Writing Some Stuff & Keeping On Keeping On
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” _Anne Lamott
My husband was the one who told me to stop reading/buying how-to-write books. He told me to stop reading craft books. He told me this so I would stop reading and start writing. I was waiting for someone to give me permission to call myself a writer, permission to put together a short story collection. I didn’t feel like I had as much or enough of FILL IN THE BLANK. I don’t even know what it was. Can’t explain it. But I’m one of those people who doesn’t really like doing new things in front of people. I like to learn quietly on my own. My daughter got it from me, as well. When she was learning to walk, she’d go back to her room alone and practice. By the time she was walking in front us, she was danged near a pro at it and very proud of herself. I’m the same way. But the thing is with writing…you kinda have to learn it by doing it and putting yourself out there, crossed fingers, gritted teeth…giving it a shot. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t always do your best and be careful about what you put out into the world, because you should. You totally should. I feel really blessed that I don’t have that one story that makes me cringe out in the world that I hear a lot of writers talk about sometimes. But even if I did…it’s okay. We all learn and (hopefully) do better.
When I gave myself permission to put my collection together, I’d had one story published. It was called “And It Can Never Be Too Dark Or Too Bright” and it went up at Storychord. (An excerpt went up @ The Rumpus a bit beforehand and that was my v. first published work of fiction.) Some of my friends had been published there and I really liked the editor Sarah Lynn Knowles. I’d been reading a LOT of short story collections, to see how they did it. I found linked stories and not-linked stories and long collections and short collections and collections written by both women and men. I found collections that were edgy and experimental and dark and weird and collections that were normal and chill and lovely. My main goal was to write a book I wanted to read and a book that felt how I wanted it to feel. No matter what I was writing about…I wanted my book to feel a certain way. And this would be a good time for you to ask me how I wanted it to make me feel and I would tell you IT’S HARD FOR ME TO EXPLAIN. But I feel it. And a couple different ways I can describe it are: putting your ear down to the railroad tracks to listen for the train, firecrackers and honey, a Neil Young song, kissing in the rain, staying up all night with the windows open, driving with the windows down, being with the person you want to be with even if what you’re going through is horribly shitty, being pleasantly snowed in with a cute, brilliant conversationalist and a pantry full of food and hot chocolate and whiskey and warm, clean pajamas.
So I sent my stories to a LOT of different places and got a LOT of rejections. Mostly form, some personal. I cherished my first personal rejection! SO EXCITING! And I just kept writing. I kept writing, sending stuff out, reading for literary magazines, entering contests, getting rejections and rejections and rejections…waiting an entire year to hear back from some people. I mean it just plain sucks to wait AN ENTIRE YEAR for a form rejection. Or even for a personal rejection. I’d especially feel like it was so long once the seasons changed. If I submitted something when it was super-hot and then it was snowing and freezing by the time I got a rejection I would be like WOW. (This is one of the main reasons we try our best to get back to people as quickly as possible @ WhiskeyPaper. We are only open for subs a couple times a year, but when we are…my husband and I do our best to get back to people in a couple of days. And sometimes it’s a lot of work! But it’s important to me.)
I have been rejected from a couple different magazines that have later, turned around and asked me to guest edit an issue for them or they’ve asked if they could interview me. What I’m saying is: SOMETIMES LIFE IS WEIRD, MAN.
I was embarrassed to enter Carve Magazine‘s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest because I thought I had no business doing it. (My story “Whiskey & Ribbons” won Editor’s Choice in the contest in 2011.) I’d taken a lot of creative writing classes in college, but only poetry. I felt like a fiction-phony. (The first thing I ever had published was a poem called “Chicago.”) A lot of good stuff came out of me putting myself out there even though I was shy, even though I was embarrassed. I did it anyway. Flash forward to later…my publisher Mojave River Press, found me. My literary agent from Curtis Brown Ltd. found me. They found me when I was out doing other things, promoting WhiskeyPaper things and other work/writing/authors I’d found and loved.
All that time in between, I was writing a lot, working a lot, promoting the things I loved. I was going through a lot of red inkage crossing things out and rearranging things and revising and rewriting. I learned to write stories by writing some really crappy stories and spending time with them, learning to make them better. I stopped trying to write like other people. I only wrote what I wanted to write, how I wanted to write it. I listened to people I trusted when they gave me suggestions. I stuck to my guns about the things I believed in.
I’m also #blessed b/c since my husband is the breadwinner in our family, I have the time to write. The time to write is a gift. My children are 2.5 years apart and when they were babies, not in school, I wrote nothing and I didn’t care. When they started doing more things on their own…so did I.
I taught myself how to write YA fiction by writing a YA novel. I taught myself how to write a novel by writing a novel. I taught myself how to put together a short story collection by putting together a short story collection. I found a publisher for my short story collection by meeting someone through my literary magazine who loves writing and books. I taught myself how to put together a literary magazine by putting together a literary magazine. And the same goes for chapbooks. And the same goes for anything like this, I think. I’d queried some agents before but ended up signing with mine because she found me out in the world as I was gushing about another one of her (unknown to me at the time) clients and how much I loved her book. There is something to be said there about timing…and keeping on. There is something to be said there about things happening organically and not forcing them…and keeping on.
I think a lot of this writing/publishing thing is hard work plus a bit of magic and luck. And everyone probably has their own version of something like this. I’m not claiming to be original in saying that…I think it’s just fact. I believe being kind helps more than some people may know sometimes. Hanging tough, doing the work, making connections when you can…sincerity and sweetness. And also, willingness to fail spectacularly. There are days when I feel like a writer, whatever that means! There are also days when I feel like a little girl, playing at being a writer. And those things don’t feel super-different to me. I quite like them both. They both make me feel like I’m doing what I can while I can, the best I can. That I’m not giving up. And I won’t. And you shouldn’t either. Make your own magic! Write your gorgeous stories and string twinkle lights across every page, even on the defeating sucky days. Believe. Truly. And hang in there, kitten.