Persistence is omnipotent

On Friday, I made the poor decision of looking up contests I could send my book to. I looked up people’s books I liked, checked out the contests they won, checked out that contest’s other books, and then started looking up fees, deadlines, etc.

Once I started looking at the fee aspect, I didn’t want to write or edit anymore. All my desire just seized up. Really, fear stepped in. How am I going to pay all those fees? What happens if I do and it loses all the contests anyway? What happens if all this work now means I just end up re-editing it next year and the next…?

Oh, fear. It’s hard enough being a poet when there are bunches of us and so everything is incredibly competitive, but load on some fear of being selected and work being for naught in there too…

I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Albergotti at the Southern Festival of Books. His second book, Millenial Teeth, won the Crab Orchard Review Open Poetry Competition. He told me, “Persistence is omnipotent.”

per·sist·ence
pərˈsistəns/
noun
firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.

om·nip·o·tent
ˌämˈnipəd(ə)nt/
adjective
having unlimited power; able to do anything.

Basically, if I keep at it, things will work out. That obviously worked for him, so it’s possible it could work for me.

Right now, the manuscript is at 54 pages, and I really think it should be at 60. It may not be possible to do currently since I can write until the cows come home, but are the poems going to be good enough to put in the manuscript? We will see.

I’m also finding that my current work now all has a similar vein, so I’m wondering if it wouldn’t suit me better to give up on this manuscript and start working toward another one instead or do another chapbook.

Persistence is omnipotent…persistence is omnipotent….

The Nature of Not Looking at the Sun

At the end of July of this year, I started a new job, one I absolutely love. With all of the change and adjustment that comes with a new job, I’ve really put everything writing-related on my periphery, and that has been interesting in its own process.

During my MFA program, all I did was look at my own writing. I was writing it, submitting it for critique in class, editing it, submitting it, going back over it once it was rejected, re-submitting it, then, often, I was looking at it again once I started putting together a collection of poems.

I was also always looking at writing-related things. I was reading the work of other writers, in class, for The Pinch, or in literary journals. I was brushing up on writing contests, stalking other writers for solicitations, talking with other writers, attending readings and book festivals. Blogging. Tweeting. Status updating. All about writing.

Looking at all of this writing felt like, in a way, looking at the sun. Often looking at it so intensely that it hurt, like when my book got its first round of rejections or when several literary journals all at once returned a piece saying it was “so close.” The intensity of my gaze made these rebuffs all the more acute.

Having this job as my main focus has meant I haven’t been focusing at all on my writing, so when I’ve received pretty big rejections, I haven’t felt them very much or, in some cases, at all.

When none of my poems were selected to appear in Best New Poets 2013, which two literary journals had nominated my work for, I shrugged and returned to grading papers. When my book, again, wasn’t selected for a finalist or semifinalist for two major contests, I looked over the manuscript again casually while eating breakfast one morning, and sent it out to another contest later that month.

The same has been true for good news. An independent press that I had sent a manuscript query to requested to see the full-length. I sent it to them a day later with only opening the file to make sure it was my most recently edited version. Someone solicited me to submit work for a poetry anthology. I went through some of my poems that fit the theme they were asking for and sent a packet out with little worry or anxiety a few weeks later.

This morning, I sat down and read and edited and submitted, and it was a nice morning. I even submitted to some journals that not only charge $3 fees for submission, but also are really fantastic journals that I never was brave enough to submit to (or willing to shell out the money for) before.

I can’t decide whether I’d recommend “not looking at the sun.” For me,  getting a full-time job that is not dependent on my success in the literary world has made me change my priorities. Before, since I was always thinking, “Well, I can’t get a position as a professor UNLESS I have a book, preferably two, and lots of fancy publications, and maybe I’ve won some contests…” I needed to write and submit and write and submit.

Now, there’s still a need–my spirit feels really cluttered when I’m not actively writing–, but the need isn’t chained to a desire for material success, and for me, I needed that freedom.

Happy writing!

 

 

The Nature and importance of Failure and Having a Writing Community

As soon as I started submitting to literary journals, I realized failure would quickly become a part of my life. I didn’t know at the time or even until very recently, some four years after I first started actively submitting, that working through each of those failures (rejections, close calls, whatever we want to call them) in an environment of my peers would help my character in large ways.

Dominic Randolph, the head of Riverdale Country School, says, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure.” Randolph goes on to say that most children from affluent families don’t fail at anything, and thus may be terrified of failing and avoid ventures where they may run the risk of doing so.

