Submissions & the Writing Life: What I'm Learning from My 2016 Data

Last year was my most active yet for sending my writing out into the world. I'm not sure that I've ever struck such a combination of generating new work, revising and completing projects, and submitting. The wisdom of more established writers holds true: the more you send out your work, the more likely you are to be published. That bit of truth is easy to forget, similar to the affirmation that "a writer is someone who writes." The last year showed me, again and again, that writing is a practice. The writing life unfolds and deepens only as you write into it. The more regularly I write, the less hungry I am for other things. It was the first year in a long time that I haven't anxiously wondered if going for an MFA would help me "be a writer." The more I write, the more the page validates my existence as a writer. I have become less hungry for the right conditions to be inspired. I'm less hungry for inspiration in general. When meaningful ideas do show up, I have more confidence to know I'm ready for them. I feel more gentle and ready to listen.

I didn't will any of this to happen, and I recognize it only in retrospect. It's not because of any perfect system or 1-2-3 template. The practice of writing showed the way. And in the case of publishing, it is the practice of staying with the writing: listening long enough and deep enough to revise, complete, and share the work with others.

I've used Duotrope to manage my submissions for a handful of years, but I've never done any reflection with it at the end of the year. Since 2016 was my most active and conscience year of submitting in a long time, I thought I'd take a peek at the numbers and see if they had any stories to tell.

I was surprised: I submitted to 54 different places in 2016 -- an average of 4.5 submissions per month. I didn't know that I managed to submit something every month, an unplanned streak. Rather than submissions appearing in huge clumps, there was a rhythm that mirrored how consistently I was writing and revising. To me, this feels like a signal that I'm setting roots into my writing life, rather than chasing a kind of "burst mode" writing life. (Everyone is different, of course, but roots are something I'm seeking more of right now, so this is good news.)

For comparison: in 2015, I submitted to 19 different places, less than half of what I did in 2016. And based on submission dates, those submissions were clearly bursts around a few pieces of writing, rather than a sustained practice. I submitted about 10 unique pieces throughout 2015. In 2016, I sent out 55 different pieces of writing (including poems, essays, and short stories). Another signal, I hope, that I'm stretching more into the writing itself and not just in the volume of submissions.

All this submitting did lead to acceptances, including the following publications in the last few months of 2016:

While acceptances are always exciting, what I find most encouraging are personal rejections. These are unexpected gems of encouragement and connection in the otherwise remote land of revision. In a few cases, editors were specific about how an essay resonated with them or shared that a story had made it to the last round of consideration. To me, these notes serve as trail markers. They let me know if I've gone far enough with the piece. They indicate that I'm on the right path.

Submitting more not only increases the odds of acceptance... it also increases your odds of unexpected encouragement via personal rejection. I was so encouraged by personal rejections in 2016 that this year, I plan to submit as much or more, with equal hope for getting personal rejections or acceptances. I label personal rejections in Gmail as "Send them more!" On days when I need a boost, I revisit those notes.

And in some cases, a personal rejection leads to acceptance. The editors of Tinderbox Poetry Journal (one of my long-admired publications), were extra generous in theirs. They suggested revisions for a poem they liked but declined, and they invited me to re-submit if the revisions felt right to me. Their suggestions were smart and nudged the poem to a place it needed to go, so I happily incorporated them. When I re-submitted, I also included some newer poems, and they ended up accepting one of those.

I feel like I can never talk about submissions without adding the important guidance from Marge Piercy: Never say you are submitting your work, say you are offering it. 

In that spirit, I'm reflecting on these submission stats not only as an analytical exercise, but as a check-in with my relationship to my writing. It's a way to check in with how I'm stewarding my creative work. It's a way to honor the fact that I'm taking more  chances, more risks to raise my voice in the world. At times like these, when voices are being silenced or threatened, there is a kind of important persistence to the act of sending out work. It's one way to stoke our creative energy, and it's a way to commit to the promise that writers are paying attention, that we are engaged.

New Mexico & the Dusty Spots of the Creative Life

I recently returned from a solo trip through New Mexico, a sort of creative pilgrimage. Every so often, my husband Carl and I go on separate adventures to learn, write, and just be in our own rhythm for a week or two. This time, I made it to Albuquerque, Taos, and Santa Fe, places that have been calling to me for a handful of years. It seems common these days to go on a trip, especially of the pilgrimage variety, and come home with a suitcase of jewels (stories, ideas, connections) to share. It feels like travel is becoming the statement jewelry of personal/creative/spiritual development. But in this case, I'm still sorting through what I gathered in New Mexico. Something about the solitude of the place made me reconsider when, how, and why to share parts of my journey.

