Persistence

While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published January 20, 2011.

ITWplainSeeing the galleys for my first book was like seeing a sonogram of a baby that’s been growing inside me for years. I was giddy with excitement to see the cover, the type, and the design of the chapters. Like one of those biblical matriarchs, I felt as if I’d been waiting six hundred years for this birth. In truth, it had only been twenty-five. 

In February, 1985, I received my first rejection letter for a novel I’d written the previous year. The letter arrived on my twenty-ninth birthday, and I despaired of achieving my goal of having a book published before I turned thirty. I didn’t start my next novel until ten years later, and I was well into my forties by the time it was complete – and it’s still not published. I wrote Into The Wilderness in 2002, when I was forty-eight.

During the twenty-five years I’ve been writing but not publishing novels, I’ve also raised a family and worked to help support it. I’ve done some interesting things, like taught literature to health care workers and writing to inmates; and I’ve done some less interesting things, like laundry. I’ve worried about my children, argued with my husband, witnessed my parents age, and – always – kept writing.

A few years ago, a published friend said to me, “The single thing that separates those who get into print from those who don’t is persistence.”

I persisted.

I have the requisite number of rejection letters to wallpaper not just the fabled bathroom, but also the interior of a small house. Some are simple form letters; others are full of high praise. I’ve come to prefer the form letters that start with, “Dear Writer” to those that say what a splendid writer I am and what a wonderful book I have – for someone else to publish. There were months when I could have been working in a boomerang factory, when all the typescripts I sent out kept homing back. But a year ago, I received the letter I’d been waiting for all this time, and now, my book is in print.

This long, slow, journey has made me wonder what gave me the tenacity to keep writing despite so many other things to do (help with homework, wash dishes, plant peas), and what gave me the chutzpah to keep refusing to accept repeated rejection. My answer: my cats and my dog.

My dog doesn't know how to read.

My dog doesn’t know how to read.

As Groucho Marx famously said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” My dog is a great companion, but she’s illiterate. She dislikes the indoor, sedentary pleasures of literature. She’d rather be outdoors, on a walk. I did a lot of thinking on those walks, which are a kind of moving meditation in which I work out narrative difficulties. I also watch my pooch in her mostly futile attempts to catch the chipmunks. Despite her dismal record of failure, my dog never fails to take up the challenge. She flings herself over stonewalls and gives herself whole-heartedly to the chase. And she’s never discouraged by her failure to catch a chipmunk, only by my failure, some days, to take her out.

My cats, on the other hand, want me to do nothing but sit at my desk all day, so they can drape themselves decorously across my papers, my lap, or my keyboard. They approve of literature, and like to lie across the page of any open book, but especially on the page I’m reading. One of them likes to watch the cursor progress across my computer screen; the other likes best to curl up in a manuscript box, anchoring the pages in place. As far as they’re concerned, the only reason for me to leave my desk is to open a can of cat food.

Between the cats and the dog, I’m blessed with companions who provide inspiration, in the case of the felines, and a model of persistence, in the case of the dog. They have been good company for this long haul. They’ve helped mitigate the loneliness of writing in silence, a silence that has at last come to an end.

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin will resume writing when she returns from hiking The Long Trail. Meanwhile, you can still receive An Essay Every Wednesday emailed directly to your inbox – just subscribe at www.deborahleeluskin.com. It’s easy, it’s entertaining, educational, and it’s free!

CRWROPPS

CRWROPPS

As if writing weren’t hard enough by itself, producing the work is only part of the challenge: sending it out for publication is yet another full-time job. It’s not one I’ve been particularly good at, but I’m getting better, especially since I’ve started subscribing to CRWROPPS, The Creative Writers Opportunities List, a service provided by The Poetry Resource Page, which is a treasure trove of information for creative writers.

CRWROPPS is an email list-serve designed to provide poets and prose writers with up-to-date information about contests, calls for submissions and deadlines. All you have to do is sign up to receive daily email messages regarding publication opportunities in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. There’s no chat and no discussion: just the latest information on calls for submissions, new publications, contests, anthologies, fellowships and residencies.

It’s a lot of information – more than I can cope with on a daily basis, so I send it to an email account I’ve created for newsletters I’m interested in but don’t need to know about on a daily basis. This helps me from being overwhelmed by too much information, yet still allows me access the information – on my terms – when I’m ready, which is usually Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon.

I do this work in my office, that messy place where I don’t file as often as I’d like to, where I make piles of books and papers for the classes I’m teaching, the essays I’m writing, and the notes related to my current novel. This is not where I write fiction or essays; it’s where I conduct the business of writing. So once a week, I go through the emails listing calls for submissions and contests.

