July 8, 2011

Highs and Lows: The Writing Life

My girlfriends and I have a Christmas tradition: exchange ornaments, and after, verbally unpack our individual years, one by one, no time restrictions. The only rule we adhere to is that for every low, there must be two highs.

It is July now, months away from ornaments and tinsel, but one full year since I finished my MFA degree, and I feel the same tendencies today to look back and evaluate as I usually do at the close of a calendar. So, will you be my listeners here? My non-sweater-clad friends? All I ask is that you mumble a few hmmms, perhaps nod once in a while. After all, we’ve each experienced the ups and down of something, right?

Here are my writing-related lows of the past twelve months:

1.     Glimmer Train did not publish "Preservation."
2.     Ploughshares did not publish "Preservation."
3.     One Story did not publish "Preservation."
4.     "Preservation" was—I felt—my best short story, yet none of my goal journals published it, and I was left wondering (dejectedly) why.
5.     I reread it. Wrote a new opening. Deleted the new opening. Skimmed a series of old emails about fondue.
6.     Hope became a slippery thing.
7.     Sometimes, usually in the morning, I clutched at small spoonfuls of hope—"You will get this grant, your work is a perfect fit, it will all pan out, be patient"—but then I’d receive an email stating "Sorry," and I wouldn’t read the attached feedback, I just couldn't yet, I felt too tired.
8.     So I missed the deadline for the next grant.
9.     And got many more rejections.
10.  And stopped really writing.
11.  I began to think that—since I was a white, middle-class, working woman who’d lived a pretty good life, not much struggle, not much unordinary pain, not much grit under my fingernails that I hadn't put there on purpose because I felt I was perhaps too clean—I had nothing important to say.
12.  I began to believe this.

The highs:

1.     One Tuesday, on my drive to work, I watched an astonishing sunrise fill up my rearview mirror.
2.     I read a friend's brilliant essay and felt inspired.
3.     I started a blog.
4.     A small literary journal published one of my poems, a poem I’d written years ago, that I'd always loved, that I couldn't understand why others didn't love just as much. The publication contract came with this note: "I absolutely loved this one."
5.     I read the poem to my husband and we went out for Thai food.
6.     A month later, and then later still, we ordered more bowls of Toam Yum.
7.     A letter said that out of 250 applications, I was in the top 80 for a grant I'd practically forced myself to forget I'd applied for. Top 80, big whoop, I told myself. But it was a spoonful. And I held its sweetness on my tongue.
8.     I read books.
9.     I recited e.e. cummings to my students.
10.  I told Haley that her story was beautiful, mature, and full of nuanced surprises, and her whole face, her whole body lit up, and my throat tightened.
11.  I took them all on a nature walk behind the school.
12.  They wrote about it in their journals.
13.  I wrote about it in mine.
14.  I went to the Arboretum with my camera and found new angles, new ways to look at leaves, new levels of light and shadow.
15.  I went home and wrote.
16.  I published unproven and sentimental words in my own time, on my own created space, and though every time I was frightened, it got easier. 
17.  Someone left the comment, "I love this one."
18.  Someone else wrote from Greece, sharing that an essay of mine was in a publication that was currently on his coffee table.
19.  I paused, thought, refocused, and reminded myself that, yes, these small successes were nice, better, easier to bring to the lips, but what was most important—above any other outcome—was that my words mattered to me.
20.  I wrote more place essays. I wrote about Minnesota. I wrote about the lake where I spent my childhood summers.
21.  There was a wait, and it was excruciating—full of doubts and purposeful-forgetting—but a nice man named Gus told me yes. One year from now, next summer, "The Lake" will appear in the DNR's Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, one of my goal magazines.
22.  Over the Fourth of July, I shared the draft with my family around the campfire.
23.  I did not get that grant, but I applied for the next one.
24.  I did not place "Preservation." Yet.
25.  "Someday,” I promised myself, “You will write a damn good book."
  1. On July 8, 2011, I believe it.

This essay was also published here at A View From The Loft.


    1. As you know, I think you are a wonderful writer. Just keep writing, and submit your best. To be selected for a publication in Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, for you piece "The Lake" is simply wonderful.

      Your writing is bright, insightful, lively, and full of love. I really like how you play with words and challenge the reader to read your thoughts (rather than reading his or her own thoughts into what you write).

      And for all of us, thank you for letting us in and allowing us to get a glimpse of what is yet to come!

