“Persistence matters, ” I heard myself saying, like some kind of jerky puppet. “Keep trying and eventually it’ll happen.” The exact phrases I heard from published writers 15 years ago were now gushing out of my mouth and I couldn’t stop them. I looked over at Kateri Lanthier, who was letting me ramble to her third-year creative writing students at UTM about publishing. Kateri nodded and supportively wove in anecdotes and experiences of her own. I reminded myself to make eye-contact with the 15 students scattered around the room, who were listening politely, barely moving. I saw small sparks going off in the quiet eyes, and in a strange way, I could feel them listening harder when I talked about self-validation and creating opportunities for themselves.
It’s easy for a published writer to say, “Persevere and you’ll topple the mountains of indifference towards you and your writing,” but I’d forgotten until this week the huge challenge of submitting work to a magazine as a young, unknown writer. The act is more than just slipping an envelope into the mail. There are many tips and guidelines detailing how to submit work, including Doretta Lau’s excellent presentation, How to Submit to Literary Magazines, with her submissions spreadsheet and details about how she finally found a publisher for her short story collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood, 2014.)
I want to focus more on the mindset of seeking to publish. When writers decide to send out their work, it’s more than a physical act, it’s adopting an attitude of taking your work seriously and seeing yourself as a professional. It’s an opportunity to find out if your mere words can reach and affect an editor, someone who has no ties to you and cannot be biased by a relationship with you. There is something very pure about this, even when you take into account an editor’s inevitable bias and subjective tastes.
The unpublished writer also must learn to develop their own instincts about when a piece is ready for submission. I recognize the feeling now— when I read a poem that has been redrafted many times, that has been read by my trusted fellow poets and revised again until every word and line of it is as meaningful as I can make, when I get a little feeling of pride and excitement about the creative leaps I’ve made with the piece, then I know it is ready, though doubts can still overtake me like a bad smell.
If I can dispel them, I look for a place to submit it to and take into account the style of the publication or the tastes of the judge, whether it’s promising enough for a national prize or better suited for an online journal. I make many mistakes and through long trial and error until miraculously, my writing finds its proper home.
Or not. Before the digitization of everything, rejection slips would arrive via postman months later, sometimes with a handwritten note to soften the harshness of we regret we cannot accept your work for publication at this time. A rejection was the worst that could happen and the worst that could happen is a piece of paper. It’s not dreams crushed under 200lb weights, it’s not losing right hand. No one is saying you can’t be a writer. The rejection becomes an emblem of having tried, not one of failure. Knowing you are strong enough to brush it aside, go back to your now months-old piece, rethink, revise and resend.
If only there was a faster way, an easier way than this long tricky process of revising, waiting, waiting some more and feeling your youth slip away with sleepless nights of editing. I remember a stretch when I couldn’t get anything published for a year. Then the next year, I had four poems accepted, I made it onto the CBC poetry prize longlist and got an arts grant that paid for 4 months of living expenses. Writing successes only feel rewarding because they are so tough to reach, by the time you reach them, you were on the brink of giving up several times and you can only blink like a car crash survivor at the kindness of friends and strangers who praise and congratulate you.
Success of your own doesn’t stop the feelings of envy towards your fellow writers who are publishing in top-tier magazines that keep rejecting you, getting into prestigious MFA programs, winning grants and prizes and/or working on impressive projects. I tend to be envious of younger writers who published books earlier than me. While I published early, at 19, I didn’t publish again until I was 28, and couldn’t finish a poem between the ages of 20-28. I was 29 when I started my MA in Creative Writing, and at that age, I had rubbed away most of my petrifying shyness and had enough maturity to know how to handle my career. Success looks different for everyone and the clichés are ringingly true. Everyone has their own journey, yadda yadda yadda. Which basically means, some things will happen faster for you, some things will take longer.
Envy is both a spur and a wound. The success of others doesn’t take anything away from you, and it’s unproductive to think that there is a finite amount of success. Feelings of awe and admiration spur writers to their desks, but while there, they’re facing battles on their own, and envy is the wound that leaks creativity.
There will also be a time when writers confront the spectres of previous successes. I look back at poems of mine that did well, and feel as if they were written by a stranger. In print form, I don’t recognize them and they are divorced from me, as is the person who wrote it. The finished, successful piece of writing is a screenshot of a moment in time and of my obsessions then, and I cannot recreate it. This is one reason why a writer forgets their successes so fast and appears almost embarrassed by them. Success isn’t as addictive as the rush of getting it right. There’s always the next thing. And the thing after that.
The handout I gave out of my talk, including my submissions spreadsheet from 2010-2012, a non-exhaustive list of print, online and chapbook presses in Canada, and a shortlist of resources: Why Publish Handout PDF.
I would love to hear stories from writers of your first publication in the comments below, on Twitter or emailed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org