We all need encouragement and support for our writing lives. And, the beginning of the year invites us to try out new ideas. Here is a list of strategies that have bolstered my writing life. May they support and inspire you.
1) Plan a Submission Party
In my first writing group, more than fifteen years ago, I learned about the power of holding at least one ‘submission party’ during the year. A submission party meant that we planned a date and we all brought our polished manuscripts, manila envelopes, our bundle of SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes –yes, back in those days you had to send manuscripts via snail mail and with a SASE!), and food and drink to someone’s house. We helped each other write query letters, find new markets to submit work, develop submission charts, and triple check final copies of stories. And, the best part of all, we’d each leave with several stuffed packets ready to mail to magazine and anthology editors and contest judges. These parties uplifted us and took the fear, dread and challenge out of submitting. And, they helped us get a batch of stories into the mail at one time.
At your next writers’ group meeting, suggest hosting a submission party during the first quarter of the year. And, if you’re not in a group (Well, you should be! When focused friendly people come together to support each other, they can produce incredible results!), then ask a writing buddy, if he or she would be interested in executing this idea on a smaller scale.
Reading your work in front of an audience is an invaluable experience for a writer. We can see when people lean toward us, laugh (one hopes at the appropriate places), and get a sense of how our words affect others. Readings help us to become comfortable with our work no matter what the reaction. We meet new friends and learn about the work of other writers. I did three readings last year (two of which I helped to create). In most places there are many opportunities to read your work in public—open mics organized by writing groups, in bookstores and cafes, writing conferences, and informal gatherings with friends. Practice, practice and practice some more.
How many readings did you participate in during 2012? Shoot to double this number in 2013.
3) Volunteer to Support and Serve a Published Writer That You Know
I have been privileged to accompany one of my writing teachers, Marjorie Hudson, to several speaking events and workshops. I learned invaluable things watching a working writer deal with the public aspect of a writing life: speaking, promoting, coaching, and book signing.
Writers always need more support. If you have a friend or an acquaintance who has recently published a book, offer to help them promote it in some way. If you don’t know any published writers, this is a great way to connect with a local writer whose work that you admire.
Be a personal assistant, or driver, for a day. If they are scheduled to give readings, see if you can help carry books, set up a display, sell books, and assist with small tasks that would make their life easier. You can learn a lot from watching how other writers handle being in the public eye.
4) Strive for 99 Rejections
Years ago, Marjorie Hudson, shifted my perspective on submitting one’s work and coping with rejection. She declared that as part of claiming the mantle of a writer, one should strive to gather at least 99 rejections. I sat in the workshop feeling pretty smug thinking that surely with all the years that I have been trying to get published I reached that number, no problem. Later, when I reviewed my submission file, I was shocked to realize that I wasn’t even half way close to 99 rejections! This revelation spurred me on submit my work, in a serious and organized way.
I love Chris Offutt’s essay, ‘The Eleventh Draft’, where he discusses how he dealt with the fear of rejection:
“The notion of submitting anything to a magazine filled me with terror. A stranger would read my precious words, judge them deficient, and reject them, which meant I was worthless. A poet friend was so astonished by my inaction that he shamed me into sending stories out. My goal, however, was not publication, which was still too scary a thought. My goal was a hundred rejections a year.
I mailed my stories in multiple submissions and waited eagerly for their return, which they promptly did. Each rejection brought me that much closer to my goal—a cause for celebration, rather than depression. Eventually disaster struck. The Coe Review published my first story in spring 1990. The magazine was in the small industrial town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a circulation that barely surpassed the city limits. The payment was one copy of the magazine, and the editor spelled my name wrong. Nevertheless, I felt valid in every way—I was no longer a hillbilly with a pencil full of dreams. I was a real live writer.”
The common suggestion is for writers to have at least five pieces submitted at any given time.
Are you close to 99 rejections? Every time you receive one, think of it as a step forward in your writing apprenticeship. (BTW, holding a submissions party, regularly, can help you send out more material faster.)
