At the recommendation of an acquaintance, I purchased The Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal: A Five-Year Record. It’s a thick compact blue book that promises to help you capture 1,825 happy moments.
Each page begins with the date, a quote, and five sets of blanks next to five 20__. It’s enough space for maybe a couple of short sentences.
It arrived on September 16th. I diligently recorded my happy that evening. Then September 17th, yesterday, rolled around. The day had been rough. My six week old twins were cluster feeding, refusing to sleep for the entirety (or even more than 30 minutes) of their scheduled nap times, screaming every time we tried to move them into their cribs, and then refused to settle easily after their bath and night feeding. I crawled into bed last night after holding a baby for near on 30 minutes while it wailed in my ear and saw the blue book on my nightstand. I tried to rack my brain for one happy moment. Just one. We all have one each day, right?
I had had several moments of contentment throughout the day. Like when I drove the twins home from Babies R Us and spent an extra 20 minutes driving around side streets and residential neighborhoods to keep them asleep a little longer while I listened to a podcast I like. Like when I’d fed my son that morning and he’d wrapped his tiny fist around my finger and clutched it the entire time. Like when my husband and I took them out to dinner with us, so we could go out and feel sort of like we were on a date and I’d fed him bits of a cinnamon roll dessert. But happy? Truly happy? Not really. I could only record THE TRULY HAPPY MOMENT.
Granted, it was probably my perspective. Content probably equals happy (it is a synonym after all). I’m pessimistic by nature and I’ve always skewed towards the depressed writer aesthetic, but this also is such a perfect metaphor for writing in general and how it is for me when I’m stuck.
I tell myself, “Write just one line of a poem or even a whole poem if you can swing it. It can be terrible. Won’t even take you very long. Just do it.” But since I’ve had a hiatus from writing (aka pre and postpartum), I get stuck, not even able to write down a word without wanting to erase it. And in this child-induced writing drought or what I’m making to be a child-induced writing drought, a measly line could mean a whole lot to restoring me to that creative self. It would maybe even lift my creative self’s esteem a bit because now she feels covered in spit and wonders if she’ll ever stir some words together and get a poem again.
This is all to say: I should start with a sentence or a line. An ugly one and work my way up (or out or through). A sentence or a line is reasonable. It’s possible.
- Have a child.
*Scamper off to a room with a door with a lock on it or hide in plain sight in the driver’s seat of your practical four door sedan or seated at your dining room table and have a tumble with some words. Writing is your secret; cherish it. Go to bed late. Wake up early. Type the word “wilderness” on a blank document and then come back to it 10 days/weeks/months later and wonder where you were going with that, but shrug and go somewhere new and impossible instead. Be okay with being underwhelming. Be okay with a sink of dirty dishes. Fall asleep/rage/moan/weep at the page. Stare at the empty page wondering if words will ever again bubble up to fill the space. They may not then. Check back later. Leave space in your heart for emptiness. See it as slow fill as you clock your child breaking his curfew again. See everything as a creative experience, spiritual fodder for the day when you arrive at the page and something finally erupts from your fingertips. Find your tribe of other parent-writers or writer-parents. Commiserate. Push each other. Send each other poems you have written or someone else has. Stay engaged. Don’t get flabby. Write everyday. Write when inspiration punches you in the gut. Write when you have exactly one minute of free time. When the writing feels moth-eaten and clichéd, put it away and come back to it later. Try to love your writing as tenderly as you love your child. See it as flawed and needing room to grow. Furiously write down the phrases that come to you however they do (the creative gods, a toothpaste commercial) and keep them like a crow’s collection of candy wrappers and paper clips. Peruse through them even when you’re sure nothing will come to you. Sometimes you just need to check in. Remember the wildness of writing, how putting words together can be an exhilarating adventure. Parenting is like that too. You embark on an epic quest each day to make sure the children in your care stay alive and loved in a cruel unbearable world. Make your writing live in the same harsh world. Coerce the embers of it into a roaring fire. Don’t let it go out.
Working for The Pinch, Fjords Review, and now Nightjar Review, I’m always reminded of why it’s important every writer work for a literary journal. This article covers the basics, but I’ll add my few thoughts.
As a reader or an editor, you will develop a fine eye for what’s good and what’s just terrible. You’ll realize with utter horror how many of the mistakes you’ve read in these submissions (typos, errors, terrible pacing, useless line breaks) that you’ve made yourself, and you, with God as your witness, will cry that you will never make those mistakes again. That is the best part of working for a literary journal. You will learn with humbling certainty what not to do. You’ll learn exactly why you were rejected over and over again because you’re a lughead who kept sending out poems that were filmy and drab from all the superfluous words you’d added. You will learn to cut and trim because no, you will not get rejected like an idiot again by sending out work not ready yet.
Also, you’ll discover how important it is to have an idea of a journal’s aesthetic before submitting your own work to them. If a journal only accepts sestinas about constipation and you send in a prose poem about your mother’s funeral, you’re going to get rejected. When you work for a journal, this is so clear. “We only accept lyric poetry! Why are you sending in narrative??” It’s so clear you’ll never read the journal or what it posts online before submitting again.
You’ll also see the greater picture that we, as submitters, never get to see. For example, we at Nightjar Review have received some absolutely stunning poems, but they are too similar thematically or stylistically to other works we’ve already accepted to be selected at this time. When we’re only showcasing 7-10 poets an issue, we have to be very very choosy about the poems we select. They can’t all tell the same story the same way. This is why there are different tiers of rejections. We don’t want to send someone whose work we really liked a form rejection. We’ll send them an encouraging one instead. Yes, we want more, but we want it later when maybe we haven’t accepted already too many octopus poems.