As a writer, I often struggle with the tension of when I’m ready and knowing enough to speak something real and true, versus when I’m still very much a student in the world and in my own life. This is good tension. It reminds me not to exploit my experiences for a story before they are done teaching me.

A space I’d like to hold a little longer is the curious, dusty spot where the jewels aren’t yet jewels. The space where the stones are still being tumbled. There is so much to learn in that space. We don’t even know what might be a jewel. This doesn’t always feel productive… it takes a lot longer to finish an essay or write a poem in this space. But I keep learning (through trial and error) that doing the deep and dusty work, the work that lasts in the world and changes me personally, has never really been about efficiency. Listening is not very efficient, but it’s essential to the creative life. I feel like this teaching is part of what New Mexico sent home with me.

A wise soul in my life uses the word "unfolding" to describe how we can witness and appreciate the way an experience works on us. I love that and think it's fitting for my New Mexico learning. So as much as I might agree with the statement, “I was changed when I sat under the full moon in Taos," I’m not prepared to write a think piece about it. (And oh, I can almost feel the moon flinch at the idea.) Here are some insights – rough stones – that feel ready to share with you, fellow creative traveler:


Courage is not found in deep breaths and wise books alone.

The Amherst method teaches me this when it comes to facing the empty page—to find the courage to write, you have to write. Solo travel pushes me to practice courage in real, firsthand ways with others. This trip may have been the most I tried to stay open. I talked to people in shops, I went to amazing museums and galleries and let myself be absorbed by them, I accepted dinner invitations when I feared being an outlier in the group.

It left me wondering if courage is as much about receiving as it is about going out and doing. When we start to write, we signal, “I’m open to letting this story come in.” When we engage a stranger, we signal, “I’m open to the possibility of connection.” One small gesture, with a whole universe behind it. I’m startled by how little else is needed… we don’t need to fill the whole river. We just need to unblock a couple dams within ourselves, and the river will show up. It wants to show up.


Hummingbird moths are a real thing.

And they will fool you into thinking you have just discovered the world’s tiniest hummingbird. When I got to Taos, I let the universe know I wanted to listen. I said it out loud, in the middle of Georgia O'Keeffe's room at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. And it replied with a parade of hummingbird moths, magpies, thunderstorms, a full moon, three hummingbirds, and one small rabbit. I think the earth sings a little louder in Taos, maybe because the air is clearer and the horizons are wider.


Travel is a good disorientation.

Waking up in the middle of the night in a strange place is an ideal disorientation for creativity. Which makes me wonder about a whole retreat devoted to creative disorientation… there is something so powerful to being dragged out of your element! It must make the muses laugh.


Language, ritual, and tradition came up repeatedly.

I’m reflecting more on this, but I want to acknowledge people who threw open doors for me: Tanaya Winder (whose poetry reading was a highlight of the trip),Mirabai Starr, Tseme (whose pottery now has a home on my writing desk), and Francisco (who was my guide through the Taos Pueblo and is part of the hip hop group Po.10.Cee). Francisco talked about living into an oral tradition and how it calls for active learning and ties between generations. His grandfather said it would make them lazy to write everything down, that the oral tradition creates a deep responsibility for their language and culture... while there's a lot to think about here, on a simple level, I feel like turning to each of my poems and asking, “Where are you being lazy?”


Always write down your dreams.

Always, always, always. I hope to do more posts or even a workshop on this, but for now, I’ll say: write them down. I started writing down my dreams more regularly about two years ago, and it’s like I built a second house for my writing. There were dreams and happenings in New Mexico that echoed dreams I had months before. I may not know what it all means yet, but because I wrote them down, I have more puzzle pieces in hand.

Those are some of my rough, unpolished stones, for now… Let me know if you’d be interested in a post on how to imagine and prepare for a creative trip like this. Or if you’ve been on such a trip, what wisdom did you gather along the way? How did you plan for it and open yourself up to the experience? Feel free to say hello.

This post originally appeared on Voice & Vessel.

