The following piece first appeared as a guest post for my friend Lancia Smith’s site Cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The piece is a response to her question about how I write through dark times. While this is not a particular dark time in my life, I find it a good week to share this piece again, after having received yet another rejection from a publisher. I feel obligated to take my own advice and use rejection not as a reason to stop writing, but as just another prompt. So, here we go…
Writing as life-preserver
It’s like this: I float face up on cool Adirondack waters in upstate NY, puffy summer clouds floating in a mirrored sea of blue above me. I lay that way until I lose track of time, seven feet of lake below rocking me gently. It could be seconds or hours – suspended animation. A perfect moment.
Then it’s time to move. Backstroke back to shore, feeling the crick and stretch of my joints. This is how I swim, face up, watching the sky, me and water working in unison. I float better that way. Truth be told, I am a terrible swimmer, but man oh man, can I float. I think buoyancy runs in my family, as my older brother Dan tells the tale of winning a prize for being the best floater at summer camp.
That’s how it is for me with writing. When I lean back into it with the trust of practice, I float. And the words come. They do, every time. They might not be the exact right words the first time around, but something comes out that I can work with if I am a gracious host with the words and just let them flow.
That is how I write when the going gets rough: the same way I write anytime. Trust. I trust the practice of it. I float.
after the storm, sky
the color of a bruise
Writing serves as my life boat through rough waters. It gets me through. Ever since my teenage years – by their very definition, difficult – writing has been my raft. It’s not a question of how I write when everything around me seems to be going to crap. I don’t know what else to do at those times.
Writing through self-doubt
Back at the water, back in the deep, floating and thinking, thinking and floating, and that’s where a different kind of trouble begins. I think too much. I begin to distrust the water – What if a huge slimy cousin of the Loch Ness monster is trolling below me looking for lunch? Maybe a jet ski loses control and doesn’t see me floating here? What if? What if? So I roll up instead of lean back, fighting the lift – I flounder. It’s then all splashing and panic and water up the nose.
When I don’t trust the writing process, it’s like that. I clench up. I panic.
I have found the only way to get out of that spiral is to write through it. So I do. I could show you dozens of writing practice and journal entries that begin something like this:
“Nothing like nothing to say. I can’t even write poetry anymore. What is wrong with me? … It’s a lack of a goal, in a way. I just don’t feel like I care about anything enough to write about it. Except here I am, writing about not caring about writing about anything. Oh my gosh, I am truly insane.”
That was the beginning of an entry from early January. A few paragraphs later, I stumbled on a haiku:
the moon covers up
with a cloud
What matters is showing up for the writing practice, even ten minutes here or there, and just writing with no expectation. I used to put so much pressure on myself to produce each time I wrote. I would think so much before about what I wanted to say, and often ran out of time to actually sit and write it out. Or I’d forget what I wanted to say by the time I had it all sorted in my head.
I realized eventually that writing and editing were two different things, and to try to do them together was paralyzing. I stopped doing that. Now mainly I just write when I’m writing, then later go back and clean it up. It’s so much easier that way.
Writing in the margins
The lake, the pool, the ocean… they’re not going anywhere. The water will be there, even when I am not. The big challenge with swimming is the preparation, finding time to get out there. Get the suit on. Go to the where the water waits. Wade in, let body temp adjust. Do the floaty thing for however long. Get out, get changed, get back to the rest of life.
Time can be the biggest challenge to writing – and the mental preparation – putting the suit on. The past year for me has been very busy and full of many changes. Most evenings I would come home from work mentally exhausted, simply because everything was so new. It has been difficult to write, and I have done a lot less blogging through the past few months than previously.
But I never stop writing. I just write shorter. And I write a lot about how it feels not to be writing.
I considered writing
about the pair of cardinals
living in our holly bush
they flew away.
My husband is also a writer, and we talk frequently about “writing in the margins.” It’s how we get it done when life is uncooperative. We take a few minutes here and there and jot things down. I rarely have hours to write, but I often have moments. So I take snapshots and sort them out later.
Rejection as inspiration
Swimming has never been a competitive thing for me. It’s simple, really. I’m not good enough to compete, so I can just enjoy it. There’s freedom in not good enough.
I try to maintain that freedom with writing, but it’s not the same. Writing has been a marker for me throughout my life. People know me for it. There is not one person who knows me because I like to float. But folks who have known me for more than a day know that I write. I get introduced to people not infrequently like this: “This is my friend Kelly. She’s the poet I told you about.”
Seriously cool. But there’s some pressure with that, lots of self-doubt and questioning, in those moments when the slimy lake monster begins to circle beneath my muse. Any literate person can write. Literally. What makes me think I have the right to throw my words into the arena? What makes me so special?
Of course, I know the answer: Nothing. Nothing except that I want to do it and I keep trying – even after receiving three rejections from journals in one week. Yeah, that happened recently. After licking my wounds and eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s “Chocolate Therapy,” I polished up four poems and submitted them to a poetry competition the next week.
After a similar round of rejections last winter, I wrote this found poem based on one of the letters received from a journal declining my submissions:
The Dare (found poetry)
“Thank you for this submission,”
This thing held out between fingers
like a field mouse found in the good silver
“…which we have now decided to decline.”
I tell myself not to care, that my poems are
not me, not my children – they are work
“We receive many, fine submissions and it is always difficult to choose.”
I give them my darlings, dress them in 12 point font,
send by email, by snail mail, will hand deliver if required
“We appreciate your interest… and hope you will consider submitting in the future.”
So I do it all over again – not “submitting,” simply
casting bread upon the water (I tell myself).
“Best regards, Editors.”
Not even “The Editors” – as if a warehouse full
of nameless Editors waited ready to judge.
Rejection is just another prompt for writing.
Because, you see, even those of us who are not terribly competitive, we do compete. We compete for space on the page. We compete with ourselves. We compete with time and energy to see which of us will last the longest, because it’s how in the end we get read.
That connection with another soul through my words – to be read –I’ll backstroke all day long to get to that shore.