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 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.

An Alphabet of Embers is Here!

Today is the day — An Alphabet of Embers is live and ready for readers! The book is available on Amazon, with reviews and more on Goodreads as well. Like I've shared before, this is a pinch-me moment in my writing journey. I’m so honored that my story, "Outfitting the Restless Heart, or How the Sky Was Made" is part of this anthology. It’s the first short story of mine to be published, and I can’t imagine a better home for it. Watching the early reviews come out has been surreal… it was a part of the process that I didn’t anticipate, to be honest. This review at Nerds of a Feather caught me off guard in the best of ways. It’s a gift just to have this story out in the world. Seeing how someone connected with it, and how they sensed where my heart was when I wrote it, is a gift on another level.

How the Lyric Essay Brought Me Back to Writing Essays

I'm excited to share that the spring 2016 issue of Watershed Review is live and includes my essay, "Orienteering." I'm excited to have this one out in the world, as it includes some moments that really wanted to be written about. This is the first essay I've had out in the world in over 10 years, after experiences that led me to step away from essays entirely. I recently shared that story on The Writing Cooperative:

Poetry is my first love, but essays were calling to me. I was reading Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion and seeing bits of myself in not just what they wrote, but how they thought. There was a sharpness and a synthesis that felt different in essays than it did in poetry. I was struck with that just-right mix of curiosity, kinship, and intimidation that gives you enough gumption to try something new.

So I signed up for a creative nonfiction course in my English department. On the first day of class, I was transparent: I was a poet who wanted to try writing essays. It would be 10 years before I would introduce myself like that again. It was like announcing I was a hummingbird that wanted to become a horse. The division in the class was felt — there were the nonfiction students, a few fiction students (who were okay, because they dealt in narrative), and then me, The Poet.

I could deal with this as a matter of the culture or group dynamic in the class. Maybe it could even become a kind of pride, to be The Poet. But where it did damage was in practice, in the learning. Instead of becoming a guide, the professor became a gatekeeper. She had decided what an essay was, and she had decided which students had the right keys to access it. I learned that poetry was not one of the keys, as most of her feedback was some form of “This is poetry, not an essay.” or announcing, “Well, doesn’t that sound like poetry?” to the class when I shared my work.

I started trying to strip the poetic language out of my essays. I tried to focus on the more concrete, linear moments that were part of the story. As you might expect, those essays fell flat. They couldn’t find their natural shape. They had experiences but no voice. I couldn’t find the threads to follow into my drafts. Without poetry, I didn’t have my intuition.

It wasn't until years after those classes that I came across lyric essays, and a door into essay writing opened up:

I thought the essay form could be Only One Thing, and I didn’t have the key to it. I thought it was more narrative than symbol. I thought it was more head than heart, more linear and cohesive than experimental and stretching. But here was this idea of the lyric essay. And it seemed that even established essay writers could not easily define it, and that was part of what made it attractive. Here was a form that even the best essayists (i.e., Authority) acknowledged might sometimes be more poetry than essay.

You know that wave of relief you feel when you finally recall the word that’s been loitering on the tip of your tongue? Imagine that, and you might have an idea of how it felt to find the lyric essay.

I'm still learning a lot about essays, and about the lyric essay in particular. "Orienteering" is hopefully the start. But I'm happy just to have a way in, after so many years of believing that essays were off-limits.

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!

ToC Announced for An Alphabet of Embers

Rose Lemberg has announced the table of contents for An Alphabet of Embers, and I'm thrilled and humbled all over again that I get to be a part of this anthology. It's an amazing lineup of writers -- and so many fellow first-timers! When I saw the project on Kickstarter and eventually decided to submit, I realized I had entered the dangerous "smitten" zone of hoped-for publication. By the time I was done revising (and revising and revising) my piece to submit, the little deer of hope in my gut was prancing around and shouting, "This has to be the place! I don't want any other home but this one for this story!"

It was my first fiction submission, after devoting the past 10+ years to poetry. Over the last year, thanks in large part to a magical realism class at The Grotto in San Francisco, I've been exploring my fantasy brain and fiction muscles. It started as a kind of cross-training to keep my poetry on its toes, but now fiction is where I'm spending more and more time. The result is that I tend to straddle that murky space between poetry and fiction... I love how the two can blend, and I'm working to understand plot and character development without losing the nebulous, image-driven heart of poetry.

So An Alphabet of Embers spoke to me right away as a project that lives in that space. If I could have picked any place to make my first fiction sale, especially in the SFF community, this was the one. And now seeing the full table of contents, I'm ecstatic that my story will get to meet the world alongside such an array of voices... the titles alone read together like a dreamy poem. I can't wait to read the anthology this spring!

First Fiction Sale: An Alphabet of Embers!

I'm over-the-moon, into-the-stars excited to share that one of my stories will be included in An Alphabet of Embers, an anthology of lyrical, magical, and border-defying short stories. I backed the project on Kickstarter before I even knew I would submit... it resonated as soon as Rose Lemberg, the editor, described it as “the kind of book you’d pick up when you’re drowning for a gulp of beauty on a gray day.” My story "Outfitting the Restless Heart, or How the Sky was Made" will hopefully deliver on that promise. It's my first fiction sale, and my first-ever submission to a science fiction/fantasy market. I've been blown away at how different the experience is compared to submitting to literary magazines. Being paid for my work and being part of a "pro market" has added another level of excitement to the acceptance. Maybe it's the rose-colored glasses of being a newcomer, but I'm impressed at how the SFF writing community engages in both the craft and the business of writing... it's a nice shot of self-respect for those of us who are just starting out.

I can't wait to meet the other writers who will be part of An Alphabet of Embers, and I'll be eagerly awaiting May 2015 when this very special anthology makes it way into the world!