There’s an adage that says, “A writer is someone who puts their ass in the chair and writes.”
A writer isn’t someone who publishes, talks about their novel, pitches to agents, or what have you. Those are all things writers may choose to do, but the defining characteristic of a writer is that they sit down and gets their words on the page. End of story.
You’d think this would go without saying. You’d thinkI would have learned this by now considering how much I preach the “ass in the chair” idea! But you’d be wrong. Recently, I’ve gotten off track when it comes to writing.
Of course, everyone knows that you have to write to be a writer, but I’ve noticed something funny. It’s really easy to forget that writing is the main prerogative sometimes. It’s easy to start out your writing practice with goals that will simply make writing more stressful. I won’t call them “the wrong goals” – because you get to decide what you want out of writing – but I believe there are plenty of things that can at the very least hinder our writing.
Worrying that you won’t ever get your book published
Getting ahead of yourself
Spending all of your time worrying about how you’ll publish your book before you’ve even written it
Overthinking the writing process
Trying to take every famous author’s writing advice without getting to know your own writing style first
Forgetting to stay humble/acting pretentious
None of these are inherently wrong, but they’re distracting. They’ll keep us in our head instead of on the page. They’ll get us focused on our ego instead of our manuscript.
My biggest hang up in my writing practice lately has been my focus on publishing. Yes, I’m giving these warnings from experience! I’ve been really lucky to have a few poems published in literary journals and a few articles published online. When everything’s going well and I’ve got pieces in the pipeline, I feel motivated, like I’m doing everything within my power to further my writing career. That’s a nice feeling and always having something in the pipeline is a good publishing strategy, but when all your efforts are geared toward getting an acceptance letter, writing isn’t the main priority anymore, publishing is.
I was spending way more time thinking about how to get my work published than I was spending thinking about how to make my writing better. It bothered me that my focus had shifted so dramatically without me even realizing it.
Of course, prior to my realization, I didn’t worry what my focus was on. I was simply okay with explicitly pursuing publication. There was no way I could publish without writing first, so I reasoned that writing truly was the main goal. Somewhere along the line that reasoning became faulty. All I cared about was getting my next piece of writing published. Since I’ve realized my focus was off, I’ve changed a few of my habits to begin cultivating my passion for writing again.
“This is how you do it, you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy and that hard.” – Neil Gaiman
The first thing I did was stop submitting my work. I’ve spent the last four months either writing, reading, or goofing off. Not searching Submittable and Twitter for places to send my work.
Once I stopped spending every weekend compiling the right pieces, editing them, writing cover letters, sending them off, and anxiously checking my email every ten minutes, I realize how burned out I was on the process and how obsessive it’d made me. I wasn’t even as obsessed with writing as I was with sending my work out to editors! I wanted a break. Luckily, life got busy with other things quickly which helped me stay off Submittable and semi-cured my addiction to checking email.
I’ve only recently let myself entertain the idea of submitting again, but to be honest, I’m not interested. I have different priorities when it comes to my writing practice now, like developing a writing routine, reading more, and maybe drafting a novel. I allowed myself to apply to one writing opportunity since then, but I applied because it genuinely seemed like the right opportunity for me and I felt comfortable breaking my own rule this once. I was then accepted as a 2019 Her Culture blogger! I wanted this opportunity because it would be a chill way for me to gain experience working with an editor by writing blog posts. No stress. Writing is still the main goal.
Thinking about this now, I can see how the whole idea of “stressing out” about publishing can be laughable to some people. Those are probably people that have tried and true writing habits or people who simple don’t care about being traditionally published. That’s cool, but I’m not there yet. I’m still young and learning and (mostly) unpublished. I’m the kind of person who stresses about writing things. So, this post is for me and people like me.
My focus moving forward is going to be redesigning my writing practice. I have a habit of writing several times a week, but it feels sporadic. This week I’m setting the goal to write every night between 6pm and 7pm. This seems doable since I have some flexibility in my schedule right now. I’m going to keep notes on how each session goes – word count, what I wrote that day, etc.— and reassess at the end of the week. Maybe I’ll blog about how my practice evolves.
