 22 years as a family and patient-centered healthcare specialist and as IWMF Vice Chair of Support coordinating global cancer support groups. She has a Bachelor of Education from McGill University and a Master’s in Education from Harvard University. She has been recently published in the New York Times, The Boston Globe and New York Daily News. Find more of her work at lisajwise.com.
March 19, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
When my mother passed away suddenly in the summer of 2014, I wrote a book of poems about her titled Saris and a Single Malt. I started to write the collection when we got the phone call that she (out of nowhere) was feeling unwell, and my father had to rush her to the hospital. I wrote as we boarded the plane to New Delhi. I wrote when I found out that the doctor had to put my mother on a ventilator. I wrote when we landed in India’s capital, and my brother hugged me tight, “I am sorry. She didn’t make it.” I wrote as a swarm of known and unknown faces cried and expressed their condolences. I wrote when we cremated her and completed the last rites. I wrote when we collected her ashes in the urn. I completed Saris and a Single Malt in less than a week’s time. That’s how intensely I was trying to cope and grieve. It wasn’t about documenting what was happening as much as it was about making sense of the senselessness around me. Saris and a Single Malt reiterated that sitting in the sea of my emotions, feeling every wave and turbulence, and swimming through words is how I get to the other side and eventually, heal.
In spring of 2020, when the pandemic hit New York, and we went on PAUSE, my pen found a mind of its own. I wasn’t surprised when I found myself writing daily. Not fiction, though. When the world around you seems to be in a disarray and you are concerned about the safety of your loved ones and your own well-being, creating an alternate reality through the world of fiction didn’t work for me. But I did complete my upcoming book of essays titled A Piece of Peace. I didn’t write for things to fit a certain style or magazine. I put things down without much deliberation. I wasn’t trying to reach a certain word count. The moment, the gush, the rush…that’s what I captured in my essays. The more I penned, the more grounded I felt in our new norm. Showing up to my daily practice of writing (much like yoga) helped me understand people, the pandemic, and the unprecedented times in a more compassionate way. It made me less fearful and more certain of my next steps. It took away my sorrows on days that felt heavy. It created space for my own self-care.
Anne Frank said,“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” The pandemic taught me that writing centers, heals, and humbles me. It helps me stay dedicated and disciplined and away from the unnecessary & mindless distractions that don’t always add meaning to life.
I asked 12 women writers what is the one thing that the pandemic has taught them about writing. Here is what they had to say:
“In order to give your creative mind a room of its own switch off from social media during the writing day.” ~ Cauvery Madhavan, Author of The Tainted
“Writing perseveres. Words are powerful, and they are powerful whether they come from a loud voice behind a public lectern or a quiet keyboard in quarantine, so we must keep at it.” ~ Jennifer Klepper, USA Today Bestselling author of Unbroken Threads
“I’ve learned that just as much as we require antibodies to fight off this terrible virus, we need stories that pull us up and out of depression by increasing our capacity for empathy and hope.” ~ Joyce Yarrow, author of Zahara and the Lost Books of Light
“As writers we find hope through the power of story. Our characters emerge from the darkest hours and that victory empowers us to keep the faith that we can succeed too.” ~ Anju Gattani, author of Duty and Desire
“The biggest lesson about my writing that the pandemic has taught me is that I like to write with friends. In the beginning I wasn’t getting any writing done. But then I got together with a group of women from WFWA, and I have been writing with them via zoom almost every day since May. I have made more progress than I did in the past so many years, finishing two books (edits on one and 1st draft of the second).” ~ Priya Gill, University Professor, Texas
“From overwhelming vulnerability unconstrained wonder has emerged, allowing me to draw from experience and possibility as never before.” ~ Mel Greenberg, Best-selling Author. Producer. Midlife Advocate. Speaker.
