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.