“Don’t make a career out of this.”
I still remember, twelve years later, the words that a creative writing professor at Beloit College penned on one of my admittedly horrible short stories. Those words hit a nerve. Even today, they remain one of my biggest motivators.
For better or worse, I personally respond quite well to negative motivation. I love to prove people wrong and show them up. While my stories in that professor’s class were indeed horrible, his remark was erroneous, as he did not know my own path and character.
I chose to be a creative writing major at Beloit because it seemed fun. Upon entering college, I did not have much of a plan as to what to get out of it, aside from gaining real-world experience and leaving a sheltered boyhood behind. While I am sure that many of my peers in the program had written for years and knew exactly how to improve, for me, the program at Beloit, a very free-form one, was difficult to navigate. The open-ended nature of our program would certainly be ideal for a motivated writer with some experience, but I found it frustrating. The basics were never taught, and being sheltered, I did not have many interesting life experiences under my belt to write from. As a result, my writing was both juvenile and poorly crafted.
I have recounted on this blog several times now about how a friend of mine’s belief in the potential in my writing, even as rough as it was back then, got me to actually love writing for the first time in my life. The confidence that he instilled in me, coupled with my desire to show up the professor who wrote those motivating words on that abysmal short story, were the impetus that led me to start submitting my poetry to literary journals.
Of course, I failed. And failed. And failed. I had, if I remember correctly, my first 24 submissions rejected. Believing that success was assured, I was both blindsided and devastated by the actual results.
I knew that the poems that I was submitting to these literary magazines were objectively good. People that I trusted not to humor me regarding my writing informed me that they were, and many were shocked at the sea change in quality from my juvenilia. This time, I had carefully edited the poems, scrutinizing every line. However, they were not being accepted for publication. The reason for this was that I was sending these poems to literary journals that were simply not a fit for the alternative sensibilities inherent to my creative writing. Traditional literary journals did not cater to the type of writing I was producing, and, of course, they rejected it.
My friend Russell, the man who inspired me to write in the first place, taught me the basics of publication by introducing me to Duotrope.com, but naturally I didn’t use it effectively. I used it to find journals that were esteemed, did not read any of their content, and submitted my poems with only a cursory regard for the submissions guidelines. My whole approach was lazy and disrespectful, not just to myself, but to the publishers of these magazines and the entire literary profession.
Personally, I believe that there are no obstacles in life that cannot be overcome. I knew that if I worked harder, I could get my poetry accepted in literary magazines. I began to read many literary journals, and the ones that I enjoyed reading, ones that featured poets and short story writers with, for lack of a better description, punk rock sensibilities, caught my interest. I discovered amazing writers who I had never heard of, ones whose works appealed to my love of Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson, larger than life writers who both lived and wrote on the edge. When I would read the works of these writers like Doug Draime, Misti Rainwater-Lites, Holly Day, Michele McDannold, Catfish McDaris, Sarah E. Alderman, and Lynne Savitt, among many others, I knew that I had found many skilled people doing exciting things in the alternative presses.
I decided to submit my poem Like A Library in the Suburbs to one of these alternative presses, Michele McDannold’s Citizens for Decent Literature, then one of the top places to publish for alternative poets, and had my poem accepted. I felt vindicated to know that a poet who I respected thought that I had talent enough to publish me, and that if I just targeted effectively, sending my writing to journals that I enjoyed reading and that featured writers with roughly similar sensibilities, I would have a good chance of getting my work accepted. Since then, I have about a 33% acceptance rate for my poetry and short fiction, which would be closer to 60% if not for being overly ambitious and reaching out to some of my favorite magazines that are not perfect fits for my writing.
I will never forget those words that professor wrote, but now, with many publications under my belt, three excellent screenplays composed and currently shopped, becoming lead writer for an amazing startup, being interviewed by literary magazines, and developing publishing projects of my own, I realize that those words were nothing more than a judgment rendered without sufficient evidence. I love writing, and I know that I am good and that I will only continue to improve.
I hope that my story gives you the confidence you need to fully embark on your career as a successful writer.