Tag Archives: motivation

My Journey to Publication

“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.

In success,

Performance Swagger

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Boundless Tales Reading Series at The Astoria Bookshop. The lineup featured three very accomplished guests, poets whose work had been featured in top journals like Tin House and Ploughshares, and one poet whose work had been published in ONE journal—a journal that wasn’t Tin House or Ploughshares, or any literary magazine of comparable esteem.

The poet who came out of nowhere blew me away. His work was impressive. Even though his poetry was not nearly as polished as that of the other poets at the reading, his charisma won me over. I was impressed by the other three poets. Their work was legitimately stellar. They deserve to be published in literary journals of the utmost quality. Their sets were not devoid of personality either. However, as an equalizer, the unheralded poet brought us completely into his world—a world of drunken poetic rants written on bar napkins.

The point is that regardless of how accomplished you are or how subjectively good your work is when you give a reading or are at an open mic, you’d better knock the audience out. A bit after the reading, your audience will not remember the specifics of your work. They won’t remember all of the journals that have published your writing. They won’t remember your credentials. They will remember your presence.

Writing is a solitary effort. However, getting known as a writer can often involve the deepest interpersonal skills.

As discussed in previous posts, my decision to take poetry seriously was largely spurred on by my friend Russell Jaffe. In the excitement, I made a rookie mistake of focusing on the aspect of performance. I imagined a grand spectacle—reciting poetry in a drunken slur, cigarette hanging from my mouth in imitation of Anne Sexton or Chuck Bukowski. The greater task—writing good poetry—seemed to be outside of my mind.

Russell set me straight. While showmanship is important, it must be fused with content. You already are working to improve your writing. Now the next time you’re reading your work in public set out to leave an impression.

What have been your experiences with giving readings? I’d love to hear from you!

How the 2013 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament Helped Me Dramatically Improve My Attitude Towards Writing

I’m a huge college basketball fan. Every March (and early April), I’m glued to my television set to try to catch as much of March Madness as possible. It’s my favorite sporting event.

March Madness is always a lot of fun, yet I never expected that the tourney could ever teach me anything that would help me out as a writer (If you can figure out a way that understanding how to properly space yourself in a zone defense would be of use to a writer, please comment below; I’d love to be enlightened!)

Every year, I look forward to seeing which team will come out of nowhere to be the Cinderella of the tournament. I always find it compelling when a mid-major school knocks off the “heavyweights” of college basketball. But again, none of the myriad of teams that have acted in that role since I’ve been a fan have ever taught me anything that would benefit me as a writer. That is, until 2013’s tournament…

In 2013’s tournament, Florida Gulf Coast University knocked off Georgetown and San Diego State, two elite programs. I had never heard of Florida Gulf Coast University (the school or its basketball team). I didn’t know any of the players. I didn’t know the coach. They were complete unknowns.

As I watched FGCU’s basketball team that March, though it may sound strange, I immediately felt that it was as if I were meant to watch it by some weird trick of the universe. I knew that I was supposed to see this because I needed to see exactly how to get anything done (including getting your creative writing published)—YOU HAVE TO STAY LOOSE AND HAVE FUN.

The players on FGCU’s basketball team were too loose and having too much fun to worry about how the odds were completely against them. Yes, the odds of your work getting published in top journals are slim. Yes, the odds of you getting a publishing contract are slim. Yes, the odds of your name being mentioned among the literati are slim. Yes, the odds of your book selling in vast numbers are slim. There are undoubtedly many writers just as hungry as you are, writing just as much as you are, who are as skilled as you are and are waiting to claim it. All these statements are true.

However, if you really want to be a writer, counterintuitive as it sounds, you have to put facts out of the equation. This is certainly not an insult to the men on the FGCU basketball team, but from the way they played, it was almost as if they were ignorant of the reality of their situation. If they were aware of the reality of their chances, they would have been easily whipped by Georgetown and sent scurrying home to Lee County because they would have already been defeated in their minds. Aware or not, they put it outside of their minds, stayed loose, had fun, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen, allowing America the opportunity to fall in love with their team.

The odds are against you. However, the odds only can be taken into account if you pay attention to them. If you really want to be a writer, in the words of James Chance, “Why don’t you try being stupid instead of smart?” Why not really believe that you can do the impossible? That’s the only way that you can!

Did you ever learn a valuable lesson about writing (or anything else) from an unexpected source? I’d love to hear your story. Please feel free to comment below.