“As the pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty, and confusion to many parts of my life, writing included, having a strong community of trusted writer friends who understand not only the usual issues career-authors face, but also pandemic-related craft and business challenges, is invaluable.” ~ Jen Gilroy, writer of contemporary romance and women’s fiction with heart, home and hope
“I think the one thing that the pandemic has taught me about writing is how important it is to how I function in the world. In other words, how necessary it is to my overall feeling of productivity and well-being, and how it can provide insight into how I’m doing in general.” ~ Anita Kushwaha,Author of Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters
“I can’t expect hours of solitude to write—I work full-time, volunteer with the Gaithersburg Book Festival, live in a multi-generational home, and have a kid learning remotely/virtually—but I can expect myself to be patient and recognize when my writing moment is here.” ~ Serena Agusto-Cox, poet, editor, owner of Poetic Book Tours
“I can write with a house full of husband, teen, 91-year-old father-in-law, and two cats.”~ Catherine Prendergast, author of The Gilded Edge, forthcoming from Dutton press October 2021
“Those early days of sheltering in place, found me outlining a new manuscript–the hardest part of the writing process for me. The task required a level of keen focus and taught me that writing can be a sanctuary. My job wasn’t to wring my hands about the pandemic, but to get that book outlined.” ~ Elizabeth Wafler, Author & WFWA Director of Craft/Education Programs.
“The one thing pandemic has taught me is that writing helps me untangle my thoughts and release negative emotions.” ~ Sujata Parashar, Novelist
Has the pandemic taught you anything about your relationship with writing? Share in the comments below.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
March 18, 2021 § 23 Comments
9 a.m. Tuesday morning
Remember how when we were kids, sometimes we’d just walk away from what the other kids were doing? “I don’t want to play,” we’d say. And we’d go home and pout.
Well, that’s how I feel today. I don’t want to play this writer game anymore. Not the writing itself, but all the other nonsense that goes with it.
I think I blew my Zoom talk last night. I blathered for 45 minutes straight. With “share screen” showing my handout and the audience on “mute,” I couldn’t see anyone’s faces or hear any reactions. Was anyone even listening? Afterward, I gorged on banana bread to comfort myself, so there goes my diet, too.
I had spent an hour trying various setups on my laptop, but I tested it during daylight. In the evening, everything, including my face, had a blue tint. I’d gotten all dressed up with jewels and my red blazer and red lipstick. Did I look like a fool?
I got another rejection yesterday. Eighteen “no’s” in two months. One yes.
Amazon returned a copy of my Childless by Marriage book. “Overstock,” the slip said. I guess nobody wanted to buy it, and they decided this copy had sat too long. Crap.
I have 11 books out. Woohoo. But check my sales. Most of the time, people are only buying three of them, the nonfiction ones, and mostly the Kindle versions, which are cheaper. Nobody wants to pay full price for a book anymore. I need to do more marketing. More networking, more PR, more social media. But I’m a writer, not a salesperson.
A local newspaper editor invited me to write for her. I could go back to doing interviews, taking pictures and writing short articles on deadline. Over the years, I have written thousands of those. There would be no marketing, I’d be published regularly, and I’d get paid. But it would take me away from the creative nonfiction and poetry to which I am supposed to be devoting myself these days. I said no. Should I have said yes?
I’m past retirement age. Why not just spend these years quilting, crocheting, and watching daytime TV?
4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon
On my walk with the dog, we ran into our neighbor Cheryl. She’s 72, partnered with Alex, who is dying of lung cancer. A couple weeks ago, she invited us to join her in her sunroom where she and her cat Charlie were going to get high, Charlie on catnip and Cheryl on weed. Can’t, I said. I have to get back to work.
Normally we only talk about dogs, gardening, health, and the neighbors. We don’t know each other’s last names or life history. “Work?” she said. “What kind of work?”
Well, then I had to confess that I’m a writer.
“No kidding! I had no idea. What’s your name?” She rolled her eyes at the three-name business with Fagalde in the middle. I told her she could learn everything at suelick.com. I didn’t expect her to remember or to look me up.
Today, on Cedar, there she was, walking slowly to strengthen her gimpy knee. She asked if she could join us. Right away, she started telling me how she was reading my books one after another and she just loved the way I write. Up Beaver Creek made her cry, but in a good way. Now she’s reading Unleashed in Oregon and loving it. Then she’s going on to Stories Grandma Never Told . . .
Wow. The website worked. I do want to play this writing game. It’s actually kind of fun.
If I can just remember that writing and being read are what count, I can manage the rest. I can keep submitting, marketing, speaking, networking, and all that other writer business as long as I know there are people like Cheryl reading what I write.
Every time I want to quit, the writer gods give me a kick in the pants to get me back in the game. An acceptance, an encouraging word, a reader who loved what I wrote. As we walked slowly toward home, the dog dashing between us and into the weeds to sniff for edible trash, my fingers itched to get back to the computer, back to the writing game.