This was the case for me. I never failed at anything at school, and I also didn’t try out many things that I could fail at. For some, this might be called having a fixed vs. a growth mindset.

From http://qedfoundation.org/fixed-vs-growth-mindsets/

Posited by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, if I have a “fixed” mindset, I only choose activities that reinforce my ideas of myself. I know I’m good at writing, so I put myself in situations where I look good at writing. I don’t put myself in situations where I might struggle, not look like the best, or have to work hard. I don’t try new things or persist in activities that don’t give me the immediate gratification of looking good. If I have a “growth” mindset, the opposite is true. I see my ability at writing as not fixed. I work hard to improve it, listen to feedback from others, read widely, take suggestions. I try new things and feel all right not being the “best” at them.

For many years, I had a “fixed” mindset. I avoided anything that didn’t come immediately easy to me. I dropped sports, avoided people who I was jealous of, ignored helpful feedback (and sometimes even responded angrily). I once took guitar lessons after having no musical training ever, but stopped as soon as it got too hard. I had an idea, whether I wanted to state it or not, that my fate was determined. I was good at writing, and that was that.

Then I enrolled in an MFA program.  There, I wasn’t the best at writing; I was on the bottom tier for at least my first year. I went home crying from workshop several times because I found my peers’ feedback so unfair. I also was antagonistic of their comments, thinking to myself, “Well, they’re not doing that in their own poems, so how can they say that about mine!” Even though a small voice said inside of me, “What happens if they’re right?” I also started submitting,and (big surprise) The New Yorker didn’t accept my poems. The red carpet wasn’t laid out for me. I was going to have to work and change, or I’d never get any better. 

This morning, while reading an article on how to get young people to volunteer, it stated that “75.9% of those whose friends volunteer on a regular basis also volunteer.” It goes on to pose the question, “Who knew peer pressure could be such a good thing?”

I can apply that to my own life. On my own, pre-MFA, I submitted to a couple of literary journals, but stopped as soon as those first rejections came back.  I wasn’t willing to keep trying to submit on my own and face failure after failure, but in an MFA program, surrounded by my peers who were also submitting, also facing rejection, and even encouraging me to submit, I was more than willing; I was resolved. I went from thinking “I’m the best. Let me stay the best.” to “Let’s see if I can get better. Can you help me?” 

Today I keep trying, regardless of what the endeavor is. I’ve used that persistence and humility in submitting my individual work and my book and chapbook, applying for jobs, running and doing yoga, and teaching. I also try to silence those voices that say, “Oh, you’ll never be good at that.” If I’ve learned anything from this whole process, it is that I can change. More specifically, that I can change with the help of others.

Happy writing!

2013 Goals

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Last year, I made a set of writing goals for myself. Out of the five, I met two respectively and three if I’m fudging a bit. I got one of my fiction stories published. I got published in three of the journals my heart leaps for joy over ([PANK], CutBankand Third Coast), and I sort of kept up my writing ritual (this is the one I’d have to fudge on).

Here are my goals for 2013:

#1. Get my poetry manuscript, Swallow Tongue, accepted for publication. (Completing it in 2012 and having just done a major revision on it, this is a fantasy goal and may be on my goal list for years to come. Regardless, I want to put it out to the universe that it’s something I want and see what the universe has to say about it.)

#2. Get one of my creative nonfiction essays accepted for publication. (I was super surprised last year when in November, after working my butt off for a year editing and excising and submitting, I finally got notice that PANK had accepted one of my fiction stories for publication. A month and a day shy of 2013, but I still met that goal! Getting a fiction story published seemed like a nearly impossible goal, something I could only dream might happen. This year, I’m going to try the same with creative nonfiction. I wrote three essays in 2012 and with this goal in mind, I can definitely work on them and see what happens!)

#3. Write 30 50 poems. (Last year, I wrote 25 poems. This year I want to try for more. I also like that this goal has a specific number.)

#4. Submit high. (My submitting process is holding pretty steady, and I just want to continue to submit to journals that daunt me with how cool they are. Maybe one day I’ll grace their pages.)

#5. Do something special just for my writing. (While last year I set a goal to get into Bread Loaf, I probably won’t be applying this year. I need to reserve my vacation for spending time with my two best friends who happen to live in two different states. Maybe I’ll be able to attend a conference or a retreat, but I want to leave myself open to exploring other writing things, like doing a poem-a-day for some length of time, which I’ve never been brave enough to do before.)

While I didn’t meet all of my goals last year, I made some big strides, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this next year pans out.

What are your literary goals for 2013?