So, these hour-long sessions are going to be good for me in terms of the amount of writing I can get done and with a whole hour at my disposal, I can take my time and keep my desire to realign with my passion for writing at the front of my mind.
I feel like this is the start of something rewarding for me, and I’m ready to get to work.
How would you describe your writing practice? Whether yes or no, I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments. Happy writing!
I picked up The Day is Ready for You in April at a Books-A-Million because I’d flipped open to the first poem, “Never”, and it resonated with me straight off. It’s one of those poems that makes you jerk back your neck and think, “Wow, that’s the phrase that describes what I’m feeling. Who knew!” This simple encounter with Malee’s poetry promised a collection that would explore love and loss using vivid and delightful imagery. While the poems are lovely and immersive, the collection also explores complicated interpersonal relationships in a way that was unique but echoes scenarios that every woman has been through at some point.
Poems like “Right” and “Exhales”, explore the ups and downs of a relationship. The poet doesn’t turn away from tension or toxic love, and she gives the reader a close up of the push and pull of entering and leaving a relationship. It was nice to be reminded that art provides a space to think deeply about the nuances of our experiences. Malee showcases the intricacies of love especially well.
In some ways, reading Alison Malee’s poems felt like reading a memoir. Her life is seamlessly woven into the beauty of each line. Most poets draw on their life experiences to write, but Malee’s vulnerability on the page made me feel as if a new friend was sat across from me, rehashing old stories, pointing out her scars. This collection unravels slowly and immersed me like a novel or a good conversation would. Pieces I especially liked were “Never”, “Something Like”, and “Caught”.
In way of critique, I felt that the author, at times, over-explained the scenarios or thought processes in the poems. I crossed through a fair number of lines that stole the mystery. In poems like “Morning” and “Mistaken”, I wanted to wonder at the meaning instead of having it handed to me over the page. I wanted to observe and draw my own conclusions. The writer did not leave the story behind each poem vague, which I was grateful for, but she also pushed the reader’s interpretation to the margins in some cases by explaining its meaning in the very next verse.
“Mountains” and “Learn” seemed only to provide information of the poets overall narrative or promote an ideology rather that set a scene or create an image. Over use of what I would call “outline driven” or “filler” poems is common in contemporary poetry publications and could just be a product of the poet needing to extend the manuscript to a certain page count. While there’s nothing wrong with including works in order to extend a collection, there were a few from The Day is Ready for You that could have been left out. Those pieces only bored me and caused my mind to wander.
I mentioned earlier that the collection as a whole was immersive and that’s true. Filler poems didn’t ruin the reading experience all together, but in my opinion, the pieces certainly did not add to the positive aspects of the collection and seemed to only serve the purpose of meeting a word count for the publisher. Obviously, I don’t know what the publishing process was like for Alison Malee, so take these critiques with a grain of salt.
Poetry can be a very personal act, and I’m so glad to see more poets entering the industry and expanding our ideas of what poetry can be. Do line breaks make a poem? No, and the first critique you here of modern or “tumblr” poetry today is that the poems consist of simple phrases cut up by line breaks.
My gut impulse is to say, “Yes, of course line breaks don’t make a poem a poem!” But we forget to look at the rest of the poem when we critique in this finite way. Is the narrative of the poem nuanced? Does it use cerebral images that make us forget we were reading a book? Do the words seem to curl off the page with a rhythm and cadence? Then, in essence, it is poetry.
If you’ve read The Day is Ready for You, please let me know the thoughts you’re left thinking and your views on modern poetry!
This isn’t going to be one of my normal reviews. It won’t be balanced or critical. I had an overwhelming emotional response when I finished reading. This has been your fair warning: below there may be gushing.
The Charlotte Holmes books have quickly become my favorite series, and I’m not someone who claims favorites. I don’t even like series, but I like Charlotte, Watson, and their story. I could never fit everything that I want to say in this blog post, so I’m going to take a stab at defining the aspects of the book that I find most compelling at this moment. Maybe there will be more Charlotte Holmes blog posts from me in the future, but for now, here it goes.