Sue Fagalde Lick, a former California journalist, is a writer/musician/dog mom living with her dog Annie in the woods on the Oregon coast. Her books include Stories Grandma Never Told, Childless by Marriage, and Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both. Every day at 2:30, her dog insists she leave the computer and visit the real world for a while.
March 16, 2021 § 12 Comments
On Goofy Titles, or Why I Use Cultural References Almost Nobody Remembers.
I grew up loving Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. I remember that every episode ended with the announcement of the next episode’s title, which was always in two parts. So there you have it.
On Reflection, or What the Heck Just Happened?
The workshop provided a safe space and insight that carried me into profoundly personal and valuable work. Even though I had been writing for a long time and have had a few previous workshop experiences, I was still uncertain I had what it takes to make art. I am full of gratitude toward my fellow workshop participants. Their feedback was consistently enlightening and generous, and, for the first time in my life, I was able to post the words “I am a writer” where others could see them.
Most of all, I am profoundly grateful to Terese, who was the best teacher I could have hoped for. She is, without question, everything she is cracked up to be, and more.
Twelve Baskets Full, or Manna from Mailhot.
Here are just a few of the many things I gleaned during our four weeks together.
- Center yourself in the work. Honor the work and believe that it is important.
- I am not just what happened to me; I am much more.
- My survival is sacred. I don’t judge myself for how I survived.
- Self-care matters. I will give myself continued support.
- Drink more Margaritas.
- I am a dynamic person. (Margaritas help with this)
For the work:
- Keep making more work; eventually, I will get better.
- Trust the reader.
- Don’t be afraid to be direct.
- Not every sentence has to be art. It’s okay to call a hallway a hallway; it doesn’t have to be a vestibule.
- I have talent and voice.
- My art is important.
- Writing is not thankless work.
How Shall I Celebrate? Or, the Pandemic Is a Party Pooper.
We were encouraged during the workshop to celebrate our work, but in a pandemic, opportunities are severely limited. I did, however, treat myself to an excursion to my local indie bookstore. It felt good to wander amongst the shelves and see live people in three-dimensional forms.
The Endless Dusty Road, or, Nevertheless, I Persist.
Looking forward gives me pause. The road ahead of me is a lot shorter than it used to be. The end is now much closer than the beginning. My history of failures and false starts makes me hesitant to give voice to my dreams. I grew up believing that lofty aspirations were either beyond me or likely tainted by the ego and not to be trusted. While it is clear to me now that these ideas are false, they are still hard to shake.
Nevertheless, I persist. The best way to celebrate my accomplishments and honor them going forward is to choose to embrace the generosity I have received in the context of my workshop journey and to carry it with me going forward. To choose to believe that I have a measure of talent and voice. To choose to believe that I have a story to tell.
But talent, a voice, a story to tell, and encouraging words, are meaningless without continuing to do the work. For now, my primary focus is to do more and better work.
My best shot at a plan for the future:
- Keep doing work that moves beyond testimony to art. I don’t know any other way to do this but to read a lot, write a lot, and pay careful attention along the way. Read, write, pay attention, repeat.
- Never stop learning. Keep my eyes open for organized opportunities to grow as a writer. Don’t ignore the disorganized ones either, as they are often the best.
- Give myself time, space, and permission to work.
- Finish stuff.
- Take a shot at publication; I’ll survive. And, it just might work! I want to publish a couple of essays this year while I’m working on a collection. I’d secretly like to do a book tour someday. Uh oh, I guess it’s not a secret anymore. I suppose that means I have to finish a book first. It seems like there’s always a catch.
- Remember, writing is not thankless work; there are rewards as well.
- Make friends along the way; I’ll need them. They’ll need me too.
- Fight for my work. Both to get my work done and to get it seen because no one else will do it for me. It might be exhausting, but the battle is in my hands alone.
I only hope that when I achieve world domination and Oprah finally interviews me, I can still make time to hang out with Moose and Squirrel.
Ray T. Hernandez is an emerging writer living in Port Hueneme, California. He is currently working on a memoir in essays. He can be found on Twitter @RayTBlue.
March 12, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Rick Brown
Meditation—a practice often shackled with the uncomplimentary term, “navel gazing”—is considered by some to be an esoteric waste of time. The pursuit of writing is similarly maligned, especially in our hurry-up-and-produce Western culture. The rewards for both often amount to private victories, after all, and the labor expended may not be conspicuous to the critical observer.
