Writers–Gluttons for Punishment?

Let’s face it, writers are masochists on some level. We create and submit our work, knowing the likelihood of its being accepted is minimal, but we keep doing it. The actual writing is the pleasure; the inevitable line of rejections before an acceptance comes along is the humiliation we endure for those fleeting moments of vindication.

And then we do it all over again.

Rejection is never easy, whether it’s by a potential lover or friend or an agent or editor. I’ve heard so many writer friends–not to mention myself–say, “I just sent a story to [insert name of literary magazine here]. I know I have a snowball’s chance in hell, but at least I’m submitting.”

Why, oh, why do we do that?

Because when you get the acceptance email or you check Submittable and see the “accepted” note, it’s the greatest feeling in the world–for a millisecond it’s better than seeing your children the first time, better than orgasm, better even than a paycheck. It’s affirmation, you see, that you really are a writer; you aren’t just a hack throwing words on the screen, and all your suffering is worth it.

A writer friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that writing her novel required more concentration, more focus, more work than anything she’d ever done. I responded that was what made it so painfully fun. Yes, at times writing is like constantly putting your tongue on a sore tooth, but when the pain goes away–ah, bliss. It’s why when I encounter a non-writer who says, “Oh, well, it’s not real work. You just make things up,” I usually respond with a smile and suggest he or she should give it a try. “Oh, I have better things to do with my time.” Well, good, I’m glad, because you don’t have what it takes to be a writer.

Writing has brought me some of my biggest disappointments, but it has also brought me some of my biggest joys. For years, I’d seen my non-fiction in print, so when my first fiction story was accepted by eFiction Magazine a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I’d have much of a personal response. When the issue with my story showed up on my Kindle, I had the most visceral reaction I’d ever experienced–and I used to be a flight instructor, so I’ve had gut-wrenching moments. There’s nothing quite like seeing your words on a page with your by-line, knowing it’s a story which is the progeny of your imagination, that you “just made it up.” Not only did you make it up, but someone else liked it. Others will read it, and because there is an internet, your story will out there forever. How’s that for immortality?

Now, excuse me. I have to go humiliate myself for some perverse pleasure.

Not So Bad After All

The local writers group I belong to–Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers, aka SWAG–had its first open mic night on April 13. Six local writers–self included–read prose and poetry before maybe 12 people. The restaurant we were in, The Darjeeling Cafe, is awaiting its last government hurdle before opening to the public, but we could have a private party and “donate” money for a glass of wine. All completely above board.

The small crowd made getting up in front of some perfect strangers and reading my prose easier. The nice glass of Shiraz helped, too.

My first public reading was a decade ago, when a neighbor threw a book party for me to celebrate the publication of Rarely Well Behaved. The neighbor wanted me to read a particular story, her favorite, which included the use of the n-word by specific characters. It was essential to the story, not gratuitous, but it’s easier to write that word in the context of a fictional story than to read it aloud. I solved that by reading very fast, which meant people kept asking me to slow down. Next, I had a book signing and reading at a local Barnes and Noble. Again, the audience was people I knew, and I picked a different story, but I was still nervous.

What if they hated my work?

That’s the “what if” question that dogs my writing still and is probably what holds me back from pushing my work on agents and lit mag editors. For some reason it doesn’t matter that people read my work and compliment me and find positives in what I’ve written. I focus way too much on the fact that one person may hate it. I’ve long since given up changing my writing to please everyone else and write to satisfy my creative needs, but that insecurity drags me back.

For last night’s reading, I picked a story from Rarely Well Behaved, entitled, “When Gramma Came to Call.” The story is based on a dream, and though, on the surface, it appears to be a ghost story, it isn’t. I had a certain amount of comfort with it; it’s one of the less controversial of my stories. The audience laughed at the funny parts, commiserated when it got serious, and gave me a hearty round of applause. One person stayed behind after the evening was over to discuss it. It was a positive experience. I mean, I knew no one would likely boo me off the stage–we’re very polite here in the Valley–but there’s always the possibility you’ll put someone to sleep.