If you’ve read the books – and you shouldn’t read past here if you haven’t because, damn it, would you be missing out on a gem of a series if you let me spoil you - you know that there is much to unpack as the fourth (and most likely final) book in the series draws to a close.
My heart splintered when I read the last few chapters of A Question of Holmes. The fact that Jamie and Charlotte have had to give each other up so many times actually puts a pain in my chest. It seems like they’re always waiting for each other, which is beautiful in its own right but it leaves me wondering when they will be together for good? When will moving and finding themselves come to fruition and they are able to grow together without being pulled apart again? God, what a heart-wrenching story.
The thing I like the most about Charlotte and Jamie’s relationship is how much it reminds me of my own relationship – which I know sounds utterly conceited, but it reminds me to be grateful. Charlotte and Jamie’s story reminds me how much I’ve been through. It makes me stop and actually feel the pain that I would feel if I had to part with my boyfriend in the same way that Charlotte does (several times) in the series. That sounds a little sadistic, but it keeps things in perspective. Books are supposed to make you empathetic, but Brittany Cavallaro didn’t just make me feel sympathy for Charlotte and Jamie. She makes me feel like I am in Charlotte's body. Reading her prose was an immersion exercise. Books don’t make me feel that often. Despite my belief that reading is an act of empathy. Charlotte’s story did that for me.
I can’t get the image of Jamie crying out of my head. Him wiping the tears away with his knuckles. How he said, you know I’ll wait for you, but I can’t make you feel like this is okay right now.
Are they even together by the end of the book? We know that when Holmes and Watson are healthy, they make the best couple. We know that when they’re living in the same place and healthy, things can only go in a positive direction. Somewhere past the epilogue, Charlotte and Jamie will get back to the happiness they felt that summer in Oxford, but god, I wanted to see the fullness of that joy in the final pages. Not a whole epilogue that lead up to them hinting at being back together. I mean, I know the assumption is “all will be well as long as they’re in the same place”, but the framing of the epilogue leaves a little more doubt in my mind than I want. But again, that’s an aspect of the story that reminds me of my real life. If you focus on the wrong thing - that hint of doubt - you’re going to drown out the joy of the story’s cycle. A happy ending isn’t a permanent ending. People change. In the story that I like to think exists on the other side of the epilogue, Charlotte and Jamie could make the choice not to wait for each other. They could forget how happy they were. So maybe allowing that doubt to linger instead of neatly tidying it up was Cavallaro’s way of letting it be real. Even though that was tough for me to stomach in the first moments after finishing the book, I do think it is the best ending she could have given us. It shows us that Charlotte is building better habits and putting herself first so she can best care for girls like her. It shows us that Jamie is balancing his romanticism with reality. He’s not planning his life unrealistically into the future and getting his heart broken when he finds out Charlotte doesn’t want to fit that mold. They’re healthy. They’re always growing towards each other - even when they’re apart and growing into their own lives.
The weight of these books is so much on me. I know, I sound dramatic. I’ve just finished reading five minutes ago, so of course, the emotions are raw and on full display.
I want to write this so I’ll have something to look back on. I have dark periods sometimes in which it is so hard to remember anything that made me feel something. I hope I look back at this and remember that Charlotte and Jamie mean the world to me. They’ve made me joyful. They've made me cackle, sob, throw things around, get angry. They’ve confused me. They're a little bit mine now that the story is over.
When I was a teenager, this is a book that would have saved my life. It would have pulled me up out of my pit. Despite the sad moments.
Isn’t it weird that something that brought me grief can also bring me so much comfort and raise me up out of my hole? How on earth do books do that? And who would I be without them?
You can’t throw up a bunch of blog posts about pushing through writer’s block without God/the universe/your subconscious/whatever testing you. I haven’t written a post in a while, but I’m here now.
Maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about writing (obviously). The thing is, I’ve never had the thought, “I know everything I need to know about my writing. I know who I am.” Maybe I do know who I am, but I sure as hell don’t know everything there is to know about my craft. Maybe I forgot that I’m still learning. Just because I’ve had some success doesn’t mean I’m not shooting in the dark. In fact, just while writing this, I see how much editing I’m going to have to do for this post, and I’m reminded that I’m still rough around the edges. As a person and a writer. Thankfully, though, you’re seeing the cleaned up version of my writing!
The thing about writing is the pressure to be good. No one wants to put a subpar book out there and see a million bad reviews. No one wants to see one bad review, honestly. Elitism comes into play when writers buy into the pressure. We think if our work meets the criteria of Good Writing then we suddenly become the judge for everyone else. At least, that has been my experience.
A younger version of me was very judgmental toward other writers, and later in life when I was in my MFA program, I still struggled to remain nonjudgmental. Is part of it that I enjoy feeling superior from time to time? I hope not, but it’s more than possible. I can remember being a little girl and loving knowing that I was right about something, knowing that I knew something no one else knew, and the pleasure of enlightening them.
All of this feels a little too personal to write. I would hate for one of my writer friends to read this and feel that I must be inwardly criticizing them all the time. This post is mostly an exploration of my ideas – I definitely don’t have a clear cut, right answer for you, although, if you do please share!
One thing that I know is it’s more productive to critique your own writing that to critique someone else’s. What do I mean by that? I mean that, while reading and critiquing another writer’s work, whether it’s published or not, can teach you things about your own work, the only thing that actually changes your work for the better is when you critique it yourself and put the changes you need into place. I’m stating the obvious, but it’s easy to do the easy thing and the easy thing here is finding the faults in someone else instead of fighting the behemoth that is your own project’s flaws.
As much as I needed to be reminded that I still have a long way to go as a writer, I know that my writing has improved tremendously over the past year. This blog has certainly helped me learn to be clear and cut out the extraneous (although, recently, I’ve allowed myself to be more adventurous and see where the posts go), but another big part of my improvement has been having more time to revise.
While in my creative writing undergrad and MFA programs, every week was about writing the next poem, story, essay, and paper. I took a ton of workshops and forms classes, so I was constantly writing the next thing, only stopping to revise a few weeks before finals so I could turn in an edited portfolio to my professors. I was always brainstorming the next thing so revising was somewhat superficial. I didn’t have enough time to dig into my work and evolve it until summer breaks. Now that I’ve spent a year out of school, I’ve learn so much about tightening up my language, discovering the heart of the piece, and doing more of what works and cutting back on the rest. If I had to pinpoint the biggest way I’ve grown as a writer in the last year, it is in my revision techniques.
I’ve learned to let myself word vomit and let the future editor me mop it up. Looking back, I’m very proud of how far I’ve come on my own just from trial, error, and revision. Sometimes I forget that I’ve got a body of work to work with, not just a few flimsy poems. Granted, I’ve got a lot more to write and in ten years I’m sure I’ll look back and wonder how I thought the writing folder on my laptop consisted of a “body of work.” But still, I’m working with what I’ve got and I’ve got something to work with, and that’s enough for me.
Hearing nothing but the sound of your breathing is a rarity. I know that the common thing to do here would be to sell silence to you as a tool. It’ll make your life better and you’ll reach self-actualization or something along those lines. But that sound bite is overdone. Not everyone finds the quiet moments as fulfilling as I do, and I recognize that. To some people, a lack of stimulation is absolutely maddening. It’s not even about being bored or some subconscious fear, certain people just aren’t wired to crave quiet time like others are, and I get that.
For me, though, quiet is a fundamental need that has to be met for me to keep functioning. I know that silence may not be a true necessity the way water is, but I still feel as if it I can’t live without it. It’s at least partly my introversion, but quiet time is also just good medicine for me. The quiet moments I get by myself are the moments when I fell the most grounded. The most connected to the world and the most alone. The safest and the most vulnerable. I need time to be quiet to figure out what all the rattling around inside of me means, and I’m sure other introverts feel the same.