But make no mistake: both involve difficult and dedicated work.
No one will reap the benefits of meditation simply by thinking about it, even less so by talking about it. Instead, we must cultivate the solitary habit of returning to the cushion time and again, preferably every day. On some days, our thoughts will bounce around like sugared-up preschoolers and we wonder what we are doing wrong. Other times we will meditate like bona fide gurus.
Writing is no different, especially on the positive side of the experience. For are there not moments when we become so embedded in a story or essay that the “real” world around us drops from our awareness, if only for an instant?
As creative writers, we live for times like these. It is the paramount blissful state of our craft. Yet, amid the bliss we also have days, often many of them, when we find ourselves distracted by refrigerator noises, mischievous cats, or those irksome patrons who dare to walk into our café and shake our concentration.
But if we work in spite of it all, then we are on the right road; for showing up to stay is the first and most necessary step. Over time, and with dogged repetition, we will develop the ability to deal mindfully with distractions when they arise. After all, it’s not the distractions that shake us so much as our thoughts about them, right? And what are thoughts? They are electro-chemical impulses to which we assign meaning, and from which our bodies react physically. But the mental events need not always play out in the same way. In meditation, we learn to consider stray thoughts as ephemeral—cottonwood seeds in a breeze. Without judgment or excessive mental strain, we simply “observe” them as they float across our consciousness and out of sight.
The same tack can apply to writing. Rather than fighting those errant thoughts when they arise, or heaping shame upon ourselves for thinking them, we can adopt a basic technique from meditation practice: “return to the breath.” For this we pause, breathe deeply once or twice to re-ground ourselves; then, for a while longer, we do so more naturally, noticing each in- and out-breath with mindful intention. Sit apart from any wandering thoughts we might have, label them as simply thoughts, and let them travel on their way. Finally, we return to our work and pick up where we left off. If the distractions return (and they will) just repeat the process.
I know, it’s easier said than done. But it can be done. And the more often we employ this technique, the easier and more natural it will become. Return to the chair. Return to the breath.
Another axiom to both meditation and writing is that it is wise to come to each new session relatively free of expectation. As we know, expectation implies an attachment to a specific outcome. In some instances this is reasonable: we can expect that the sun will rise again tomorrow. But in the interminable play of the universe, even this is not an absolute; and in any case, it is not an outcome we can control by way of human power. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but we experience this truth on many lesser, everyday levels as well. We cannot, for instance, expect that our next meditation or writing session will be as “good” (or as “bad”) as the previous one. We can do our best to ensure a positive outcome—perhaps by reading something inspiring, by not eating directly before sitting, or by first engaging in a stretching or yoga routine.
But in the end, the session will be what it will be. If outside forces conspire against us, that is just the situation we face.
Some writers are good at disciplining themselves to achieve an outcome—siting on a certain number of words per session, for instance. Ernest Hemingway is said to have jotted down his daily tally in pencil on the sides of the cardboard boxes stacked alongside his writing desk. But many more of us approach the desk with trepidation. Are we up to the task? Will we ever publish?
Often, the mood we bring to the task depends upon forces outside our influence or control, such as past performance, the weather, or the needs of others. There is peril at the extremes too. Both overblown and undernourished attitudes can undermine us. If we begin with an air of pomposity, for example, especially one that is not earned, we can almost count on not performing anywhere near the level of our expectations. Likewise, sitting down with no confidence at all will yield predictable results.
Perhaps it is better to arrive without a predetermined outcome in mind, aside from the decision to arrive and remain. We might turn out a masterwork; we might stare at an empty screen for an hour. In either event, we will have faced the reality of our task at hand. In the final accounting, that is an accomplishment.
In this way, too, we treat the act of writing as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve something “higher.” And if we make ourselves available in this way through the cultivation and practice of a dedicated awareness, then any added windfalls—like publication, book deals, or even enlightenment—will appear as whipped cream on the pie.
But in the meantime, return to the chair, return to the breath. Repeat as necessary.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
March 4, 2021 § 28 Comments
Most writers have a love/hate relationship with their book’s acknowledgements page. It’s the writer-equivalent to the 45-seconds where the actress thanks everyone under the bright lights on the Academy Awards stage, only you were probably wearing your pajamas and not a made-to-order Vera Wang gown when you compiled your own gratitude list. Even so, it’s your moment to offer thanks for those who put up with you while you were working on your book. Writing the acknowledgements also means you are nearly finished, or at least you think you are, and for those brief seconds, while you’re typing ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, you might be delusional, but you are happy.
