Our daughter gets angry when she can’t do something perfectly the first time she tries it. She grumbles when she can’t get the stitches right the first time she knits, or she throws down her first macrame when the chevrons don’t match up, or she cries when she begins with the “expert” pattern for her rubber band bracelets and the tiny elastics snarl like a neon multicolored fishing net. I shake my head and tell her, “You can’t expect to get even the simplest pattern perfect the first time you try. You have to practice – after you’ve done a few, then you can move to the harder stuff.”
Like I have any room to talk.
Last December, I was a neophyte blogger. I’d barely logged 40 posts. Back then, I sat down at the keyboard and fired off blog posts when the spirit moved me, sometimes two days in a row, sometimes with two weeks between entries. I didn’t have a schedule. I didn’t concern myself with craft, with arcs, with cohesion and themes and, let’s face it, with having a point. Yet, last week, when I received two big rejections – rejections I truly thought would be acceptances – my heart caved in on itself. I was flooded with self-doubt, and thought, I chose the wrong path. I’m no writer.
Barely a year after starting a blog, I was devastated because my work was rejected by top notch literary journals. Our daughter gets it honest.
Our daughter also has a stubborn streak. If she can’t get the front door to unlock, she will grunt and turn the key harder, torquing metal til I think her little 8-year-old hand might break it off in the lock. She twists the key and stamps her foot, as if by will and brute strength she can tumble the bolt’s mechanism. She never succeeds. What the lock needs is for the key to be backed off. What it needs is a gentle jiggle.
After my initial tears, after I read the rejection notes and had my cries, I thought, I will power through this. I refuse to give up. Like my daughter, I set my chin and vowed, I will work harder, faster, stronger. (Read: finesse be damned.) I read an excellent and timely piece, Befriending Doubt, by Deborah Lee Luskin on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog, and was encouraged by Luskin’s acceptance of self-doubt. In the comments she mentioned that she once met a writer “whose goal was to receive 100 rejections in a year. He did it – and placed eight stories as a result.” I thought – Aha! That will be my 2014 goal: to receive 100 rejections. That will be a way for me to embrace rejection. One hundred rejections will mean I’m sending tons of work out. And out of 100 rejections, surely there would be one acceptance, right?
But. In a rare moment of clarity, unobscured by stubbornness or greedy I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now ambition, I realized that what I want, what I really want, is to become a better writer. I want to be proud of the work I send out. Instead of this manic, frantic need to publish, to receive validation, to believe someone else thinks I’m good, instead of starting at the endpoint, with publication, I’m going to start at the beginning: with craft. I want to learn to finesse instead of force.
At swim meets I tell our daughter, “Don’t be disappointed that you’re not first in your race. You’re still learning the strokes. Learn the basics first: how to dive off the blocks, how to kick, how to angle your arms, when to breathe. You’ll get better results with a better stroke.” How can I expect to win acceptances when I’m still learning how to write? Throughout 2013 I found myself wanting to read more about craft, to read my writing magazines, and Essay Daily, and the writing books I’ve bought but don’t finish because I’m frantically writing, pressuring myself to submit, submit, submit.
In 2014, my goal is not going to be 100 submissions, or 100 rejections, or even 1 acceptance. In 2014, I resolve to take the pressure off. In 2014, I resolve to work on craft.
1. I’m going back to the basics, starting with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
Sadly, I no longer own my high school copy of this essential writer’s resource, but at $6.99, I think I can invest in it again*. The tiny volume is only 105 pages long, and it’s possible I will get to it before we even begin the new year.
2. I will read, cover to cover, the writing books I’ve begun and have not yet finished, that have been sitting on my Goodreads currently-reading shelf for far too long:
- Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore
- The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long
- The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore
3. I will practice one craft exercise per week. In my writing group we are working our way through Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, assigning ourselves homework exercises each week from her pages. Snapshots from the writing desk and Word trap were products of these assignments. I don’t always do the work (e.g. this week), but in 2014 I will prioritize this craft work.
4. I will befriend revision. Wow, you have no idea how hard that was to write. Revision is currently my biggest foe. I avoid eye contact and cross to the other side of the street when I see it coming. As a consequence, I’ve been sending work out too early, before it is ready. Until I look revision in the eye and start working with it, I have no business submitting work for publication.
It’s time to start at the beginning for once. I’m going to take the advice we give our daughter, and I am going to begin as a beginner, with beginner expectations instead of jumping to the end, expecting to be an expert before I am one. And little by little, year by year, I will get there.