Earlier today, I stepped outside on my front porch to let the cat out, and it was surprisingly quiet outside. I live in the middle of dozens of acres of farmland and wooded areas where small houses are lined up in little loops but still far apart compared to other neighborhoods. It’s not as loud as living in the city or even in a subdivision, but it’s never this silent. There’s so much wildlife around that the trees are always rustling, the water is moving down the drainage ditches and creeks, or the frogs are calling to each other. It’s common to think that nature is quiet, but it’s not, except on days like today. We had a cold front come through, so I think the drop in temperature made all the animals hunker down for a while, and when I stepped outside it was completely calm.
It was striking how silent my world was in that moment. So quiet that there’s no other way to describe it. I forgot that the world could get that still. I felt surrounded, but the world had been washed clean of noise. All I had was my sight, and with that focus of sensations, I felt a clarity. Not simplicity, but a clear focus.
As a writer, I’m always linking moments like this back to my work. Today, I thought about how stories don’t come from the quiet times in our life. Stories come from the overheard conversations, the arguments, the friendships – the moments when we interact with the world and exchange something within ourselves for something out there. Stories are not born in silence… but they do mature in the quiet moments when we are left with our thoughts and the sound of our breath. Without silence, there is no room for the seeds of the story to fully take root. We can learn, gather information, interact with the universe, but everyone, even an extrovert, needs a quiet moment for the experiences to sink in and take root in the story of our lives. I think I needed the reminder today of what true silence is, and I honestly think it can be the best medicine.
I’ve spent a surreal amount of time wondering how writers balance multiple projects. Especially unpublished authors who don’t have to meet a publisher’s deadline for each project. It seems like as soon as I get grounded in an idea that I’m fired up about, a new idea comes along that throws my brain all out of sorts. Some people call this “shiny new idea syndrome” and for me, that term sums up the issue perfectly.
Case in point: I recently started drafting a nonfiction how-to manuscript that I’m excited about. I’m treating the project as an experiment since I’ve never written a manuscript this long, but I think with editing it could be a book I’m proud to publish. I outlined it weeks ago and let the idea simmer for a while. Then a few days ago, I started drafting.
Guess what happened today, literally 5 days after I started the project? I was reminded that April is National Poetry Writing Month. I’ve always wanted to participate, and I view poetry as my home genre. I am suddenly more excited about potentially completing NaPoWriMo than I am about the how-to book.
Even before I did some googling and learned about shiny new idea syndrome, I knew that this new idea was going to be a distraction. That’s not to say I can’t give it a shot but diving into 30 days of poetry will certainly make me question whether the how-to book should be a priority. True, I could probably draft a poem pretty quickly each day, and I should be able to continue writing my nonfiction manuscript at the same time, but the point of National Poetry Writing Month, at least for me, is not to write down 30 half-baked poems. If I undertook the challenge, I’d want to revise my drafts over the course of the month alongside writing the daily poems. That’s a time and energy commitment. One that I’m not sure I could reasonably sign up for knowing that I’d also be writing a book.
Yes, I overcomplicate things. I should just choose. The thing is, I don’t like thinking I have to pick a project or even a genre to focus on for a season. I’ve been writing long enough to know that this is how my brain works. I stupidly try to juggle a dozen things at once and drop all of them out of exhaustion. Sometimes I spend all my time trying to figure out which projects to juggle in the first place and go weeks without writing consistently.
I don’t know what the answer to all of this is. I see committing to a project as a sure-fire way to finish what I start. There’s no shortage of all the ideas a creative person could dream up over time, so if I continue idea-hopping I could potentially spend the rest of my life jumping from project to project without finishing one. I know that sounds dramatic. After all, I’d probably finish one of those projects eventually. My point is that once you get a shiny new idea, the previous one seems a little dull in comparison, and if the next shiny new idea comes along in a few weeks and your first shiny idea begins to look dull too… The old ideas begin to get buried in the pile. Then what?