But when you send your manuscript off, the acknowledgements become a source of stress. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic after realizing someone important was left off? After publishing six books, I believed forgetting someone was the worst of it. I never considered including someone could cause so much trouble, until it did.
In my latest book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I gave some backstory about my mother’s childhood; it was important for the reader to see where she came from, why she behaved in the ways she did—she was sometimes mean, but never in the abusive ways of her own parents.
Before she died, my mother read the manuscript. She knew she had veto power, as the closest people in my life do, but she hardly ever used it. She was glad I was telling her stories, though she did joke, “This is plagiarism!” When I asked what she meant, she said, “You’re stealing all my stuff.” Then she warned me that some of the family might not like what I had written about her parents.
Soon after Bad Tourist came out, I received a scolding Facebook message from my cousin, which she also posted publicly on my Facebook wall, trying “to set the record straight” about our grandparents. While I decided what to do, I blocked her so she couldn’t write more public messages. Being blocked enraged her, so she took to the internet, posting her complaints in the comment section of guest blogs and under reviews of my book. She said my book was “fabricated nonsense” and “rubbish.”
I sent her my carefully crafted response, saying “I understand your narrative is different, that the people you knew as your grandparents were different than the parents my mother grew up with, and I am sorry if this information is hurtful to you. All our narratives and our personal truths coexist and all are valid.”
She wrote back, admitting she did not know if what I had written about our grandparents was true or not, but that I had, in fact, written “lies.” She insisted I had written that she and my aunt supported the book, “throwing them under the bus.” She wrote, “Even if I said you could use my name, that’s besides the point … you never sent us a draft of this story before you published it, and you quoted in your book that family and friends had read and agreed the draft.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I went back to the chapter in question, and as I had thought, I had written no such thing. I closed my laptop and went out skiing. About a mile down the trail, I realized what she had meant: The acknowledgements page!
I had acknowledged both my cousin and my aunt as people who were “cheerleaders and confidants.” They were in the large list of people who had also read drafts of my book, giving me valuable feedback, though the sentence was clear that not everyone on that long list had read (and approved of) the book. I wrote back to my cousin, asking her to look at the actual words on the page. I said that being listed was meant to be a nice thing.
I also vowed not to include an acknowledgements page in my next book.
And I learned (or re-learned) these lessons:
- There’s no reason to use someone’s real name. It might seem weird to you that your husband or daughter or cousin has a different name, but most readers won’t know or won’t care (even if they know you in real life).
- If you use someone’s real name, make sure he or she has agreed to it in writing after reading the manuscript. If you already know they won’t approve of the material, but you’re not planning to change it, you must change the names. My cousin would have been angry with me even if I had changed her name, but her grievances would carry less weight. And if I had let her read it, and she outright disagreed with specific parts, like the recreated dialogue, I wouldn’t have changed it, but I would have let the reader know she remembered things differently than I did.
- Make sure whatever you’re writing is your story to tell. In this case, it was very much my story to tell. If it’s your story, you don’t need permission to tell it. If your story also happens to be a friend or family member’s story, you should get permission or risk losing the relationship. The person I needed permission from—my mother—granted it
- Don’t let friends and family read early drafts—ever. The parts they object to could possibly be cut in the revision process, and you’ve created trouble for yourself for nothing. Only let friends and family read the final draft (with time to change their names). And be ready to defend your writing—you are the only one with ultimate veto power.
- Even though you think it’s an honor, some people might not want to be listed in your acknowledgements page.
In my cousin’s last message, she wrote, “I’m sad this has happened because we did genuinely care about you … I do wish you all the best for the future.”
Losing my aunt and cousin feels like I’ve lost another piece of my mother, which makes me profoundly sad. But at the same time, wasn’t their “care” always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?
When we write the stories we must tell, even if others would rather we kept them secret, it’s never a betrayal. The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice. Anyone who genuinely cares about you, in the present tense and unconditionally, will eventually come to understand you must continue to tell your own truth.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Stephanie Hunt
“I walk into a large white room,” begins Twyla Tharp in her lithe arabesque of a book, The Creative Habit. In this large white room there are wall-to-wall mirrors, a boom box, skid marks on an otherwise clean white floor, and that’s it. Tharp describes how this vacuous blank space ignites her imaginative muscle, and despite its daunting void, how she begins every day by slowly moving into it, deliberately filling it with physical poetry, her limbs arching into verse, her body a refrain of the music. She enters this space with playful openness and intention, and through some alchemy of mystery and madness (and absurdly limber muscles), creativity emerges into form, shape and energy—a dance.
