Rejections Update or: The Speadsheet That Ate My Life

Where I’m at:

  • Rejections: 22
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Total submissions: 48
  • That breaks out to 23 poems being read by editors (or undergrads in charge of slush piles) a total of 207 times.
  • Total submissions last year at this time: 0

Meanwhile I am still doing a one-week-per-month “poetry cleanse,” and that’s the main way I’m generating new work and working through revisions.

Reader, may I be perfectly frank about this experience?

It’s fucking exhausting.

Some organizational issues that have come up:

  • It’s getting harder to keep track of versions. There have been a couple poems I sent out where I find I’m relieved when it gets rejected, because I’ve since revised it. I suppose this is a known hazard of Poet Life.
  • The spreadsheet has become a bit unwieldy. In the process of putting together packets that are appropriate to each journal, I’ve gradually lost my neat “Group A / Group B / Group C” logic. At this point I’m just keeping one poem at no more than 10 places, though, in looking at Duotrope’s data on acceptance rates, I am highly unlikely to have to pull a poem. Here’s a bird’s eye view of the spreadsheet now:
“Hope: A Conceptual Artwork”

But you know, I can deal with all that. The real issue is that I feel I’ve lost any sense of joy in this process. I feel beaten down. I’ve often approached burn-out in my day job, but to come up against it in my writing practice is a fun new experience.

I was watching a documentary on the making of Sense8, and the cast and crew were talking about the way the Wachowskis work:

“It’s really incredible to watch how they work. When they show up on a set, they use everything.”

“They are constantly open to inspiration, and taking inspiration from wherever in the atmosphere, the soil, the people, whatever that’s there at the moment, and take what they have on the page… as a blueprint. They allow it to come to life and be alive in that moment.”

“They enjoy putting things together; they enjoy trying things. We, often times, we’ll cut things one way, it’ll work, but let’s try this way. Let’s try something like this. Let’s try it like that.”

“Let’s just try things, because that’s what we do.”

“We try things. Yeah. Let’s try this.”

As I listened to this (and rewound it like three times) I thought, yes, this is what the work looks like. And what I’m doing now feels like the exact opposite of this. And I realized that I don’t need to keep up with some arbitrary goal. And I felt a weight lift off of me, a weight I didn’t even acknowledge I was carrying.

What is creativity? It’s labor, for sure, sometimes difficult labor. But it leaves you with more satisfaction and ambition, not less. In the past months, I’ve really lost that lightness in the midst of my dark, stressed “submit all the time” mood. “Let’s just try things” implies a sense of deep confidence in your process. It says that possibility is as important as the numbers. That progress is not always linear or planned.

Being rejected repeatedly is also a kind of labor. It’s good to approach it as a game, for sure. But it’s also demoralizing, and I have to acknowledge that.

Am I just not cut out for this?

I could do with less torture, and more trust.

Film editors discussing Wachowski sisters’ process

Rejections Update or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Spreadsheet

While I’m not yet on track to hit 100 rejections in 2017, I do have exponentially more submissions out than I did last year at this time.

What my submissions spreadsheet looks like:

submissions

  • Rejections so far: 3
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Total submissions: 21
  • Total submissions last year at this time: 0

I currently have three separate groups of poems out to journals/contests; each packet has between three and five poems. I guess you could call this cheating as far as the 100 rejections project goes, but I figured it’s more important to get things circulating than to have each packet be the maximum possible size.

As I send poems out, I’ve been putting them on a master list called “finished.” (Let’s accept on faith for the moment that anything is ever finished.) I added a column for category or theme… which is cool.. now I can see, for example, that I have more Greek myth poems than I thought I did. I have no idea if this means I’ll ever have a themed manuscript. I generally feel that I write too catholically to ever produce such a thing, despite how popular they are right now. But as far as the next iteration of the/a book, well, it’s not exactly “in progress”… but I’ll call it “closer to existing” than it was a few months ago.

What my “finished poems” tab looks like:

finished poems 2

What I look at when I start to lose energy:

mediocre white man
As another poet said of our current administration, “I will never have imposter syndrome again.”

In other news, a poet friend made this book cover art out of my recent hand x-ray. In honor of International Women’s Day:

jeanne obbard tired of your shit

This is not the book you’re looking for

So, I have a draft of a poetry collection. I had put it together to submit to a contest with an immovable deadline. [Outcome: I am not a Yale Younger Poet.] Even though the timing wasn’t right and I didn’t have enough good material, I worked hard on the shape of that potential book.

And now I realize I have to throw it out and start over.

Because the way I actually write does not match up to the way I wanted to write. The structure, which I put together like an elaborate puzzle? Was not organic to the things I actually write about. The book I had in my head is not the book I’m going to end up with.

 

New possible sections for a collection of poems:

Part I.  Angry poems, with hints of social criticism.

Part II.  Depressed poems, with overuse of winter tropes.