On the CT Shooting

I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened. By second period, the second plane had hit, and for the rest of the day, our teachers didn’t even bother trying to teach; they kept the news on while we, the students, sat in groups talking.

My father remembers where exactly he was (walking down a path outside his elementary school) when he learned JFK had been shot. I will always remember where I was when I heard about 9/11. Now, I can add the shooting in Connecticut to that list of geographical memory associations.

I was on break from teaching when I read the news. As a teacher at a school for the K-12 level, it is an amazingly awful thing to hear about anyone walking into an elementary school and opening fire.

Compound that with the fact that I work with children with a wide range of learning, behavioral, and emotional issues which includes autism.

Compound that with the fact that my husband and I want to have a baby and have been in a long struggle with whether or when that will happen, and to now have to think, “Could my child ever be shot while at school or be the shooter?”

This tragedy affects me in ways I am still trying shape. When I read about the teacher who hid her students in the bathroom and closet and then told the shooter they had gone to the gym and was gunned down, I cried because I know, just as every teacher knows, the first thing I would think to do would be to protect my students.

My other concern is that children with autism will be looked at differently because the shooter’s mental diagnosis has been released to the public. Over the four years I’ve taught, I have worked with many children and adults who have autism, none of whom had a violent streak that made me pause. Many of them were brilliant and deeply sensitive. Some were amazing writers and artists; others had strong passions for music or environmentalism. Thankfully, I’ve read at least one article that has addressed that fact that Asperger’s is not associated with violent behavior.

Adam Lanza didn’t get what he needed. He doesn’t represent all people that have autism. The CT shooting represents a need for a change. What that change needs to be, I don’t know, but something has to.

Earlier this year, my husband and I wondered whether I’d be able to get pregnant when my doctor discovered a tumor on my ovary. There is still concern that I may be infertile, but the surgery to remove it went perfectly and I’ve been assured that I should be able to get pregnant. It’s terrifying to think about bringing new life into a world where our babies might shoot other babies, where even at school where they learn the alphabet and their numbers and how to navigate the awkward waters of social interaction, they might not be safe.

Since December 14th, I’ve treated myself and those I love with tenderness. I’ve insisted on how much I love them. I’ve done things that I need to do regularly to take care of myself, which includes writing this. Sometimes I write just to try to understand the incomprehensible and to try to accept that it’s impossible for me to understand something that’s incomprehensible. I’ve started the business of “moving on,” which is something we’re all so used to now.

Let us all keep moving on, and hold each other dearly.

The Importance of Cover Letters

This should be an Arnold Schwarzenegger moment. Everyone is dying and desperate, but then I arrive, and hope comes into their eyes. If I had arisen out of the chaos of my house and been able to at least clear my dining room table, maybe it would feel like that.  Instead, I moved four piles of clean clothes over, slapped my computer on top of a stack of papers, and reclined against some assemblage of my bathrobe, two shirts, and my husband’s pants from yesterday. (Way after I wrote this, I realized Arnold said, “I’ll be back,” not “I’m back.” I think I’ve only heard “I’m back” by some serial killer who’s about to hack someone to pieces.)

My life is chaos at the moment. Every room is filled with boxes in some stage of unpacking. A couple I just need to take out to the curb, but with the two day haul this past weekend and then not getting off work until 7 last night, my energy is in the skivvies.

Our new house is absolutely wonderful. My husband and I are both getting separate rooms: his for his sports collectibles, mine for writing. My husband is also kindly painting my writing room for me tomorrow while he’s off work. It currently is a rather obnoxious shade of pink-purple. While I wanted to pick “Dorian Gray” (it’s a real color, I promise!), I chose “Repose Gray” from Sherwin-Williams, which is a nice light gray. The house already has rooms painted green, blue, red, and khaki, so I wanted something a little different for my SPECIAL WRITING ROOM(!).

~

After being out of touch with the writing life for a little bit, I decided to get back in the swing of things by reading for Fjords. I was reminded again of the importance of cover letters, and the importance of succinct and concise ones at that.

I follow a rather simple template:

“Dear Editors/Readers: (if I can find the name of the genre editor, I’ll list their name as “Mr./Ms ______” followed by “and Readers”)

Here are some new poems for your consideration. I really enjoyed _________’s and ________’s poems in your last issue. Keep up the good work!

All the best,

Tara Mae

Bio: Tara Mae Mulroy is a former Managing Editor of The Pinch and a graduate of the MFA program in Poetry at the University of Memphis. Her work is forthcoming in Third Coast and others. Her blog can be found at taramaemulroy.wordpress.com.

