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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

Writers often approach me for help in getting published. The conversation goes something like this (I’m going to put it in music- rather than book-terms to give the conversation a little clarity): “Hi there! Thanks for accepting my FaceBook friend request two seconds ago! I’ve never actually read your blog or listened to your album, but I notice you belong to the record company I want to belong to, so here goes. I’ve been playing guitar in my bedroom for two years and have written several things I call songs which have never been workshopped. I would like to put out an album immediately and need your help. Thanks so much! And if you offer me any kind of help that isn’t about personally introducing me to your agent or publisher, I just want you to know I’m going to tell everyone you’re an asshole. Okay, get back to me right away!”

Do you get these, too? I’m sorry if you do.

Not all the requests come with this sense of ego and entitlement. Some ask for help in the loveliest, most humble ways, but the hope is the same: Can you tell me that my writing is ready, that it’s beautiful and engaging and important, that it can be published without any more hard work, that there’s a shortcut in this business, that I won’t feel the pain and humiliation of finding out I’ve written something that no one wants to read?

I wish I could answer, Yes. I wish this process could be easy and painless. But the truth is, it’s not. The above photo shows three decades of my work—a poem here, an essay there—and quite the ratio of rejection slips to publications.

jimbrady

I once had the confidence shown in those letters I get. 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.

*

By the way,  if you should ever need some company or inspiration as you write and try to sell your manuscript, I wrote about my journey of publishing UP FROM THE BLUE at the links below. Sometimes the road to success looks suspiciously like constant failure:

We Want a Turn

When Patience is Required

How a Book Can Save a Kid

Places That Capture Us

A 30-Year-Old Letter Arrives

Temporary Ecstacy: The First Book Deal

Career Day

Unraveling the Sweater

Who Owns Our Truths?

Riding the Rollercoaster

Time for Waltzing

Rejected but Not Defeated

A Community of Misfits

LitPark’s Guide to Finding a Literary Agent

LitPark’s Guide to What Happens after You Sign with a Literary Agent

LitPark’s Guide to What Happens after Your Book Has Sold

The Truth about Blurbs

Writer Retreats: My Experience at Squaw Valley

The TNB Self-Interview

UP FROM THE BLUE is here!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Maury Feinsilber November 4, 2013 at 7:49 am

What a warm and wise and funny and, most of all, inspirational way to head off to bed, reading your candid and illuminating words at 2:30 am. Thank you for the perfect bedtime story, Sue.

I hope this, too, might inspire others.

I didn’t start writing until I was 33 and didn’t receive my first acceptance for publication until after a dozen years of trying and 255 rejections. When it came, though, it came from a dream-come-true kind of place: THE MISSOURI REVIEW. TMR had published Raymond Carver and only accepts 1% of 15,000 annual submissions; I’d thought I had it made! P.S. It then took two more years before my next story was accepted and then another year before the next one. In the time between my first acceptance and that eventual second one, who knows how many more rejections came along — this time, I didn’t count. My method of dealing, though, was to just send out another story. The last place to publish me (CONFRONTATION) was somewhere I’d been trying for since 1997; the joyous P.S. in this case being that the story was ultimately nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The editor there graciously invited me to read the story before an invited audience and then hosted a lovely reception. When I got home that night, feeling mellow and joyous, there were five, count ‘em, five rejection slips in the mailbox. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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Susan Henderson November 4, 2013 at 10:49 am

Your story is absolutely brilliant. And just so true about this business. Most I know who are widely published have similar stories–it took many years to get that first acceptance, and it was simply staying in the game and not letting the rejections paralyze them.

There’s a great literary magazine called FailBetter, btw. Do you know it? http://www.failbetter.com

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Maury Feinsilber November 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Not only do I know FailBetter, but they’ve rejected me, too!

Thank you again for this shot in the arm and reality check! You’re fostering hope tempered in the furnace of experience. Excelsior!

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Susan Henderson November 4, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Ha! The bastards. Actually, I really like both Thom Didato (check out his link on the column on the right) and Jeff Day, if they’re still there.

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Dean Adams November 4, 2013 at 11:52 am

Great, Sue! Your advice rings true for most of the creative fields. I like what John Baldessari says: “All artists need to know three things: 1. Talent is cheap. 2. You have to be possessed, which you can’t will. 3 Right place, right time.” Number three I revise to “one needs to be open,” meaning open to change, to success, to opportunities…We create our own luck by being open and willing. Big love, Dean

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Susan Henderson November 4, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Aww, I miss you. We have lots of catching up to do. (Also, I want to pick your brain about the Winnett grain elevator sometime.)

You’re so right about that advice. I’m going to footnote off your #3 that you want to “be ready for luck”. In the writer world, that means, instead of having 20 unfinished pieces that may one day be brilliant, finish them. That way, if someone is interested and says, send me your best work tonight, you have something to send. Also, if you have a finished but unsold novel, know how to describe it in one compelling sentence. That way, if you’re stuck on the tarmac with a publisher or movie producer, you aren’t that person stumbling to describe what took you five years to write.

