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November 2013

Question of the Month: The Journey

by Susan Henderson on November 4, 2013

Tell me about your journey as a writer, whether it’s your journey toward publication or you’ve set that goal aside so you can better enjoy the process of creating.

books

If you’re like most, it’s not been an easy road, and you have yet to arrive where you dreamed.

I’m going to share my story, more or less, first in a couple of paragraphs but also linking to old blog posts, where I tracked the evolution of my first book and its publication. It was a long, often frustrating, process full of ups and downs. I’m sharing it to provide some sense of hope–that what looks like a long journey of failure and rejection and close calls and doors slamming in your face can lead you to that publisher who says yes.

jimbrady

My story starts back in elementary school. In third grade, I declared in an autobiography assignment that I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. I said the same, and more forcefully, in seventh grade. In high school, I was the poetry editor of our school’s literary magazine. In my senior year, I interviewed President Reagan’s Press Secretary, Jim Brady, at the White House. Later that same year, I was chosen along with one other student to study with the Poet Laureate of Virginia. When I was an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, I won an Academy of American Poets Prize and money from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for an essay I wrote. I was twenty years old and assumed the trajectory in this field went upward, but I still had so much to learn, and it would be almost two decades after that poetry award before I started feeling like I knew what I was doing.

For me, being a writer has looked something like this: writing poems, flash fiction, short stories, essays, novels, and throwing away the bulk of them; workshopping my own and other people’s stories; taking and teaching classes; entering and judging contests; going to readings as both a reader and a spectator; attending and speaking at conferences; blogging; editing at a literary magazine; editing book-length manuscripts; writing book reviews; interviewing authors and publishers; receiving and delivering rejections; writing for anthologies that never ended up being published; writing for magazines that no longer exist; writing blurbs and then getting bumped by bigger authors; and most importantly, reading; always reading.

In short, what I’ve learned is that…

  • a writer is forever a student.
  • shitty first drafts are what take you down the path to a great finish.
  • nips and tucks do not constitute a real edit.
  • rather than trying to pump life into an old story or an already-published book, it’s better to focus on writing something new.
  • it helps to take breaks on the weekend.
  • it’s possible to write and also live a full life in the present world.
  • grit and endurance matter.
  • the secret to that grit and endurance is being part of a creative community.

If we judge our journeys by rejection slips and publications, we’re likely to view ourselves as failures. But in all likelihood, our journeys have taught us about ourselves and the world, developed our empathy and our writing ability, sparked imagination and wonder. There is more to this life we’ve chosen than a book deal. Writers are my favorite people, not because of their publications, but because they are observing, recording, analyzing, and transforming all they see and experience.

I’m going to leave you with a few hopeful thoughts: Harper Lee only wrote one book (To Kill a Mockingbird). E. Annie Proulx published her first novel (Postcards) when she was 57, Frank McCourt published his first (Angela’s Ashes) at 66, and so did Karl Marlantes, who worked on his (Matterhorn) for 33 years.

You still have time to tell your stories.

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If you have time, or if you need the company, here are some links to blog posts I wrote about envy, impatience, rejection, close calls, and so on. Have a look. Sometimes the road to success looks suspiciously like constant failure:

Mistakes That Changed Us

We Want a Turn

When Patience is Required

How a Book Can Save a Kid

Rejected but Not Defeated

Career Day

Who Owns Our Truths?

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