Part III.  Poems in which I come to terms with anger and depression and reach something as close to zen enlightenment as I’m capable of. Overuse of fall and spring tropes.

Part IV. [END BOOK BEFORE SAPPINESS SETS IN.]

 

Yeah, I think I’ve got this nailed down. This time.

Poetry Grind #2 Update

(Read about Poetry Grind #1 here.)

Poetry Grind #2 is in progress, instigated once again by the amazing K.T. Landon! This time we have 9 members; some of us are the same as last time and some are different.

It’s… different. I’m having a harder time generating new stuff. I think that’s just… life, honestly. A lot more static interfering with the signal.

On the other side of that, I’ve been using the grind as motivation to go back to older stuff that needs revising. Like, neeeeeeeds revising. Or needs to be summarily DELETED.

Do you ever just delete old work? I was always like “Save All The Things!” But in the process of moving house, I  ended up donating and throwing away bags and bags of stuff. It was easier than I thought it would be. And it was a shock to the system that I’m still recovering from, but that I needed. So now I’m doing the same thing with old drafts that never went anywhere. If there are one or two good lines in a draft, I copy/paste them into an “inspiration” document, then delete the rest.

I think the reason this works for me is that when I re-read things I don’t like, I have a really strong emotional reaction to it. I can’t stand the self-indulgence and pretentiousness. It makes me depressed and irritated. And since I’ve been keeping a journal for [redacted] years, it’s not like I don’t have those same thoughts written down somewhere else.

So I’m kind of feeling less precious about every single piece of writing.

 

detail

 

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Thanks to K.T. Landon for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour! Here we go.

 

What are you working on?  

1. The first draft of this post. It was lengthy and pretentious, so I deleted it.

2. a. Unpacking.

2. b. My current journal is an all-white Moleskine, to inspire me to be a minimalist. (So far I’m not inspired to declutter, but I’m very inspired to complain about decluttering.)

2. c. Praying to Hermes, god of communication, that Verizon fixes my internet before Poetry Grind #2 starts on Monday.

3. I was in a boring day-long meeting, so I wrote a poem about spiders and whether or not to kill them.

 

How does your work differ from others of its genre?  

I don’t really want to answer this question. Does anyone really want to answer this question? Don’t we all think we’re in a category all our own?

My thing is, I loved studying the arts in college, but my experience of the academy was that it was a lot easier to take something apart than it was to put it together, and that the two practices – both worthy – required utterly different mindsets. So I try not to let “comparison sickness” creep into my thinking about writing. If I read a lot of Milosz, I start to sound like Milosz. But eventually I just write like me again. I’m inescapable. And the only way I can define myself better is to keep evolving.

 

Why do you write what you do?  

I have such nifty, clever ideas about what to write poems about… and instead I write about what I keep stumbling over.

I keep stumbling over approximately 40 boxes of packed books, so I’m thinking a lot about their relation to life as a writer. The carefully packed boxes from ten years ago, labeled with their exact locations on the shelves – “upper right,” “lower left,” “poetry.” (It’s kind of cute how organized I was.) The new boxes I packed more haphazardly – the books signed by my dad; the book with an ancestor’s inscription and a crumbling spine; that weird little book about wabi-sabi that I keep re-reading the first half of.  

I was a better packer in my 30s, but a worse writer. I wanted everything to be finished, to be polished off. I’d labor over one poem crankily, obsessively – open with a good idea but manage to strip away every spontaneous thought, every strange locution, until it became a hollowed-out version of what a poem should be: all the parts, no heart.

And I think about how I could easily fill up my bookcases with the books I already have. But how I need my bookshelves to not be full. They can’t just be proof of where I’ve been. The poet can’t ever think she is finished. She has to keep some open space. I try not to become too rigid, too aligned, and too full of my own history and my own certainties.

I didn’t answer the question… I think the point is, I’ll probably throw away the poem about the spiders and find it was just a way for me to get to my real topic.

 

How does your writing process work?

I keep a journal, full of unrestrained self-pity. I cherish it as proof that I got through each day. And sometimes it also functions as a first draft.

Sometimes I decide I’ll write one poem each night, which is a great way to be productive, but not as good as…

…I’ve done one month-long poetry grind, which is an incredible way to be productive.

I used to think I could only compose on paper, but the grind taught me that I can also write first drafts on a laptop, and that I can let go of things, and be looser. You never know when you’ll get to the good stuff, so the key is to just keep writing.

I like it when other people participate in the same project because it alleviates my existential suffering.

 

So that’s all there is to say about me… My nominees for The Writing Creative Process Blog Tour:

Sarah Hand is a paper mache & mixed media artist and teacher. Exploring and spreading wonder and making stuff keeps her going. She lives with her husband and unruly cats in Richmond, Virginia.

Julia L. Mayer has been a Philadelphia area psychologist, specializing in women’s identity and relationship issues for over twenty years. She’s worked with numerous young women struggling with bad boyfriend issues.

