manila-envelopeWhen to begin the process of submitting one’s work and weathering the storms of submission depend on any given writer’s sensibility – and vulnerability. Publication is the natural desire of any writer (even Emily Dickinson, who claimed she wanted all her poems burned, wrote in riddles – and have you ever told a riddle to yourself?), but the issues of when, how much, where, why, even how (notice I leave out who and what), those questions are highly individual. To that end, I’ll share my wisdom (which comes from limited experience) on the subject of publishing and some playful tidbits that floated up from who-knows-where.

Ten Points on Publishing:

  1. There’s an editor out there who will respond to your work, but there’s no quick way to find him or her;
  2. I’ve only met one person who has never received a rejection slip;
  3. The best way to fight rejection blues is to have an envelope ready and addressed so that when something comes back, you just send it out again – THEN you can curse;
  4. It’s normal to be a bit disappointed, especially if you are confident that what you sent is absolutely the best you can do and does have merit; but if you find yourself obsessed with the process, then pull back and wait, because creating the work is so much more fun than publishing it;
  5. You can’t know how true #4 is until you are published and you discover that it does not change your life;
  6. Well, maybe it does, because you begin to realize that it’s a good feeling, yes, but not a necessary one;
  7. To get that feeling, my advice is to aim high – wait until you think your work is the quality you admire in the magazines, then send to those magazines;
  8. That’s a good word: wait. Give yourself room enough – and time – to develop your style, your content, your confidence;
  9. Remember that just as soon as you’ve found the right editors, established yourself, and your work seems to be going somewhere, some editor will wish you would send the kind of work you “used to send”;
  10. Then you have a choice: compromise and do what you know you CAN do, or start all over again, looking for an editor who responds to your new work so you can explore where your writing still has to take you.

Ten More Personal Points on Publishing (Is that “ten more”? Or “more personal”?):

  1. I only determined that I wanted Stan Lindberg to be my editor because I heard his name three times in one week (not a very scientific, or literary, way of settling on any object of desire);
  2. I submitted work 17 times to The Georgia Review before any was accepted. This makes me think that often we stop too soon, just when an editor is finally getting used to the voice or the style, just before an editor is sure that you have staying power;
  3. By the end, I was sending somewhat cheeky (not threatening) letters along with my submissions;
  4. Before that, to avoid what I felt might be crippling rejection, I gave myself a “five-year-plan” where I would not send work out, but would simply allow myself room for experimentation – and then I stuck to it. I also rely on finding at least one good reader, someone whose critical sense I really trust, and if that reader sees what I’m trying for, then I dig my heels in when it comes to resisting those who would have me change it;
  5. By the time my work was being published, I was too old for it to matter all that much (in a “career” sense) and besides, I was addicted to experimenting, which was a good thing because absolutely nothing changed – certainly not my bank account;
  6. But, yes, it did make it easier to get some jobs, though I promise that after the fact they did not seem like jobs anyone would want to get;
  7. This is covered in #2 above, but I did also learn that the same rule applies to book publishers;
  8. Every time I finished a manuscript, I had a long waiting period before I found new material or a new angle of approach. That waiting period is not writer’s block, but necessary regrouping;
  9. I’ve done a whole lot of this kind of re-fitting, which is due partly to the fact that I’ve tried so many genres, but also because I suspected I could easily become a parody of myself;
  10. Anyone know where I should send out that new manuscript I’ve just finished?

Playful Tidbits:

Worth Remembering: If you stood on a street corner and yelled out the name of the most famous writer you could think of (and this includes Shakespeare), only a few people would know who you were talking about and turn their heads. If you stood there and yelled out the name of ANY contemporary literary writer, no one would recognize the name and turn. If you yelled out your own name, they’d KNOW you were crazy.

Attitude: Everyone is supposed to like my writing. I do, so why shouldn’t everyone else? But then, I don’t like everyone else’s writing. In fact, there are whole lists of people whose work I don’t like, so why should I expect them to like mine? But why don’t they like mine? I mean, mine isn’t as bad as theirs, right? Right. They should recognize that.

They: There’s always a “they.” They aren’t fair. They only want left-handed women who have lost a big toe. They wouldn’t see a right-handed man with six toes if one stared them in the face. They are everywhere. They control everything. They make the rules. It’s them or us. If we made the rules, we’d become a “they” to someone else.

Courting Failure: If your writing is not failing, it’s not succeeding. If it’s not failing to live up to what you intuitively sense it might become, then you know your standards are not high enough. That’s because – for most of us at least – the critical sense is always a step ahead of the creative abilities. You “feel” what you ought to be able to do long before you can actually do it. You know what you want your work to achieve even when you haven’t yet honed the skills to make that happen. The best thing you can say to yourself is “That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.” Trust old Prufrock – he’s over thirty!

Judith Kitchen is co-editor, with Ted Kooser, of The Poets Guide to the Birds (Anhinga Press, 2009) and author of two collections of essays, a novel, and a book of criticism. In addition, she has edited three collections of short nonfiction pieces (In Short, In Brief, and Short Takes) for W. W. Norton. She lives in Port Townsend, Wash., where she serves on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.

[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Soundings, the quarterly newsletter of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.]