Publishing Work; Some Thoughts from a Creative Writing Teacher
I teach adult creative writing workshops in L.A. Some of my students are hell-bent on publishing their work and becoming famous writers. Others are there for their own enjoyment and personal growth as artists. A lot of them come to class having never been published before, but bearing a significant amount of talent that only flourishes the longer they write. Eventually, they all start bringing in work that is really “finished,” well-crafted, authentic and poignant. Whenever a student brings in such a piece of work my first impulse is to jump out of my chair shouting “send it to The Paris Review!” “send it to The Paris Review!” But this is difficult.
Telling a student that they should try to get something published is like asking a baby to put on a blindfold and crawl on her sweet, bare knees over a fresh mine-field, just because you think you see something small and vaguely shiny on the other side. Part of getting published is getting rejected. Even if you are good. Even if you are really good. Nobody gets out of this business without a few heartbreaks first. And this can be a trial. It can play with your self-esteem. It can play with your sense of self-worth as a writer, but also as a person in general. Even the students who have been lawyers, or doctors, or failed actors, can sometimes get a little crestfallen when their favorite journal gives their favorite poem the boot, with an unceremonious “no thank you” and slam of the metaphorical door.
And yet, work must be shared. That’s what it is there for.
So, I like to tell this story. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, I was a young and ambitious poet trying really hard to get my work into the best journals. I was too young at the time to care about actual people who read the journals, or how they might be affected by my work. I just wanted to have that acceptance letter, that accolade to brag about, that fifteen minute moment of fame.
Then a writer and editor from one of America’s top journals accepted a poem I had written about being heart-broken after being dumped by another poet. The poem was called “Vermin” and it was the first poem I had ever had accepted by a journal of that caliber. I was almost afraid to write to the editor of the journal to let her know it was still available, afraid she would see my note and realize she had made a mistake and had meant to send me a rejection instead of an acceptance.
But the editor did mean to accept my poem in it. And she did, in fact, really like it. In fact, she wrote back and told me, “Thank you for sharing that piece. It took me to a place of vulnerability and sorrow I haven’t been to in years.”
Thinking back on it now, I am still blown away, blown to tears, blown to smithereens thinking about that little note she wrote me. The editor of such a well-known journal, who reads about a hundred thousand poems a year, found something in my writing that she hadn’t found in anyone else’s in, not days, not months, but years. . . I don’t say this to brag, but to give you some idea of what is at stake, what is to be gained, what is to be risked when we publish or encourage others to publish.
We are not just antsy artists seeking fame, but human beings, talking to other human beings. We are trying to help one another feel less alone, to feel connected, to say “That thing you’re feeling, that you’re embarrassed to admit to, I’ve felt that too,” and by so doing, to share the burden or lighten the load of our somewhat chaotic and precarious position in the world. That is what publishing is. Not a way to prove yourself as a writer, or one-up your writer friends, or to impress your English teacher from high school, but a way of holding someone’s heart, even though you don’t know who they are.
Good writing is a gift, not just for one writer, but for all writers. I am grateful every time I find a really good poem, that somebody else wrote it, and licked a stamp on an envelope and sent it out, and risked the heartache and heartbreak and headache of rejection, just so they could, eventually, deliver it to my door, and save my life.
The idea that some of them would have sat on their best work just because they were too afraid to publish breaks my heart. Not just for them, but for myself. I think about how infinitely duller and sadder my life would be without Mark Doty’s “To a Green Crab’s Shell” or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” or Mark Strand’s “What to Think of?” or anything at all by Matthew Dickman or Ellen Bass, or Dorianne Laux or Mary Oliver. I mean, really, just who would any of us be if Mary Oliver hadn’t taken that “Journey,” or seen that grasshopper on “The Summer’s Day,” or written about “The Wild Geese,” calling us, all of us now, good writers, bad writers, back into the “family of things?”
So, what I say to my students, when they give me a really great piece that moves me is, “Send it out. Risk the rejection. Brave the heartache. Somebody needs that poem even more than you do. Make sure it gets into their hands.”