Sometimes great writing isn’t accepted just because an issue is full or it’s too similar to another piece; it’s never because some scornful God is out there hating you/your creations. Sometimes good writing, but not great writing, is accepted because it fills out an issue and/or is different from everything accepted before. Sometimes bad writing is accepted because of the name attached to it or, again, it fills out an issue when a deadline is looming.
The nature of literary journals is that they are political in their selections, so the next time you find yourself in a foaming rage because such-and-such-journal published such a crappy piece by so-and-so or some no name, think back to this and understand that it’s no reflection on your work that they rejected; it’s all about that greater picture you aren’t clued into. If you worked for a journal, you would have that understanding, and that understanding could go a long way to cooling your temper.
Another benefit to working for a literary journal is you become (somewhat) free of insecurity of what you are. Editors and readers are just normal writers trying to make it like everyone else, but suddenly you’re getting a ton of submissions that address you as Ms. Mulroy or Mrs. Mulroy or Editor Mulroy, and it feels really legit. It can feel very ungrounding being a writer. You’re constantly being rejected: no NEA this year, that journal who loved your last submission sent you a form rejection this time, ANOTHER semifinalist nod from a book contest, the residency you had a fellowship to last year only offered you a meagre scholarship this year. When you’re an editor or a reader for a journal, that’s a stationary thing generally. Some graduate-run journals do change positions every semester, but for Ruth and I, we started this baby and we are going to be editors for it until we decide not to be editors for it anymore. Our “job title” is stationary. We don’t have to deal with the same swaying force of, “Am I a poet/writer? Am I any good?” No one’s rejecting us for our editorial skills. And journals are always looking for volunteer readers/editors, and they’ll probably love you as a volunteer for as long as you’re willing to do it.
You also start to feel a little like a somebody, especially if you’re an editor. Don’t let it get to your head, but you’re suddenly on the other side of the writing world. Instead of sending your little work out, palms up and vulnerable waiting for someone else to decide on it, you’re doing the deciding. People might re-tweet your tweets! They might ask you for interviews or to judge contests. You also have a real reason to talk to those fancy writers you’ve quivered just being near before: “Hey, I’m editor for __________, and we really love your work. Would you consider submitting?” I did this one year at AWP, running around chatting up fancy people and, if anything, it gave me an icebreaker. Saying, “Hey, I’m a poet, and I really love your work” has a chance of not going anywhere. They could just look at you and say, “Oh, that’s nice” and turn away before seeing your heart crumple in your chest. An invitation is inviting and could at least get you a response like, “Oh, I’ll think about it. Thanks for asking,” which is at least one sentence longer than that other response.
The other part of being an editor/reader is the humbling part. Yes, your ego can inflate indefinitely if you enjoy playing God, deciding the “fates” of each of the pieces sent to you, but you will also read submissions that widen your eyes and make you think, “How did this person write this? I can never do this, so I’ll just never write again.” This is especially disheartening when, for some reason or another, you have to reject that brilliant piece. If they’re getting rejected, what hope do I have? you might moan in your head. But then there are days when you read something that sets off the nerves in your fingertips and all you want to do is write and write and write, and it doesn’t matter that so-and-so wrote that brilliant something because today you were reminded of why you love writing and why you chose a gig like working for a literary journal in the first place: to be around and share great writing, and maybe some other journal will get fired up about your great piece and want to share it too.
“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.” ― Madeleine L’Engle
Ever since I finished up as Managing Editor for The Pinch Journal in January 2012, I’ve wanted to start my own journal. With other former Pinch editors, I’ve bandied around the idea multiple times, even going so far as to quit serving as Reader and Social Media Editor for Fjords Review in late 2012 with the real intention of starting one very very soon, but, you know, life and stuff, and I wanted a partner and a good partner is hard to find.
Fast forward to April 2016. I was talking to my good friend Ruth Baumann, another former Pinchie, and bemoaning that it had been four years–four whole years!–since I’d last made a go of starting a journal, and then this brave little thought occurred to me, “what about asking HER?” So I asked her AND SHE WAS DOWN.
Starting a literary journal is no easy matter. There are literally thousands of journals all beating the same well-beaten path, so how were we going to carve out something special?
But before we even worried about that, we had to handle the business side:
- picking a name for the journal
- deciding on what genres we wanted to publish
- deciding on how many issues we would put out per year and how many poems we would put out per issue
- deciding on when our reading periods would be
- starting a website (freebie version)
- setting up a listing with Duotrope
- setting up a Facebook and Twitter page
- putting out feelers for helpers and enthusiasts on our personal social media pages/sites
What we found out quickly is that we are friends with a lot of people who are passionate about literary journals. We were blown away by how many people offered to read or solicit authors for us and even offered to be editors of other genres if we added in other genres later. We felt more secure that maybe our project was viable. Maybe it was even a good idea.
After those major confidence boosters, we purchased a domain name and moved our site to a host, so we could have more control over the layout and making it look more professional and consistent. We started throwing ourselves into soliciting well-known and emerging poets whose work we loved. We conceived another aspect of our journal that will be revealed at a later time and started the necessary footwork for that.
We also did our homework, like listening to a recording of the AWP Panel: “So You Think You Want to Start a Lit Mag: Straight Talk from Editors About Launching Mags and Keeping Them Afloat” found here. We nailed down aesthetic and discussed our future: kickstarter? contests? new genres?
There’s still much that can and will be shaped as we find our own way, but I’m excited. Here’s to new endeavors, po-friends. Here’s to our new little space. Meet and love Nightjar Review.