Included: Poem title 1; Poem title 2; Poem title 3Poem title 4; Poem title 5

These are simultaneous submissions.”

I actually started using this template after reading this post up on Gulf Coast‘s blog. What I like about it is that it’s short, shows I’ve read the journal before, and includes a short third-person bio, the names of the poems, and the fact that they are simultaneous submissions (if I’m submitting to a SS journal. If I’m submitting to a non-SS journal, it should not say this and that packet should also not be submitted anywhere else).

Things I’ve seen as an editor that you should never ever do:

-Cover letters with no bios. Even if you don’t have any publications or any experience in academia, state something as simple as, “John Doe currently pushes paper at a high-profile corporation. In his free time, he writes poetry. If accepted, this will be his first publication.” Some editors love publishing the work of new writers, so don’t be nervous about stating that.

-Cover letters with long explanations of how the author came up with the idea for/edited/bled over the poem(s)/story/essay. Writers love talking about their process, but unfortunately, an editor who has just read forty other submissions is probably not going to want to read yours. Don’t include it; save it for your writing group.

-Cover letters that include someone’s entire CV. Unless you’re applying for a job in academia, don’t include your CV. No literary journal editor or reader wants to wade through your 3-4 page CV. Just list your most relevant work/academic experiences and recent/forthcoming publications in a less-than-150-words bio. Endgame.

-Cover letters with half-page bios. Again, editors (or at least this one) value brevity. Shoot for 150 words or less.

-Cover letters that are addressed to the Managing Editor. Unless you personally know the Managing Editor for a specific journal, don’t address a submission to him/her. Address it to the genre editor.

-Cover letters that include profanity, such as saying, “John Doe is a M*****F****** poet from the Bronx.” I know sometimes that’s cool and all that, but you have no idea what sort of editors you are submitting your work too. They might be all prim and prude, and you never want to offend them from the get-go. I also discourage profanity when talking with an editor at ANY point in the writing process, and never, ever, EVER direct profanity at an editor. There is a special level of hell for people who do that; you don’t want to end up there.

Special cover letters:

When you receive an encouraging/personalized rejection letter from a specific or unidentified editor, SEND WORK BACK TO THEM ASAP, but also make sure to state that you received one in your cover letter. If they gave their name, address your submission to them. If no one was mentioned, address it to the genre editor and then state, “Thank you for the encouraging rejection letter I received for my last packet submitted on _______. Here are some new poems for your consideration…”

If you were solicited to submit work by a specific editor, say something like, “I was solicited to submit work by_________. Here are some poems…”

If you met/know someone who works on the journal, address your cover letter to the genre editor, but mention, “I had the pleasure of meeting so-and-so at_____. Here are some new poems…” As an editor, I like to know when someone I’ve met or know has submitted something to the journal, and I usually take the time to read it. I don’t know how other editors feel about this, but I think it’s cool to think, “Wow, I met this person and talked to them about the journal and here they are submitting!” On the other hand, me taking the time to read it won’t mean its chance of getting published is any higher than any other piece, but it could help start/build a relationship.

All of this is to say is that the business of writing is a professional one. In your cover letter and in your writerly interactions (e-mail, etc.), be kind, polite, and proper. Save your ferocity for your writing.

New endeavors

After a year-long hiatus from working for a literary journal, I’m pleased to announce that I will now be reading for Fjords Review, an absolutely lovely journal. I’m so excited about this new endeavor, and I hope you will consider submitting your best poetry and fiction!

~

In other news, I went running this morning (a slow, slow progress, since I’m re-training after re-injuring an old injury) and started thinking about a creative nonfiction essay I wrote the day of my surgery. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since I wrote it, but haven’t been able to figure out how to approach it. I gave it to a friend to read over, but that was it. Finally, today, I came back from that run and edited it and even came up with an ending, when it had none before.

Sometimes, changing genres is exactly what I need to do. I read once that anytime you get to point in your writing where you’re stuck, try changing the form, or even the genre. I’ve had trouble with figuring out whether a poem needed to be in couplets or quatrains, so I changed it to prose. Seeing it as that block of text helped me figure out how to shape it. Topics I haven’t been able to broach in poetry (like my surgery, my trip to Greece, etc.), I’ve been able to express in fiction or creative nonfiction. There can be so much versatility in being a poet; there’s always a potential to switch, to envision space. I make up it’s a great deal harder for prose writers to make that switch, to shrink than to expand (any of you prose writers feel differently?).

Happy writing!