Is perseverance really what it takes to make it as a writer? Once, when I was working toward my poetry MFA at Penn State, a writing professor paused a workshop to say that perseverance was one of the sole reasons some of us would make it—and others just wouldn’t. She—who has many fine poetry books to her name—told us that during her stint in graduate school, her class was made up of eight men and one woman: her. She was the only one who became a published writer, she said, because everyone else stopped writing—or stopped submitting. As I looked around the table, some of us looked perturbed, and others looked superior, as if, “I’m not going to be the one who stops writing. Not me.”
In graduate school, we were immersed in writing: it was all we did. We wrote, we read, we taught writing, we attended workshops and readings, we gathered in cafes and bars to talk writers and writing. Life was intense: being in a heightened, creative state all the time wasn’t easy. Trying to write a brilliant poem and essay every week for workshops, taking regular literature and theory classes, plus teaching undergraduate classes and mentoring in the writing lab required balance and discipline—but we were focused on craft and writing a viable manuscript.
Something else that struck me in graduate school was from another poetry professor who laughingly told me in our one-on-one end-of-semester conference that he believed only one member of our class would really ever be a poet of note. The person he named was indeed a good poet, but was also ten years older than me at the time—and she did go on to win a poetry book contest shortly after we graduated, which she then followed with a second book of poetry. I wondered if this was really true, that my writing career was shut down before it even had a chance to begin. Did it even pay to persist?
I was in my very early 20s when I finished my graduate degree in 2001. Instead of teaching at the college level, I veered out of academia and took a job at a trade magazine, where I started as a very low-paid editorial assistant. Through my 20s I moved up the ranks in the publishing world, and wrote sporadically, but in powerful spurts, where I’d churn out pages of poetry and nonfiction. I also wrote hundreds of articles for trade magazines and other publications—and was proud of the career I was creating. My goal was to become a magazine editor before I turned 30.
What nagged, though, was when I heard about a fellow graduate school classmate who had stayed behind at Penn State to teach writing and was working on a book. Or, the other classmate who was writing nonfiction books full time for clients. The poet out of the gate from my graduating class scored a job as a professor at a prestigious university. Yes, with my career in publishing, I was deeply engaged in business-to-business journalism and the making of magazines. However, I always went back to a well-worn book on my bedside table, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, where his young poet is advised that no one can make him a writer: if you really are a writer, the desire to create is seared into you so deep you have no choice but to write relentlessly. And I’d wonder why I didn’t write like a maniac. Shouldn’t I burn to find my way into a real writing life?
Things started to click in for me professionally when I accepted a job at my current publishing company in fall 2006. At first, I felt I had arrived. I was about three days short of my 30th birthday, and was named editor of two trade magazines. The publications, of course, had dwindled to 24-page shadows of their former selves at their previous publisher, and I had the daunting task of building the brands back up—creating departments, features, and franchise issues so strong readers would believe in the magazines and advertisers would start populating the pages again.
Between a lot of hard work that included reader surveys and focus groups, several redesigns, editorial revamps, and creating online communities and social networking accounts for the magazines, I discovered I had a visionary boss—an editorial director who demanded that all of us editors enter the big three business publication awards series every year, which include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Awards, often called the Pulitzer Prize of business journalism. No other publishing company that I had worked at before expected its editors to faithfully enter contests.
At first, my magazines won no awards—at the time, I was the youngest and least-seasoned editor, and I felt that this lack of awards was a direct referendum on my skills. It was, frankly, humiliating. One editor who was a few years older than me and had been an editor a lot longer had nearly ten Neals to his name. I felt like there was no point to keep entering the Neals, FOLIOs and American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) awards. But, as I continued to work as an editor and enter my magazines into these annual competitions, I did start to win—at first regional awards, and then national. Finally, in 2011, after I had won nearly 20 awards and three Neal nominations for my magazine work during five years as an editor, I learned that I had won ASBPE’s coveted Magazine of the Year Award. It was a staggering moment for me, especially when I was asked to attend ASBPE’s conference in Chicago and give a presentation to other editors on how I had achieved such success with my magazines.