Each email contains information for poets, fiction writers and essayists, both contests (with fees) and open calls for submission. I print out the ones that seem likely, and then I go through my file of unpublished stories that I think are ready to send.

Only recently have I started entering contests, of which there are many. While I will send out simultaneous submissions, I’ll only enter a story into one paid contest at a time. Also, to get my money’s worth, I only enter contests where my submission fee includes at least one copy of the magazine. And to make my life easier, I generally only submit to journals that accept work on-line.

For years, I didn’t send stories out on a regular basis, because it felt too much like inviting rejection into my life. And then I met a writer who made as his goal to collect one hundred rejections in a year. He did it – and in the process, placed eight stories. I’m not gunning for that many rejections, but I’ve changed how I feel about them. I used to see them as a sign of failure; now I see rejections as an indication of my effort in that unpleasant but necessary task of sending work out.

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” between two 64-year-olds, set in Vermont in 1964. Luskin is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio, an editorial columnist, and a free-lance writer. In addition, Luskin teachers literature and writing in prisons, hospitals and libraries; she holds a PhD in English Literature from Columbia University.

Conquer Your Fear of Writing

We are all afraid of something. As writers with big, deep imaginations, we are especially good at conjuring all kinds of scary possibilities.

Last week I read a post on Liz Strauss’ blog in which she talked about using the litany of fear (borrowed from Frank Herbert’s Dune books) in her presentation to a conference audience. The intent of Strauss’ speech was to lower the audience’s defenses, help them overcome their fears, and trust in the process that was unfolding.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain
Dune, Frank Herbert

When we are afraid as a writer, that little-fear kills our story. It sucks the life right out of it by keeping us from plunging in with our whole selves. Fear steals our confidence and conviction, leaving our work impotent and forgettable. You produce your best when you have no fear of being challenged, judged, exposed, or ridiculed. That’s when you are able to write from the heart without a chorus of internal censors stripping away the really juicy bits.

But, how do you get there? We’re only writers, after all – only human.

Jonathan Fields gave a wonderful presentation at the TEDx conference at Carnegie Mellon University. In 17-minutes, he eloquently and powerfully covers how to “turn fear into fuel.” One of the bits that has stuck with me is how to disarm your fears with close examination. He describes an exercise in which you dissect your fear by looking first at the actual worst case scenario, and then the positive outcomes that await if you overcome your fear.

Fear is largely irrational. I was up with my daughter for an hour early this morning because of a nightmare she’d had. It involved zombies. (Note to self – no more Wizards of Waverly Place.) My daughter is nearly seven years-old and she understands that there’s no such thing as zombies. However, that knowledge did nothing to help her get back to sleep. Once a fear sinks its teeth into our hearts, our minds have an uphill battle to root it out.

With writing, our fears are usually about failure and rejection. Applying Jonathan’s technique, you can dissemble your fears by asking yourself what’s the worst thing that would happen if you did fail. Would you die? Would your marriage end? Would you have to live in exile on some desert isle infested with lepers and other bad writers? Seriously – what’s the absolute worst thing that would happen? You’d have to lick your wounded ego and try again? You’d have to keep your day job? How bad is it, really?

Next – and this is key – look at each of those scary possibilities and think about how you would deal with them if they came to pass. Come up with an action plan (in your head, or on paper) about what you would do if you found yourself headed for that deserted isle. If you have a plan, you won’t feel helpless. You’ll feel empowered and ready to deal with whatever comes your way. You’ll be able to see past your worst case scenario to the life (and possibilities) that lie beyond. You’ll no longer feel like you’re facing the end of your world.

Then, on the flip side, what if you succeeded? What would that look and feel like? Would your initial success lead to additional opportunities? Would you finally feel validated in calling yourself, “writer?” Would you be able to send your clip/published book/reviewer accolades to everyone who ever said you were a loser?

Whatever personal demons and dreams you have in your heart, there’s a pretty good chance that the possible outcome of success will outweigh the possible outcome of failure. Once you get a clear sense of what’s really at stake – how little you actually have to lose and how much you stand to gain – your fear becomes much smaller and meeker. It might even become laughable.

And then you can move on and get down to the business of writing – from your heart, without any fears, without any censors. You can put your whole self forward and know that – even though you may not always succeed – you never have to let your fears keep you from trying.

Do your fears keep you from writing? Do they water down the stuff you do write? What tools do you use to overcome your fears? What do you think about Jonathan’s techniques?


Image Credit: h. koppdelaney … seriously, don’t you love this image? Reminds me of a character on Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series – Anya the revenge demon – who had a completely insane fear of bunny rabbits. Are your fears just as silly, once you really look at them?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps small businesses, start-ups, artists, and authors with branding, platform development, content marketing and social media. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.