New Poem in Hermeneutic Chaos

I'm grateful to Hermeneutic Chaos for including a poem of mine in their July issue, which came out this week. The best part of publishing in literary magazines is the surprise of meeting the other voices your work gets placed with... I think this issue is especially lovely for how the poems and stories work together. It almost feels like we were writing a chapbook together. I'm also becoming more and more partial to litmags that support audio recordings of the work. In this case, the story-like feel of Nancy Chen Long's poem "Gretel's Errata to Her Father's Version of the Story" really came out by being able to sit back and listen to Nancy's reading. I also loved listening to M.J. Arlett's meditative poem "Trout." Short poems feel especially good to absorb through listening. I'm trying to do a better job of tuning into the sound of my own work, and I learned a lot by listening to the pieces in this issue.

New Poems at Menacing Hedge

It's an honor to have six poems published in the summer 2015 issue of Menacing Hedge, which recently went live. I love that they encourage writers to share audio recordings of their work, and as nerve-wracking as it was to record six poems, it was a good chance to go out of my comfort zone and share my work in my own voice. It was also a great excuse to try and learn how to pronounce Latin... I quickly discovered there are very few resources on the internet for such things, so if your ears are better tuned to Latin and the pronunciation feels off, I'd welcome that feedback. Happy reading!  

The Badass Poem Finds a Home

I'm excited to share that the week began with an acceptance. Menacing Hedge has accepted six of my poems for its summer issue, expected this July. I'm so grateful for this vote of confidence in my work... having all six poems accepted and able to appear together is a special thrill that I did not expect. It means a lot to me that people will have the option of reading the poems together, as some in this set were written around the same time and in a kind of mutual exploration of each other. And the batch includes the badass poem that I recently mentioned. It was the poem that I most wanted to see out in the world this year, and I feel like it's found the ideal home. Feeling grateful, and looking forward to sharing the poems when they go live!

Remembering the Importance of Badassery

It’s funny how kicks from the past can arrive at the right moment. Lynn Melnick has written an excellent, close read of Diane Wakoski’s work in the Los Angeles Review of Books. As a former student of Diane’s, much of Melnick’s essay resonates with my experience of Diane, her poetry, and her "enduring badassery." No one could make me think twice about a "lazy image" like she could. The essay has shown up at a time when I’m noticing that my poetry has gone surfacey, lost touch with its raw parts, started to shy from honesty. (Curiously, this has overlapped with a severe sore throat, something that tends to happen when I’m squelching my voice. The body has a way of telling the truth, even if I won’t.)

So I especially appreciate the reminder about Diane's use of personal mythology:

"Her assertion is that poets are never writing autobiography in the strict sense...but are creating a myth of self in which to tell their most personal stories."

I've been thinking about exposure and sharing lately. About how the speaker shows up in writing... mostly how that damn word "I" has become a vacuum of attention in my poems. (Who is the "I" anyway? Why is she standing in the doorway, just in front of the guts of the poem?) I've been attempting to write "I" out of my poetry entirely, until it feels like it's earning its keep.

I've also been struggling with how our online lives are not really our art, although they are full of expression. There are days when Twitter feels like a bad networking event of people vying to leave an impression. So many "think pieces" and blog posts that are less about making something new and more about people making an artifact of themselves. I don't say this to attempt to be judge and jury... rather, I think it makes the concept of personal mythology -- and how Diane applies it -- all the more pertinent today.

With personal mythology, there's still truth in the mix. There's still a raw voice; the presence of a speaker, an orchestration of characters. It's an artful construction that works like story, rather than merely aiming to leave an impression or persuade the reader (like so much of our online narratives). In my view, truth-telling is not about persuasion... and maybe that's the distinction I'm hunting for in all of this. Honest art is voice laid bare, without apology.

Despite what myth-making entails, I don't find an artificial "I" in the doorway, especially in Diane's approach. The truth might be dressed as George Washington, the motorcycle betrayer, or an imagined twin... but the "I" itself is not a managed impression that keeps us from seeing the characters/mythology directly.

To make this more plain: I wrote line after line about family (and still do). The "I" was (and still is) standing in the way of those poems like a nervous gatekeeper. It says: "You can see this story, but please put these sunglasses on first, and listen as I explain what you're about to witness."

Then I learned about Diane's use of George Washington as a stand-in for a father. Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed that I had never attempted anything like this in my work. That same day, a poem fell out of me that was a truth I'd been rumbling over for a few years. There was no "I" in the poem. There was a trope, a mythology, and truth that I could feel -- my ears grew hot when the words began to show up. It was my first taste of a badass poem.

As I try to write my way to the next one, I'm grateful to be reminded of Diane's mythology and her exacting sense of what poetry can and should do. And I'm grateful to Lynn Melnick for her suggestion that Diane should be on more poetry reading lists... I know I'll be revisiting her poems with fresh eyes over the coming days.