Kristen Martin, an author who I’m subscribed to on Youtube, made a video about balancing multiple projects that I found pretty helpful. She suggests “tapping into your writer-brain” on a day to day basis to see which project you feel up to working on that day, but only picking one project per day. I like this approach. I translate it as taking a moment to listen to my creative side and see what she wants to write today. Since the only deadlines I have to work on are my own, this approach could help me be productive without putting pressure of me on to finish one project as soon as possible.
Kristen Martin also discusses “compartmentalizing projects” which I take to be a form of prioritizing. Once I’m rolling on a project and feeling good about it, I need to compartmentalize any ideas for other projects and save them for later. I should write them down, maybe take some notes in a new document, but then I need to put them away and make them wait their turn. I shouldn’t give up on my current idea or put it on hold unless I’m truly stumped or just don’t think I can make it work anymore. This seems basic to me, but I have such an impulse to do start on ideas as soon as they come to me.
Kristen’s advice is definitely helpful, and I’ll have to see how it fits into my own writing life over time. I trust that I can learn how to manages the ideas coming into my brain and the writing going out. It’s a matter of practice.
At the beginning of writing this post, I was tempted to drop my how-to project and start writing some new poems for National Poetry Writing Month, but I guess rehashing my dilemma has made me realize that I’d much rather complete a project than hop around. So I’ll keep trudging along on my nonfiction idea, and before too long it’ll be a full manuscript.
I know that consistently writing every day is what I need to focus on in this period of my writing life, and I am committed to that.
Do you struggle with project hopping or shiny new idea syndrome? I’d love to know what’s helped you and what your experience has been like.
“… a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.” – Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer
Telling people you’re a writer, discussing your idea for a story but never writing it down, watching a third episode on Netflix and later saying to yourself, There’s no extra time in my schedule to write! talking about writing without actually writing, fantasizing about the day when you’re famous and doing book signings, reading books about writing, criticizing popular authors and jabbering endlessly about how those writers make no contribution to the literary world while you continue to not write anything publishable whatsoever, complaining loudly outside your writer’s workshop that no one “gets” your work, refusing to revise, sharing listicles about things *only* writers understand, complaining about your workload while refusing to shift anything superfluous around so you can actually write, spending your designated writing time tweeting about being a writer, glorifying [insert canonical author’s name] while you trash modern day writers, procrastinating on writing because you’re afraid you won’t be good at it, trash talking presses that rejected you, complaining about how no one appreciates “good” art anymore, using your writing desk as a clothes hamper, tweaking your blog without ever publishing posts, playing with the font, wasting time thinking of a title before you actually write a single word, accumulating “writing” notebooks that you never fill with notes or write in, sitting in a coffee shop with your laptop open to write but scrolling through Buzzfeed instead, laying down at night and dreaming about the day you’ll hold your own book in your hands without actually ever writing.
A short list of things that will make you a writer:
Putting words on a blank page.
Our Number Days by Neil Hilborn is a collection of poems dealing with grief, mental illness, and the realities of love. Neil Hilborn is a Button Poetry writer who has competed at spoken word competitions all over the U.S. Most recently, he traveled on his own tour reading his spoken word poems to live audiences and promoting his new book. Our Numbered Days is his first full-length poetry collection.
The Good Stuff:
Neil Hilborn does a great job of presenting complex emotions genuinely. If you’ve seen this book on twitter at all, you know that people play up how sad the poems are. Those comments have merit, but I think it short changes the poems to say they’re only sad.
Hilborn’s writing style makes me feel like he’s always choosing to be honest with me as a reader even when the details of the situation he’s referencing are clearly presented from his point of view. In other words, he’s good at speaking his truth but leaves the door open for interpretation.
In my mind, I can hear Hilborn saying the poems aloud, but I can also hear myself saying them. There were a lot of great lines that I connected with profoundly. Many of the poems read in multiple tones because Hilborn integrates complex emotions throughout, and I like the duplicity of that. For instance, I read lines such as “Life on earth will in some ways / be easier. I will not have to return / her phone calls.” From “Our Numbered Days ” with a sense of both mourning and relief. I like that those two emotions are being allowed to coexist without one being edited out to play up the other. Life is like that too – we often experience multiple conflicting emotions at once. I love that Neil captures that so well throughout the collection.