This spare image, this pristine white-room canvas of space, was on my mind as I walked into the immensely grandiose ballroom of the Chicago Hilton for my inaugural AWP conference. The “room” was more like two city blocks with walls boxed around them, paneled in huge mirrors and heavy velvet curtains, topped with a ridiculously gilded lid. Four chandeliers the size of hot-air balloons descended from mega-ceiling medallions. I fully expected Louis XIV to prance in at any minute. This ballroom was the gaudy antithesis of Tharp’s minimalist studio, and there I was, in obvious pre-pandemic days, crowded in with some 8,000 other writers, all of us seeking the same thing Tharp seeks in her barebones white room: inspiration, imaginative juju, magic.
Gilded ballrooms aside, the massiveness of AWP is something to behold. The conference planners might consider placing a warning label on the registration form: “Agoraphobia Caution” or “Not for the Timid Ego.” I went for a perfectly valid reason—everybody else I knew via my writing and publishing circles was going, and they evidently had been for years. AWP is a right of passage for would-be writers, and I was yet to be initiated. So I bought a cheap airplane ticket, talked my husband into a literary, mid-winter romantic Chicago Tundra getaway, and registered, following the lead of my more experienced colleagues. The ones who knew how to propose panel topics and become a speaker; knew which cocktail parties were not to be missed; which publishing house booth in the vast conference underworld otherwise known as the Bookfair (i.e., miles and miles of table-clothed displays) had the best candy bowl.
And I drank it all in, chugging inspiration like a college freshman at a keg party. The AWP schedule is an invitation to gluttony, filled dawn to dusk with keynote addresses and panel discussions featuring genre giants and more laureates than you can find wreathes for—even amidst the ballrooms’ enormous flower arrangements. It was both affirming to be among such a mass of creative souls and fellow lovers of language, and overwhelming. Especially since the vast majority of those around me were current or recent MFA students, which means I could have easily been their mom. But I squeezed in the rows alongside them nonetheless, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, listening to literary luminaries—those who have won Pulitzers and lesser prizes, those who have been anointed by Kirkus and The New York Times, those who knew what royalties are, in these ballrooms decked out for royalty. And I’m guessing I was far from the only one in this small city of writers in this large metropolis of a hotel dreaming that maybe one day I’ll be discovered, that one day I could be keynoting AWP.
During one particularly long poetry reading, my mind began wandering and wondering how the Muse navigates such a huge, unwieldy affair. Does she get lost in the shuffle between the various ballrooms? Sidetracked by the endless supply of Twix, M&M’s and chapbooks down at the Bookfair? Is she exhausted and frustrated by so many gasping, needy souls dragging her around from panel discussion to panel discussion, desperate for assistance in fortifying blah characters, energizing flailing plots, adding zip to limp verse? If I was the Muse, I’d count the hours until the crowded ballrooms emptied out so I could text Twyla Tharp and say, “now, darling, finally, shall we simply dance.”
This year as AWP shifts to a virtual platform, I wonder what might get lost in transition from an en masse experience to one privatized on our individual screens. And what might be gained? Maybe the Muse will enjoy a break from the crowd-sourced mayhem. Perhaps she’ll be able to zoom exactly where she needs to go, whispering in our earbuds what each of us, thirsty for inspiration and affirmation, needs to hear. Perhaps our computer screens will be less like the overly ornate and vast ballroom and more like Tharp’s pared-down studio—clean, spare, inviting, ready.
Maybe this year, instead of hurrying down hallways of bad hotel carpet between sessions, I can turn on some music and let my imagination sway and twirl. I’ll invite my fingers to an ad-lib pas-de-deux on my keyboard; affirm my own small place in the universe of writers. Maybe the Muse will happily meet me there, and you as well. Shall we dance?
Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, SC-based freelancer whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Veranda, Coastal Living, Orion.org, and Charleston Magazine, where she is editor-at-large, among other outlets. More at www.stephaniehuntwrites.com or @stephhuntwrites.