Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Writer

In the midst of months of craziness and crises, two weeks ago I spent the weekend with eight poets, two group leaders, and two Senior Editors from two small and well known publishers. From what I could tell, everyone was published--many times over--but me.
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This was the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference, a pre-screened by invitation only weekend for poets who have a completed manuscript (40 or 50 poems) eager for publication. The conference evaluates each manuscript in detail--including one full day watching and listening to seasoned editors open your envelope as if they were sitting at their desk, review your cover letter, and think and talk aloud as they turn each page and review everything from the Table of Contents to the first few poems. This is advice and feedback one would never ever be privy to in most circumstances.
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Well. Let me begin by saying I was the least prepared and possibly the least polished among this otherwise impressive group. It's possible I was the least talented as well. I did not expect that and truth-be-told, I am not used to being at the bottom rung of talent or prestige.
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After the first round--a review of "5 poems I couldn't live without, 5 poems I could live without, and 5 poems in the middle of my manuscript", I almost left. "This manuscript can't really be reviewed because almost every poem needs revision", the well published and impressive group leader said to me in front of my 4 person work group.
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Even my very favorite poems! "Poorly used and mixed metaphors, lack of clarity about what the poem(s) is about, predictable and uninteresting rhyme patterns, inaccuracy of images.". The Senior Editor of Ausable Press--a woman clearly worth immeasurable dollars for her time and take, ended by saying, "This manuscript is not yet ready to fly".
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To be fair, she said nice things about my different styles and experimentation, my emotional resonance, some use of sparkling language, a few great images. And by the time the weekend was over, not one of us nine had passed the "manuscript is ready" threshold. While I was at times embarrassed, there were several poets--finalists in major poetry contests and first runner ups in publication reviews--who were far more pained than I by the advice they received.
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Does this sound excruciating? Guess what: it was. And it was the most helpful weekend I may ever spend in my pursuit of excellence and success as a writer. I think most of us felt that way. The mystery of the publishing world, the actual odds and difficulty of getting published, the reality that there are plenty of fabulous writers competing for very few opportunities--all of this has grounded and inspired me.
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Plus: I learned a ton. Here are some of the high points in abbreviated form. They may just apply to any endeavor, not just writing:
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If you don't know the importance of revising and revising again (I didn't...), you don't know something very basic.
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Never ever ever ever submit a weak unfinished piece. It's never about quanity. Every single word and piece of writing has to be your best, or you've wasted the effort.
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Writing requires great faith, great doubt, and great determination.
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Here's how one senior editor looks evaluates the manuscripts she receives. It must be:
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1. "At least as smart as I am
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2. Something I can learn from, or
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3. A story or poem that will pull me into its world and rattle my heart
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4. Or that knocks me out with its bravado"
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Don't polish until you know what you're writing about.
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Good writing answers this: "In a world where X is true, what else is there?"

As a Counselor, I've often told my clients, "Soft friends protect you and hard friends teach you to protect yourself." The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference was a hard friend to be sure, but I survived. I have a feeling my writing will never be the same. And that fact alone is all good.

12 comments:

  1. If you are a chronic over achiever, it is a wonderful thing to hang out at the bottom rungs sometimes. I wish there was a friendlier, kinder way of being edited, but at least it does teach us that we can take harsh criticism and not DIE...That's good to know when something not so good gets published and you wish it hadn't been-the key is just to move on.

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  2. That had to be brutal, and you are very brave for going through it. It shows you really want to write well, and I believe the benefit will be at least as great as the pain!

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  3. debra kay and rm, thank you both! you are both wise and right. i'm glad i was able to write about it!

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  4. I can't wait to experience your 'different' writing KJ!

    OH just did! Hhehehhee

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  5. KJ, one of the things that strikes me about you is your willingness to share something like this. You could have just told us the nice things that were said about your poetry, but you were really open and honest. Which is very strong and brave!

    Also, I am always following and reading your blog. I just don't always comment. I am very much enjoying L and A.

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  6. I hate it when that happens.

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  7. "Writing requires great faith, great doubt, and great determination"

    I guess that is true for almost everything in life...
    I resigned myself years ago that I will never be able to compete with the top in whatever.

    But it is not because we are not the best or the smartest that we can't find happiness in what we are doing.
    As long as writing, drawing, painting, gardening or whatever makes us happy we should continue to do it.

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  8. Wow ... KJ, this was riveting, terrifying, and inspiring all at once. We write, and what we write and hand over for scrutiny is really a big chunk of our insides ... I agree with Red Mojo, you were very brave ... both in going and in *staying* ... and then again with sharing it all with us. I learned from this post ... thank you. :)

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  9. You are brave and I am pleased for you that this experience has been of benefit to you.

    I have never sent anything of to be reviewed and do not thing I ever will.

    Although I would love to hold a book in my hands that had my name on it I couldn't bear for someone to tell me that a poem needed revising if I liked it the way it was.

    The poem would be the way it is because that is the way I wrote it and how I am happy with it. That would mean more to me than someone deciding to publish it. Does that make sense? I'm a strange one I know :]

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  10. I am proud of you for being so brave because you will only grow from this in the long run. I live in the land of rejection so this has a familiar ring to it and I can appreciate your experience and courage!

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  11. KJ, I was there, and you're so hard on yourself! From what I saw of your poems, you have great depth and imagination. I'm interested to see where you go with your poems. Anyway, we all felt pretty rotten, and yet inspired, after that weekend, I think. Lots of work to do to improve...

    I so enjoyed meeting you. You definitely inspired me to become more web-savvy. I even have my own blog now: www.danastangelplowe.com. (It's a piddly little thing, nothing like your terrific blog, but still, I wanted you to know!)
    Keep in touch, D.

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  12. dana!!!

    what a delightful shock and surprise to find your comment here!

    i tried to open your blog but couldn't. i definitely will visit you so please let me know if there is a problem or change in accessing it.

    it was a pleasure to meet you also. what a weekend. and...your manuscript was truly just about the very finest among us...

    xo

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