The epigraphs set the tone well for each piece. In several poems a half dozen or more epigraphs appear before a short poem which allows outside voices (of the people being quoted) to influence the piece. It seems like Hilborn’s way of giving us context about what he was feeling and thinking about while writing without oversimplifying it or detracting from the main story of the poem.
The epigraphs are a way of zooming out from the poem while bringing the reader closer to its meaning. That probably sounds ridiculous to some people, but in my head, it’s like unraveling and raveling a piece of yarn each time I read one of the epigraph’s in this collection. It had a strong effect me as a reader.
“MSP PHI LGA ALB PHI MSP”
“Ballad of a Bruised Lung”
“The Red Sheets”
There are several poems throughout the piece which are all titled “Our Numbered Days.” I liked the thread that these poems carry and the way they further developed the title; however, it really annoyed me that they weren’t numbered or distinguished in any way from each other. Every time I came across one, it pulled me out of the book and made me wonder if I had accidentally scrolled back to the beginning of the eBook (I was reading on an iPad, so it wasn’t as easy to recognize where I was in the book right away). It happened several times before I learned to ignore that feeling and stay engrossed in the book. I really didn’t like being pulled out of the book in that way.
There were a few poems that left me wanting more. It’s normal to find a few poems I don’t care for in a given collection, so this isn’t a huge deal, but I wish I’d walked away from those poems with a line or two to think about. “The News Anchor is Crying,” “I’m Sorry Your Kids Are Such Little Shits and that We Are in the Same Zen Garden,” and “Parking Meter Theory,” are examples of poems that left me feeling a little unanchored, a little insecure. I wanted to have more footing in the story of these poems to go along with the images and the voice.
Overall, I thought the collection was enjoyable and found some nice lines to dig into. I consider poems featured by Button Poetry (like many of Neil’s poems are) to be accessible reads for anyone trying to get into poetry and learn more about the craft. If you like poetry that focus on the narrative first, these will be enjoyable poems for you.
If you’ve seen any of Neil Hilborn’s performances on YouTube or read Our Numbered Days, be sure to leave a comment so I can hear your thoughts!
I’ve been writing for most of my life, but within the last two years, I’ve been published for the first time in a few literary journals. I’ve made a couple mistakes that make me cringe as I look back on them, but we live and learn. I’d like to share three things you can do to prep your poems before you submit, and hopefully you can avoid some mistakes I made.
1. Run it through a grammar check.
It doesn’t matter how much you’ve edited. You’ve looked at your work so many times that your eyes might be missing something. Take a few extra minutes and pop your poem into a grammar check like Prowriting.com and double check for any simple errors like your/you’re mix-ups or grammar mistakes like plural vs. singular usage. It doesn't take that long, and if you look at your poem a few weeks down the road and realize it has an embarrassing typo in it, you're going to wish you'd taken the extra step and used a grammar check website up front.
Granted, a grammar checker is going to flag a lot phrases in a poem that are correct because we often play with wording in poetry, but it’s easy to spot when the computer is flagging a sentence fragment (usually a line break) or when it’s flagging an issue with correct pronoun usage. I stand by this rule because I know from experience how frustrating it is to send your work out to five lit journals, get rejected by all of them, and find out later there were typos in my poems that I had somehow never caught in my dozens of revisions. If your work has a lot of typos in it, you’re making it easier for editors to write you off because it seems like you’re not really trying. In some cases, your writing may withstand the test despite having several typos, but why risk it? Run it through a free grammar check and then let the editors decide.
2. Double check the submission guidelines.
You don’t want to look like you weren’t interested in the journal and didn’t take time to check that you formatted your work as per their request. You don’t want to submit and then find out that the journal is actually publishing a themed journal that your work doesn’t fall under. You don’t want to waste three months waiting for a reply only to get a rejection because you didn’t do enough research up front.
Editors know that not every writer who submits their work is going to be super well acquainted with the publication, but they do expect you to look at what’s available – submission guidelines, about pages, and sometimes previous issues posted on their website - and submit with that information in mind.