I know these are the things I have to do to be considered a “real” writer–do public readings, shamelessly plug my book, submit my work to places that will possibly print it (or reject it), encourage other writers by supporting their efforts to do the same. I’m just not a person who takes rejection well, and I can hear my therapist’s voice now telling me to separate the personal and professional. That’s hard to do when writing is for every writer a reflection of self, a glimpse into what goes on in our addled little heads.

So, next month at the next open mic night, I’ll be back up in front of strangers, baring my soul, and it’ll be fun.

For National Poetry Month, here’s one of my favorite Seamus Heaney poems:

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.

Demystifying Literary Magazines

Part of one’s growth as a writer is the whole submission/rejection/ submission/rejection cycle you undergo. If you’ve got thick skin and confidence in your craft and work, those rejections roll off your back. If you’ve got thin skin, a boatload of insecurity baggage, and confidence in your craft and work, every rejection slashes a rip in that skin, from which your ego flows.

I think it’s obvious which category I fall in. I have gone years between submissions because rejections of good stories without explanation is too depressing. Trust me, I understand the role of an editor. I was one. I know a lot of subjectivity is involved in making a decision about what to accept or reject. And I didn’t have the time either to give every aspiring aviation writer a detailed critique about why an article wasn’t appropriate for my mag. It’s just different when you’re on the receiving end of a rejection.

I also understand that a lit mag’s submission guidelines are deliberately vague and excruciatingly specific. They have to be specific about genre, word count, etc., because it’s no good to send a 10,000+ word paranormal romance story to a straight literary magazine whose guidelines specify 4,000 words or fewer. The vague part comes in when the guidelines describe the type of story the mag is looking for. Then, obscure words like “edgy,” “fresh,” or “distinctive” hold sway. I sometimes think that lit mag editors should say what they don’t want because, let’s face it, we all think our work is edgy, fresh, or distinctive. In some ways, I would almost rather hear, “Your story sucks,” than “I enjoyed reading your story, but it’s not for us.” The question that brings to mind is, “Okay, why?”–especially when you’ve hit the word count, you’ve followed the guidelines, and you know it’s a good story; otherwise, you wouldn’t submit it in the first place.

So, when I saw a Sunday afternoon seminar entitled “Demystifying Literary Magazines” offered by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA, I decided to exercise my new WriterHouse membership and attend. (Another great thing about being retired–you can join all those writer groups you didn’t have free time for when you slaved away in an office.) Another deciding factor was that Cliff Garstang, a writer friend from Staunton, was one of the panelists. He was representing his on-line literary magazine, Prime Number. Representing Meridian, the literary magazine of the University of Virginia’s MFA program, were Hannah Holtzman (Editor) and Lee Johnson (Fiction Editor). The panel’s moderator was Sarah Collins Honenberger, WriterHouse member and author of Catcher, Caught.

Honenberger asked the panelists to describe their magazines’ mission and vision, how they handled submissions, and the “brass tacks” of running a literary magazine. The Meridian editors explained that its mission/vision shifted with the editorial staff, which changes regularly as MFA students move through the program, but they were in agreement that the overarching vision was to print fiction and poetry that “takes a risk.” Unfortunately, what they meant by “takes a risk” wasn’t articulated. Garstang was more helpful in that he indicated what he wouldn’t take–work with bad grammar, work that’s been “done before.”

The discussion branched off into whether literary magazines were for other writers only or for the general reading populace. Meridian Fiction Editor Lee Johnson parried with, “Being by and for writers isn’t a bad thing.” But both magazine editors indicated the hope is that writers, of course, read their magazines and submit but that non-writers enjoy the content as well.

Did the seminar demystify literary magazines? Yes, in that the panelists described the underlying process for their individual magazines, something not so apparent when you read the submission guidelines on-line. I’d also have to say no to an extent, in that no one would admit that process concludes with a subjective judgement. It was, however, a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and even tidbits of knowledge go a long way on the writing journey.

For National Poetry Month, here’s a little poem a friend sent me to show that my disliked first name has a place, perhaps dubious, in literary history:

Phyllis by Thomas Randolph

Poor credulous and simple maid!
By what strange wiles art thou betrayed!
A treasure thou hast lost today
For which thou can’st no ransom pay.

Well, I’m no “simple maid,” so I figured out what he was talking about. Did you?