Your quote made me curious about Baldessari, who I had to look up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Baldessari I’m going to check out his art next.

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GC Smith November 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I’ve made my living with a pencil. I’m an economist by education and training and for a great deal of my career I specialized in translating the esoteric jargon of the economist and econometrician to publication useful to the non-specialist, including the general public. I have a five foot shelf of books that I either wrote or edited while with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Later I worked as a policy wonk, putting together suggestions and guidance for politicians. “Lord knows” it had better be in plain, straightforward English for those knuckleheads.

I came to poetry, short stories, and novels later and a good part of my journey was through Zoetrope where I honed skill with help from my fellow writers. I’ve published lots of stories and poems and have tons of stuff written and never submitted anywhere simply because I like to write. I self published two novels after much positive feedback from agents and publishers but, in that great crapshoot, no contract.

I’ve long been convinced that writing is an art much like any other and any artist should practice because that’s what he or she wants to do that. There are literally millions of excellent musicians in the world (both instrumentalists and vocalists), and painters, and sculptors, and dancers, and, yes, writers. Few will become professionals. So, I believe one should practice ones art for the sake of enjoyment. That said, fame and fortune, isn’t a bad thing, so, IMO, one should, if one wants it, seek it.

At the moment, I have a third novel looking for an agent. I’ll need luck, but if I don’t get that luck I’ll write anyway.

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GC Smith November 4, 2013 at 2:23 pm

that’s what he or she wants to do that. Should be, that’s what he or she wants to do.

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Susan Henderson November 4, 2013 at 4:27 pm

That’s fascinating. I didn’t know about your economics publications. And I agree with you wholeheartedly that, first and foremost, you are creating art because you want or have to create it. In fact a great test for writers and other artists is to try to stop. If not having time and money can’t stop you from writing stories, if not finding it easy and receiving more rejections than positive feedback can’t stop you, then you were just meant to do this crazy thing.

Zoetrope is a brilliant site to workshop stories and toughen your skin.

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Nathalie (@spacedlaw) November 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Breaks on the weekends?
But it’s the only spare time I have!
(Mind you, I don’t write much these days: I fall asleep the minute I sit down)

More or less, the game – it is all a game for me – plays like this:
Write.
Edit.
Submit.
Repeat.

Though most of the time, it just goes:
Write.
Repeat.

Because that is the writing which is really crucial to me. It’s become some form of exorcism.

Publication is indeed – besides working at the story – a lot about persistence. Eventually one story will get published. Then it gets (marginally) easier. But only just.

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Susan Henderson November 4, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Yes, I’m more of the Write/Repeat loop. All I have to do is think of submitting my work and I can find a hundred more problems with it. I like that about the exorcism.

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lucinda kempe November 4, 2013 at 2:55 pm

“It’s not possible to advise a young writer because every young writer is so different. You might say, “Read,” but a writer can read too much and be paralyzed. Or, “Don’t read, don’t think, just write,” and the result could be a mountain of drivel. If you’re going to be a writer you’ll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think, “There must be something else people do,” you won’t quite be able to quit.”
— Alice Munro

I’d amend what Munro wrote to say “It’s not possible to advise a writer . . .” because we’re all ‘young’ writers when we take on the writing life seriously. Serious means stepping beyond the secret writing or journal writing like I did since aged 13 and into the larger world that includes eventual publication. It’s a world of rewriting, crafting, workshoping, more rewriting, submitting, rejection, and often, shelving a piece until its ready for the real hard work. Sometimes the writer isn’t ready for some of the pieces they’ve written. In my case, I wrote memoir stories before I’d fully processed them. No wonder they didn’t work, but the most incredible thing happened. I began to understand by writing it down.

Munro isn’t talking about the rush to publication, which we can all get caught in. She’s talking about something deeper, what you’re talking about here Susan. Namely, living the writer’s life and learning to let the work be the thing, not just publication. Publication is a wonderful validation. It made me believe feel incredible when I got my first flash pieces published a few years ago. I was in my 50s. But life before, during and after publication is equally important.
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of no’s from my submissions. One from the other day said:
“Although I think it’s a compelling piece of flash fiction and interesting premise, it isn’t quite the right fit for the upcoming issue. Opinions about writing are highly subjective, but as often as not it is about the overall fit with the other work that is shaping an issue. I appreciate your thinking of us and hope you will consider submitting again.
Keep writing!”

I’m not mad about the no’s but this is one I’ll take. It reminds me I’m on the right path. The story didn’t find a home yet. It will. It was a rewrite of a rewrite of a rewrite. It’s probably almost ready. And so I return to the work. Sometimes I fret about that ‘book in the works’. But then I concentrate on the short short stories and then the longer pieces. Will a book come? Will I ever be able to pull all the memoir pieces I’ve written into a fully realized book? Yes, if I take it one graph at a time.
In the meantime, I’m enjoying the higher tier rejections and happy that I began the journey away from the diary into story and the larger and more inclusive world of other writers who share their journeys with each other. Thank you, Susan.