Within that five-year period, I had a daughter, worked a lot, and wrote when I could. I’d go through spurts, where I’d work on poems every night after everyone else had gone to bed. But then, life would happen and writing would go on the back burner. I had one notable creative writing success: In 2007, at age 31, I had a chapbook of poetry, “Arrangement of Desire,” published by a small press—this collection contained a lot of the poetry I had written in the last few years. And then, I was back at the starting gate, with no new work.
Ten years out of graduate school in 2011, and I wasn’t immersed in a writing community or scheduling writing time every day. My writing self did show itself from time to time—my house is stacked with books of poetry and nonfiction, books on theory and how to write. I read voraciously, going from poet to poet, and devouring for a time Natalie Goldberg’s books (like Writing Down the Bones) on how to motivate yourself to write every day with creative prompts. I’d sit in train stations and on airplanes writing in the margins of poetry books and revising my own work. I gave poetry readings twice a year at an arts collective. But I still wasn’t disciplining myself to write every day and put my work out into the literary world.
The summer I won the Magazine of the Year award, I was 34, and saw how my perseverance in my editing life had yielded accolades I had only hoped for at age 30, and I realized I had to start writing training the way I lifted weights every day. It wasn’t easy, with a toddler, a long commute, and a lot of work traveling. One day, my daughter and I were outside in the yard eating warm, sweet strawberries we’d grown in our garden. Laying in the grass, I thought about a short essay I’d planned to write for a consumer magazine that asked for submissions about a garment that was melded with your identity. I was mentally writing the piece about an ancient black leather bomber jacket that crinkles loudly when I wear it and smells deeply of leather and oil. The jacket is hard and tough, and has gone everywhere with me and seen lots of crazy nights—as my wild inner self mellowed, the jacket also fit the new me. But, did I write the piece and send it in? No. But it was sure beautiful in my mind.
That lost opportunity nagged at me—a lot. I believed that if I had written that piece the way I wrote it in my mental journal I would have had a fighting chance to get it published. So, finally, frustrated at myself, in my creative writing life, I tried to replicate what I did at my work desk. Every night, I went online and perused literary magazines and small presses. Who was writing what? I wanted to know. I read everything I could, joined every mailing list I could, and then forced myself to write, even if the poetry practically died as soon as it hit the page. It was all about intensity.
In the year since then, I’ve written a lot that’s never seen the light of day. I’ve also had that same feeling of being unseasoned and rusty as a writer, but then seeing that as I write every day, my voice matures. The language takes leaps I didn’t expect. A musicality appears that makes me think maybe I can do this. I also started submitting my work to literary magazines and contests, and have had poems accepted for publication and also had lots of rejection. A couple of months ago, I got a call from the editor of Ruminate Magazine, letting me know that I had been chosen as the winner of its Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize. It was that same heart-jarring moment as when I found out that my magazine had won the Magazine of the Year Award.
However, writers can’t rest on their laurels, especially for one poem. After a short high, I hunkered back down into my current poetry manuscript that’s slowing growing and becoming more refined. It’s tempting to surf through small press websites and contest lists dreaming where I’ll send the manuscript when it’s done. But dreaming isn’t persevering. Doing is, so I’ve had to force my writing muscles again, to write every night even when I can only get one good line out. Writing ultimately is something you do alone, so the desire for it has to be deep within you. Now, after having my second child and more tired than usual, I continue to write late every night because I’ve decided to persevere. I’ve decided, it’s the only way.
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I love that idea, that we are pilgrims on a journey through time. I love that we humans try so hard to find our places on that long road. And I love that you and I are ineffable, numinous pieces of some great mystery we will never fully understand.
I wake with a kind of jolt in my stomach: I know where I am, but I do not know when I am. When in time am I? Are my children both sleeping in the other room? Will I hear their small feet pattering on the floor as they come in to wake me? Will they tumble into bed with Eric and me?
As a witness of thought, it struck me deeply that I must be something much more than what had been running through my mind. I was so identified with thinking that I truly mistook thought for who I was.