Last week I attended a workshop where I sat with friends and built a vision board for 2019. We cut and tore images from old magazines before pasting them into collages about what we want in our lives. Across the top, I pasted a headline from an article that exclaimed, “Dream Fearlessly.” Below, I posted images and words representing my wish list, much of which had to do with writing and publishing.
I believe those dreams will come true but not because of some kind of magical thinking. Instead, I believe those dreams will come true because they’re backed up by a spreadsheet on which I’ve listed goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics.
My approach to work differs greatly from the ideas of a man I know (who is not a writer) who believes that to write a best-selling book, you take a journal, go sit by the ocean, watch the waves lap the shore, then pour your deep thoughts onto the page, preferably while using a beautifully-crafted fountain pen. I’ve tried to explain to him, that’s not “writing.” That’s called “going to the beach.”
I shouldn’t rule out the idea that scrawling-by-the-sea is a process that works for some. Certainly, there’s a benefit all of us can glean from salty air and time for reflection. But I’d like to put the kibosh on the romanticized notions about how this work gets done, maybe because I’ve held mistaken beliefs in the past. For example, I once believed I’d be able to knock out my first book in three months. That was eighty months ago. When I started my MFA program, I thought I’d write a new book during each of four semesters. But those ideas weren’t just dreams. They were “pipe dreams,” which Google defines as, “unattainable or fanciful hope(s).” Again, I know there are writers who achieve those extraordinary feats. But, that isn’t my experience.
In November and December 2018, I published two essays on the Submittable blog. The first, “What Happens in Vegas,” described my month in residency as part of the Submittable Eliza So Fellowship. The beginning of that piece provides background on the personal obstacles to finishing that I encountered while writing my memoir. The second essay, “Zero to One Hundred Fifty: Lessons from Submitting This Year,” details how in 2018 I went from not submitting previously (with one exception) to completing nearly one hundred and fifty submissions to literary magazines. I’m grateful to content writer and strategist Rachel Mindell and the entire team at Submittable for their continued support of my development. Read side-by-side, the two essays show what I’ve learned as a writer about the things we can’t control and the things we can.
Recently on Twitter, one of the people I follow shared a tweet by an author of some repute who, from what I could tell, had been attacked in an earlier post. I had trouble finding the entire thread but what I saw bothered me. She declared that she wouldn’t be following some stupid submission strategy and—to paraphrase—hurling garbage at editors. After publishing an essay about my aggressive work plan last year, I bristled. But then I stepped back and realized her words exposed an “egomaniacal inferiority complex,” an oxymoron used to describe the behavior of covering for esteem issues with prideful words or actions. The first part of her message was rooted in the idea that she was an artist who didn’t need to do the plebian work of submission. But she went on to suggest that submitting would be akin to littering, which reveals how she sees her own material.
When and how a writer approaches the road to publication is her own business. I waited for years before I felt ready to submit my work. I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to work on her craft first. But it’s unkind—and also, unrealistic if not elitist—to suggest active submission is a second-rate approach.
Last June, I made a list of eight journals or magazines where I wanted to publish my work but knew the chance of acceptance was less than one percent. I revised and edited pieces, read more, and revised again as I collected rejections. But in the first half of 2019, my work will appear in several places on that list. My young niece is excited because in at least one instance, I’ll be in a magazine that can be purchased in our local bookstore.
In spite of my efforts, I know that nothing is guaranteed which may explain why every time I receive an acceptance, I feel the same way I did when I was five years old and Santa brought me the Baby Alive Doll that I wanted. I’m prone to shouting with glee while throwing my hands in the air. My dog has also witnessed a few acceptance dances. Additionally, my affection for writing friends and the editors who put my work on their pages runs deep. Their presence in my life definitely feels magical. I don’t want to discount all of those serendipitous gifts that have appeared along my journey or what happens when I enter a state of creative flow and writing feels like channeling a spiritual presence.
But to receive those blessings, I first made a commitment to do the work. This year, I’m going to dream fearlessly where my writing is concerned, so you’re not likely to find me at the beach. Instead, I’ll be at home on my laptop, moving forward, one keystroke at a time.