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Susan Henderson November 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm

So glad to have that Alice Munro quote today! And Lucinda, this is such a beautiful statement about the writer life. Love what you said about the worth of writing a story you hadn’t fully processed yet, and I’m looking forward to reading it when it’s ready to be born.

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Paul Cunningham November 4, 2013 at 8:26 pm

So anyway…, it took me a number of years to realize that when I was eight or nine I actually drew dialogue bubbles in my coloring books and speculated on wtf GI JOE was saying. Then again, it also took me years to realize that when I lived at my cousin’s house during my last two years of college and she brought her friends home from work for seemingly no reason that she was actually trying to get me a date.

Like many of my pursuits in life, my writing path wouldn’t be undeserving of the term ‘clueless’ if it had to be described. Obviously, it began with the GI JOE coloring books, gapped a bunch of time into my initial forays into poetry in college (writing was certainly not encouraged where I grew up, the practice of it ranked slightly higher than certain forms of deviant behavior–but not by much), went toward short stories, flash fiction, back toward poetry, and now seems to be mostly in the realm of the screenplay. And I’ve had some success with it recently with an optioned spec, and a novel adaption I’ve been doing with a production company attachment.

I love poetry the most. Playing with words for the sake of playing with words, and seeing how they relate to the air…, damn, I just can’t get over that feels.

I’d love to see more of my stuff published, and I’d love to actually see film based on my screenplays. But there are two reasons why I keep going, and they’re both sort of in the realm of cultural collision…, the first is that once in my jogging days I ran up a trail onto this coastal ledge in Ct. and there was this poem inscribed in a rock that was written by a woman who was a secretary her whole career and saved up her pennies to buy the surrounding land for preservation…, the poem was old school, something like: i want to be one with earth again/ one with her joy/ one with her pain. And since the ledge had become some sort of obvious party headquarters for a bunch of teenagers, they’d spray painted right next to the inscribed poem: jump bitch. The collision of that poem (and everything that went behind it) and the graffiti next to it seems to catch so much that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop writing about it somehow.

The other motivation comes from the lyrics of one of my favorite Ricki Lee Jones songs: I lied to my angels so I could take you downtown/ lied to anybody but there was nobody else around…

That’s the good kind of lying/writing that makes writing worthwhile to me I guess and I don’t think I can stop it.

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Susan Henderson November 5, 2013 at 2:06 am

I’m just so happy to know your writing goes back to G.I. Joe coloring books. Also, that poem/graffiti story makes the hair stand up on my arms. I like that you notice those kinds of collisions.

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Paul Cunningham November 7, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Thanks, Sue. Sometimes I’m a bit dubious on the noticing…, makes life a bit of a roller coaster ride at times!

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Dan C. November 5, 2013 at 1:07 am

Dear Sue, I just read through your full string of “my path to publication” posts–I’d seen some before, of course, but reading them through in succession–well, I want to salute you and acknowledge what a tremendously generous service you’ve provided here, what an incredibly encouraging example your own experience provides. Writing (I genuinely believe this) is among the hardest and (indisputably) most solitary jobs in the world. What you’ve given, over so many years, is a trail of light and a voice of encouragement to guide your fellow writers along that unmarked path through the woods at night…

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Susan Henderson November 5, 2013 at 2:07 am

Thank you for saying this. Means so much.

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Carmelo November 9, 2013 at 8:58 pm

My journey to become a writer has become the story itself. There are so many ways to answer this question, but I don’t think a person’s journey will ever end until that person ends. Then it is the reader’s journey- those that will start to re-interpret left over and or published works-if one is lucky of course.

My coming from an unhappy home, dyslexia and a deep history of mental illness were all factors that have made me who I am today as a writer. In time when they allowed them-they changed internally from my former stumbling blocks into my artistic building blocks, and I’ve never been more happy in all my life. I’m super happy that I choose to enroll in a full-time MFA residency program at CalArts. I feel that for me to take myself seriously as a writer I had to stop everything and enroll in a full time program as opposed to the low res programs I was considering. Full time is forcing me to survive on writing, teaching and existing. There is no more “free time to write” it’s all “time to write.” I think we often discount ourselves too soon, in so many regards, but again this is my story-we all have different “keys to the kingdom” so to speak. I wish I had more time to chat now, but I’m happy to say I have to go-and have tons of work to do.

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Susan Henderson November 9, 2013 at 11:03 pm

You are so, so right how we discount ourselves too soon. I’m thrilled you’re at CalArts and I know it’s going to be life changing for you. You have such a story to tell–the wisest have usually walked through fire–and I’m looking forward to reading it when it’s ready.

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