5) Create Some Writing Affirmations
An affirmation is a short, simple, positive declarative phrase that as Eric Maisel says, in Coaching The Artist Within, “you say to yourself because you want to think a certain way…or because you want to aim yourself in a positive direction.” Writers can benefit from using affirmations as our inner critics, judges, and evaluators are often uninvited guests during our writing sessions.
A decade ago, I made a tape recording of me saying writing affirmations. I was living in California, on a post-doctoral fellowship, not a member of any writing group, and accumulating rejections at rate that made me gnash my teeth daily. At that point in my life the inner critic often got the best of me. I needed something to remind me of my basic goodness, as a human being, and encourage me as a writer.
Listening back to them now, it’s clear that I don’t have that same inner wobbly feeling about claiming writing as a love, devotion, craft and profession. Nor do I have the same fears. But those early affirmations (i.e. I am a writer!), spoken with conviction definitely built a bridge from there to here.
Writing, speaking and even recording affirmations creates a powerful state of mind. Here are some to get you started.
6) Commitment Publicly to a Writing Goal and Ask for Accountability
As a coach, I know that to make long lasting positive changes, we need structure and accountability. Over the past year, I’ve seen many writers use their virtual networks (as well as face to face ones) to get support in meeting an important writing goal. Editor, author advocate and She Writes publisher, Brooke Warner publicly announced her intention of finishing a book by a certain date. She also asked for support to help keep her accountable while writing and this request yielded wonders!
What’s one writing goal you’d consider announcing publicly and asking for accountability?
7) Buy a New Subscription to a Writing Magazine and/or Literary Journal
Where do you learn about the field of publishing? How do you find out about new writers? We do this in many ways, through blogs, friends, librarians and visits to bookstores. However, writing magazines and literary journals can also play a key role in our professional development. You’ve probably been thinking about treating yourself to new subscription to a writing magazine or literary journal for some time. Do it! When I finish this post, I’m off to subscribe to Poets and Writers.
8) Write 100 Beautiful Sentences
Many discussions about writing focus on bolstering the quantity of writing and the speed at which it can be produced. I value those insights, but also want to advocate for periodically slowing down and paying attention to the craft of writing-- at the sentence level. After reading my response to a writing prompt, I became enamored with the idea of striving to write 100 beautiful sentences each year. How many stop-your breath sentences did you write last year? Wouldn’t you like to write more of those? Your goal can be much smaller or much larger (and poets may put their own twist on this idea), and of course, you get to define ‘beautiful’ any way you like. Try it! You may find yourself enjoying the craft of writing even more.
9) Organize Some Aspect of Your Writing Life That You’ve Been Putting Off
When’s the last time you took an afternoon and went through your recent writing journals and plucked out the possibilities for stories, poems, or essays? Or made an index for your journals, so you know what’s where? Is that writing conference program, crammed with all your notes about plot and dialogue gleaned from the day, buried somewhere under a pile of books? What is the state of your submission file system? When you look at your desk, have your piles of sticky notes interbred at an alarming rate?
I keep a Kurt Vonnegut quote stuck to my computer: "The triumph over anything is a matter of organization." What’s one area of your writing life that would benefit from some organizing mojo thrown its way? You don’t have to do everything, but do decide to tackle one organizational issue in January.
10) Get Serious About Physical Self-Care
“Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Margaret Atwood
I came to the serious pursuit of creative writing in my late thirties. I’ll turn 45 this year. A writing life in middle age demands mandatory self-care. The average life expectancy for an American woman is eighty years. It will take all the mental and physical courage I can muster to meet the page every day for the next thirty-five or so years; I want a supple mind and a healthy body. I have embraced a preventative regimen--a weekly schedule of yoga, exercise--minimally 3x a week (to counteract all that sitting), meditation (to counteract loud inner critics), eating right and easy on the alcohol. If I die at my desk, at eighty, with a pen in my withered hand, a gorgeous journal in my lap, surrounded by my published works, I'll be a happy woman!
What about you? How does your physical self-care regimen sustain you as a writer? Does your regimen need a tune-up?
A version of this post appeared on 'The Practice of Creativity' 1/7/2013