I have a quote hanging on the bulletin board near my desk: A professional writer is an amateur that didn’t quit. When I’m in a rejection streak, as I am right now, I need to slow myself down and read that quote a few times. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I tend to fall into the same old bad thinking when I get a few rejections under my belt.
Here’s what radio station K-F@cked plays in my head (thanks Anne Lamott for the lovely station name):
- “You are wasting your life with this writing thing.”
- “You better switch to writing something commercial or you’ll never make any money.”
- “What are you thinking? You won’t make any money even if you do write something ‘commercial’”
- “Get a real job.”
- “You aren’t making a difference in this world, you navel-gazer.”
- “Why do you think you have any talent, anyway?”
These are not nice things to hear. I would never be this mean to any of my friends, so why am I this mean to myself?
I forget that I’ve written poetry for over thirty years and I only recently began to think about publishing it. I forget that I write poetry because it’s the art form that allows me to get closest to the world, reminds me to pay attention, evokes the wonder of every day miracles.
And so why send my work out for publication? I want to share what I’ve seen. Maybe touch one person’s heart the way I’ve been touched by so many poets. I want to be part of that conversation.
Ah yes, what’s the end of that old saying? “Start all over again.”
There are many poets out there diligently submitting their work. I know this because I keep picking up literary magazines with amazing poems in them. Every amazing poem published equals a diligent poet.
How does this make me feel? Guilty. Not because I wasn’t diligent last year (I wasn’t), but because if I’m not willing to go to bat for my work, who is? The good news is that I’ve decided not to bludgeon myself with guilt. Instead, each week I’ve been submitting three poems to one literary magazine. This week was number eight – eight different editors (or editorial staff) with my work.
It feels good. That is, right before it will undoubtedly feel bad – because odds are, many of those poems are going to come back to me with the email equivalent of a Xeroxed slip of paper that starts out with the words “Thank you for submitting your work, but…”
Here’s where the peace and love come in – I will stand up for my poems as if they were my children. When they come back across the threshold with playground mud on their knees, I will dust them off, give them a cookie and send them back out. Poetry is the bright impossible task before me, and publishing is part of it. I don’t write for catharsis (even though it may be cathartic), I write to communicate – which implies two people, the writer and the reader. And if it sometimes feels impossible, I will remember that Theodore Roethke said, “What we need are more people who specialize in the impossible.”
I confess that I am weary of discussions about the economics of poetry. Today there was a feature in the New York Magazine entitled “The Livelihoods of the Poets” by Rachel Friedman. Current statistics regarding MFA degree holders resided beneath a heading of “The Wasteland”; bemoaning, I’m sure, the fact that there are far more people who hold MFA degrees than places for them on the teaching staff of MFA programs. (Because, you know, we all got our degrees so that we could teach, not so we could write.) Also noted in the feature was the relative pittance that poets receive for their printed work, both in book form and per poem. (Because, you know, we only want to see our work in print so that we can reap huge sums of money.)
What really irks me about articles such as Friedman’s is the premise that the prime motivator in our society should be how much money can be gained from any enterprise. I’ve had students who wanted to be professional basketball stars because of the money they’d earn, not for the love of the game. Or lawyers, “because they drive sick cars,” not for any desire to help people. I fear for our culture, if personal wealth is the highest good, not helping others or creating something of lasting beauty. For poetry will never be a “big money” proposition, and those who pursue will never recoup the number of hours they put into it. Perhaps, though, a word or two will fall into the ears of a person who needs it, or a woman reading by a woodstove will be moved almost to tears by the sound of the language.
I confess that I long to live in a world where the worth of an endeavor has to do with the culmination of effort and skill, of practice and imagination, and a nod towards what might foster humanity rather than fiscal assets. The politics of our culture’s emphasis on money is that those who chose to pursue poetry, or nursing, or social work, or a host of underpaid professions will never get the respect accorded a professional football star. And when grandpa asks Little Johnny what he will grow up to be, it is a rare child indeed who will receive affirmation for choosing a profession for love rather than cash. Such a shame, because in the end, money will not make you happy, but a job artfully and well-done will.