    2. I think you just wrote my highs and lows for the writing year. Hmmms and nods abound. But just this summer I'm feeling something new--pulsing,glimmering--under the surface. I'm spending my time *not* writing new stories (hell no), but adding new textures & twists to old ones. Trying to go a little bit deeper with each one, and make sure they're as beautiful as I know how to make them. There's no rush, Emily. We have our whole lives to make what we're meant to make, and to be found. You write so beautiful. xo

    3. Thank you, Bill. Your comments are always appreciated, and reading you own work has given me insights into how to make mine better. You are a rockstar reader, to be sure.

      And thanks for being in this big mess with me, Robin. "We have our whole lives to make what we're meant to make." If I could only keep that as the light ahead. I'll certainly try. Continued luck and risk in your revisions, and thanks so much for your support.

    4. Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow. ~Mary Anne Radmacher

      Keep trying Emily! And remember, writing is about the process. At least that is what I tell myself each time a children's book I submit gets rejected. One day, when the time is exactly right, Preservation will get published. I think the Universe knows exactly who needs to be touched by your writing and it knows the perfect time they need to be touched. Write on...

    5. Great quote! And you're right: process, process, process. I know this down deep, of course, but some days it's hard to keep that as the focus. It is ever so much easier, though, when surrounded by writers who "get it." Thanks for the encouragement, Amber. It's been great fun reading about your Italian adventures!

    6. Emily,

      Thanks so much for sharing this as part of your blog. I pray you keep believing that you'll write that "damn good book," because I don't doubt that you will. I also LOVE you and your girlfriend's rule that for every low there need to be two highs--exactly how we should approach every aspect of life's ups and downs.

    7. Thanks, Julie! The last year has been a flurry of emotions, but keeping my focus on the positive side of things is a habit I try--and need--to cultivate. Better for my sanity. :) I'd love to talk about your own highs/lows soon!

    8. Oh, lady, I feel ya. I just read another blog posting about a similar subject, so I'll quote it to ya here. From the fabulous poet Emma Bolden's blog (http://emmabolden.com/2011/08/18/your-debutante-just-knows-what-you-need-but-i-know-what-you-want/)

      "What Dylan’s writing goes far beyond that: he’s showing us his mind, and how his mind became his mind. He’s showing us how to live a life of the mind, how the most important thing may not be what we produce, but why we produce it: what we believe and know and think and feel inside."

      Different words saying exactly what Robin says: we have our whole lives to produce the things we are meant to... and that the process is perhaps even more important than the product. And this gorgeous blog of yours is all about that process, which is one of many reasons I love visiting your space.

    9. I read and loved this before my little summer hiatus and wanted to return to it with a few thoughts. I know where you're coming from regarding the 'goal' journal (Glimmer Train has long been one of mine...) and that tangible sense that 'this' is my best story. But along with the joyful importance of process, the desire to keep returning to a piece in an effort to shape its truest form, I've also learned these last few years that a story or essay has a life of its own, will find its home one way or another. Like you I've had pieces of writing that I believe to be my best, but which have been (and are still being) continually rejected and returned to me, no matter what I seem to do with them. But then along comes the tale of the essay that seems too baggy, too imprecise and and wandering, but is necessary to set up the context of the book I'm writing. I decide to send it out all the same, with little expectation. Of course you can probably see where this is going; it was accepted by two journals (unwittingly) in the same week....by which I mean to say that the mystery of words touch people in such different ways that the process must eventually resolve into the very act of writing what you believe in. And from where I'm standing you have such a lovely way, not only words but ideas that expand like ripples across ponds, that I believe it is only a matter of time until those pieces are being placed in the homes they deserve.

    10. I woke up with these lastest two comments this morning, and am so full of gratitude.

      May -- I've been thinking a lot lately about why I continue with this blog, what pulls me back to it, because sometimes it feels like it's just words put out into space. But you've clarified for me what I've known intuitively all along: what ever I create here is a step in the right direction, words that I write now so I can write others later. I wish we lived closer. Put some tea between us and I think we could talk about all of this for hours.

      Julian -- What can I say but Thank You. Such a gust of assurance. It's funny: advice about the writing process often mirrors what I tell my high school students about life in general. Follow your heart, trust your inner voice, and the confidence will follow, the right friends will come, the experiences you hope for will find you. I think, on my low days, I should make a point to come back to this post and reread all these comments. I am in good company here. I admire your work greatly, Julian, and so appreciate your support. Cheers to your future book!

    11. My pleasure, Emily! I imagine you're already very familiar with the huge variety of literary journals that are out there and their varied tastes, but if you ever want a sounding-board for what might suit your work or second opinion on any of them I'd be more than happy to share what I've learned about them in recent years. Feel free to drop me an email via my blog. In the meantime, happy writing!