Well, I will have my first writing group Zoom on Wednesday. (Perhaps we were all enjoying being cut off from civilization for a while, but now we know we must connect in order to keep the group alive.) I have so much to report, though there are things I wish I could be saying.
Here’s the deal: my life has stayed somewhat the same under the Stay-at-Home Order. I was a home school mom and I still am (without co-op and with an additional, though self-sufficient, kid at home). I was a homemaker and I still am. (I have discovered that I clean for me as much as for any possible guests. I like a clean and tidy and aesthetic space.) I was a home cook and I still am (with the added responsibility of foraging, which is a precarious and enormous project that I center around every-other Friday). I was a laundress and I still am (though doing small loads most days has been lifesaving for me, a person who normally puts it all off for giant loads that then overwhelm and sink me). My husband is a nurse and works nights and weekends, which he still does (with the added stress of being on the Covid unit and all the precautions we have to take getting him home and decontaminated and being around him). I was a vocalist on the worship team and I still am. (We record with no one in the congregation under social distancing restrictions every Tuesday night with the same team over and over, so you could say my effort there has increased). What did I lose in “quarantine”? Driving. (That’s a real big one.) I had also just quit my part-time job as a personal shopper, right before this began. (What timing, huh?) And any sort of non-essential meetings, though actually a few of those have continued over Zoom, like my “book club,” yoga, and small group. Coffee dates with my girlfriends replaced with texting. Neighborhood walks have replaced going to the gym. Portal conversations have replaced dinner at Mom’s.
What I’m saying is, I’m not really over here laying around and binge-watching TV, bored and lazy. I have barely had the time to do two-thirds of a painting, and I managed two home projects by stopping school around spring break time. That said, I have seized many of the wandering minutes and made them count toward writing. I have managed to write three op-eds, one short story, and work on several more. And then I had a friend who announced one week, early on, that she had a piece coming out in the Washington Post and I thought, well maybe I should try that. Several submissions later, it’s true, I have nothing published by any major publications and one of the articles has died because it was timely and the time had passed. But I still feel good about starting to amass those rejection letters (and silences), because it means I am moving forward in a way that I haven’t for quite some time.
That is a lesson that I learned here: op-eds are timely. Articles, for the most part, too. My husband is right, I do have a lot of opinions, but writing editorials has that added dimension that I somehow didn’t anticipate. If the article doesn’t land somewhere one of the first several tries, it has to be put to sleep. Especially for some op-eds, they belong to a time and have had their say often before they have met an audience. For me, I have to change my mind-set if I’m going to keep writing, editing, and submitting my many opinions, because I really hate killing writing projects. Hate it! I’d rather drag out old stuff and completely re-work it rather than wave good-bye. In a book I read recently, it listed types of “deaths” we encounter in life, and one of them was “death of a long-term project.” It is a death, of the hope and the time spent working on it, of the dreams and intentions and the mental energy, and maybe even the emotions that are wrapped up in it.
Then again, as I mentioned earlier, submitting—even to rejection letters—is a way of moving forward. I have wished, for years, that I got in the habit of submitting as early as high school and definitely by the time I graduated college. Do I think I would have been rejected about a million times by now? You bet your bippy. Would that have stung? No doubt. But here is what I think a writer gains in submitting, even without an acceptance:
- practice with the actual submission. Practice makes better, and the submission process is often daunting and sometimes subtle. There are a lot of particulars to navigate, plenty of tools to master, from how to format to how to hook and flatter.
- calluses. Writers have to have thick skin. I recommend paying little to no attention to reviews and the like, but if you’re submitting, you have to know if you have been green-lighted or—duh duh duh!—rejected. And since extremely rare is the story of an author getting published on the first try (in fact, it may not ever happen), thick skin is required to keep moving forward. We have all heard the stories of famous manuscripts that were rejected hundreds of times, sometimes saved from the slush pile by a pesky intern in the eleventh hour. Well folks, you are not the exception.
- time to step back and work on other projects. A well-edited story is the product of work and of stepping back. You need to have distance from a project to see it more clearly and do your best work, to kill your darlings and to edit properly. The submitting process slows everything down and creates pockets of time to return to or begin other things, lending space to everything in your current universe.
- humility. I don’t know if we really need humility as writers, but we definitely need it as human beings. Learning to work with others and to accept criticism and spin it into gold are both prime life skills. Also, if you want to be the kind of writer who has something honest to say, humility is a beautiful fruit that will shine through an empathy and naturalness of observation of humanity, right there in your writing. (And editors don’t prefer to work with prima donnas.)
- a system. Because if you’re going to be submitting, you will quickly discover you need to keep track of it all. And maybe you need a book to help, and a spreadsheet. Maybe you need envelopes and stamps, or just a more professional signature and photo on your email. Whatever. When I start pushing out my novel, later this year, it’ll be nice to have everything already organized.
I’m not saying that I enjoy the submissions process or that I find it fair. I am a writer, not a salesperson, and I remain pretty miserable at selling myself and my work. I also hate to take the time out of my already packed schedule to format and generate cover letters for even a short story. (This can take all afternoon!) And then, to know that without a name or a friend in the right position I’m likely to be rejected before anyone even reads one word of my actual manuscript! Yes, it’s frustrating. But if I want something, from an op-ed to a novel, published traditionally, I have to jump through the hoops, network, pay attention to detail, schmooze, edit, perfect, and—sigh—sell myself. (Even if I am going to self-publish, I have to do these things, but the rejection phase moves from the editors’ shoulders to the readers’.)
It feels good to have moved from the writing-in-secret stage I have been in, to the submissions stage. I continue writing and editing and expect my submissions spreadsheet to grow and grow: grow with rejections, sure, but also with new projects that I am pushing out there into the world with increasing care and experience, on a wing and a prayer (because all publication requires luck as well as hard work and talent), finding out which ones will sink and which ones will soar.