 

Poetry Grind update

So, I’m on Day 20 of the 30-day Poetry Grind exercise. I haven’t had time to post about it because I’m writing every day and I’m worn out! Woo!

There are ten people in my group. We’ve only lost one person along the way. That means nine people have been consistently sending out a draft a day, to all the others. This is completely amazing to me. These people are serious about poetry.

Some observations, in no particular order:

1. The generosity of the medium.

You can write a poem about absolutely anything. I can’t talk about what other people have written (wish I could!), but some of my topics included:

migraines

hearing aids

cosmetology school

death

my day job

12-step programs

the Poetry Grind itself

 

2. Community.

It is really, indescribably great to get to read other people’s poems every day. This will make you look forward to your inbox. Getting to see “invisible” work: the daily work of exploring a form or a theme, the daily work of hammering away at something. I get familiar with other people’s preferred forms, and I start paying more attention to my own. I see that somebody else is willing to write about x thing, and I feel like I have permission to write about x thing.

Thinking about this experience versus the classroom/workshop experience, there’s just no comparison at all. There is real value to reading someone else’s work over the long haul, in an intensive way, especially seeing the false starts and the different angles we all try in order to get inside an idea. It opens your ears to ways of thinking and approaching the work that I haven’t gotten anyplace else.

3. Conservation of energy.

You are not allowed to respond at all. GENIUS. I find it exhausting sometimes, in a workshop, to give feedback. This way, I get all the intellectual engagement but I get to reserve my energy for my own writing.

4. Discipline.

I am forced not only to generate, but I also feel motivated to get things to a respectable place. Having an audience, even if they aren’t reading what you send, pushes me to write better things. I put a lot more effort into these drafts than I would without that impetus. I don’t give up as easily. Because I feel like, if I’m asking someone to even glance over this thing, I can make it a little better. Not perfect, just a little better than I would have otherwise left it.

A friend of mine recently quoted somebody as saying that overcoming writer’s block is about the patience to keep writing even when you’re writing terrible stuff. I’ve become willing to start over and over until I get something that starts to click.

5. Cutting your losses.

Because I’m on a deadline (midnight each night) I’ve started abandoning things that don’t work, very quickly.

Having to do it every day encourages me to let go of the previous day’s effort and move on. I know I’ll come back to a lot of these pieces, but right now, I don’t have to. This is writing as a process, not a product.

6. Poetry First!*

I love my real-world writing group, but it’s a mixed group of poetry/prose, and I often write prose in it. There is nothing like having a group of just poets.

7. Conservation of momentum.

There is no slacking. Some days, you write a three-page rant. Some days, you write a three-line blurb that you wring out of your brain at the last minute. It doesn’t matter. You keep your hand in.

 

* This reminds me of Portlandia’s Women and Women First.

women and women first

Adrienne Rich, political poetry, and a confession

shadow

A debate on the qualities of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, and an even bigger debate on the nature of political poetry.

Ange Mlinko’s review of Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems is here.

And Carol Muske-Duke’s spirited defense of Rich is here.

I don’t totally disagree with Mlinko’s assessment of Rich’s poetry: it is cool, careful, intellectual. But it also cares intensely about women’s experience of the world. I was lucky to read Rich in college, and while I didn’t fall in love with her writing, I took away something perhaps more valuable: a sense of respect for women’s intellects. Rich was serious: she took her thoughts seriously and she opened up the possibility that I could take my thoughts seriously as well. I can’t overstate how important this was for me as a twenty-something-year-old woman.

Did I think Mlinko was trashing Rich? Not as much as Carol Muske-Dukes did. But Muske-Dukes gestures towards perhaps a bigger issue: what she sees as a particular style of writing poetry – “indeterminacy” or “playfulness,” manifesting as apolitical poetry.

It’s a debate that certainly resonates for me. Even as my admiration for women poets was cemented by Adrienne Rich and the anthology No More Masks, I was aware that my own poetry was hardly ever explicitly feminist in either subject or theme. As a college student, I wrote about rejected love, and depression, and family drama. My own assessment of my work was that it was all too inward, too minor. Those women poets who wrote to all women were my heroes; I felt I didn’t measure up.

Twenty years later, I think it’s time for me to stop feeling like a failure.* I mean, I’ve been a feminist for as long as I’ve had a coherent thought in my head; everything I write comes out of that viewpoint. Feminism means I get to take my thoughts seriously; but it also means I get to take my sensitivity and my ambivalence seriously.

I am thinking of two poems that found a home in a small literary magazine** this past year. Both were about the experience of being a teenage girl. Yes, I did the emotional work of writing about difficult memories. But I also did the intellectual work of making those fragments into poems – bringing to bear whatever skill I have to make them accessible, well-shaped, and true. These two kinds of work are both necessary to the creative endeavor; each is pointless without the other. And sometimes, finding ways to talk about the political turns out to be the same as finding ways to talk about the intensely personal.

*About this, anyway.

**Shameless promotion of a very nice journal.