3. Copyedit yourself.
Copyediting for a poem means making sure the information is consistent throughout. This is something a grammar checker won’t catch. That means if the beginning of your poem begins with night time imagery but ends with imagery that references the daytime, you may want to make sure that the inconsistency is intentional. I say this from experience. If you find inconsistencies in your poem and decide you like the poem that way, then no big deal, but double check yourself to make sure you didn’t just accidentally change the time of day during a rewrite.
It’s a pain in the butt to realized you submitted the poem to multiple places with errors, and even if the poem is accepted, it’s embarrassing to correct mistakes after the fact. Plus, once it goes into print, it is final, and sometimes due to deadlines, poems are printed with typos intact because proofing was done so quickly. Again, I’ve seen it happen. Copyedit yourself so you don't find an embarrassing typo in print later!
These are three tips I try to live by when it comes to sending my work out! I hope it gave you some useful ideas about prepping your work for publication. If you have more tips, tell me about them in the comments so we can chat!
Today’s post is probably going to get hokey-pokey pretty fast, so this is your fair warning.
This phrase is on my mind: “Travel lightly and deeply.”
I’m currently reading If You Feel too Much by Jamie Tworkowski, which is where I read these words for the first time. I couldn’t quite let them go once I’d read them. Not in a stuck-in-my-head kind of way, but in a I-need-this-idea way.
Sometimes I need someone else’s words to sum up what I’m feeling before I can ever fully explain it myself. Sometimes, other people’s words are a bridge to understanding myself as much as my own words are a bridge to understanding myself. One of the reasons I write is to be understood and known. That’s always been the appeal to me, and that’s why I know I make so much more sense on paper. I use books to understand others, and I use writing to understand myself and be understood.
When I speak audibly, I almost always fail at expression. It takes hours of thinking over a subject and rehearsing my own made up lines in my head to explain myself coherently to anyone else. During the last few years, I’ve put a lot less effort into that preparation because it’s exhausting. Do I really want to spend my life in that limbo when it’s so much easier just to make myself known on paper? Time is too precious.
All of the above feels necessary to say, but it also feels so necessary to look at that sentence more closely. The line, “Travel lightly and deeply.” speaks to me, but it also sounds like a dream, something to aspire to. It’s hard to imagine that it could be something I start doing today without preparation, but there’s a part of me that thinks it’s supposed to be that simple. I have a tendency to over complicate things, and I have a suspicion that, while this phrase holds a lot of weight, it may not take that much dissecting to understand.
Travel lightly: my first thought in response to these words is that I should give away all my belongs and only hold on to the few things that are near and dear to me, but I think this phrase means something much deeper (and who knows why I have this fascination with getting rid of things. That idea seems to glom onto any even remotely philosophical idea even have.) “Travel lightly” on a deeper level means “lay down your burdens.” Let it go. I struggle with this. I like to hold on to things, especially negative energy, and it’s so bad for me. I still do it. I hate the idea of laying down a thought before it’s fully processed. Before it is dissected, and understood, and mined for its value. But that thinking relies on a falsehood - you don’t learn from bad circumstances by dwelling on them. You learn by accepting them and staying open to learning. I’ve never once learned anything while I was angry about my situation and riling up my attitude every five minutes because I’m prideful and was born with a chip on my shoulder. Traveling lightly, in short, is about accepting life as it is while knowing that brightness and light are in even the bad places.
Travel deeply: give importance to meaning. Whatever is meaningful and good to me is what I should dwell on. Dive in, and experience life in whatever way I think will uncover meaning for me. Obviously, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do something damaging just for the sake of experience, but by definition we’re talking about making our lives better here, so maybe that goes without saying. That word “deeply” just strikes me so much as the meat of life, the purpose. I don’t believe any of us were made shallow. The spiritual part of us that I believe in creates too vast an expanse within ourselves for me to ever think anyone is incapable of depth. The deep, inner part of our lives is one of the most meaningful aspects of human life, and it’s where meaning itself is derived. We go into our deep, inner space when we think about what’s meaningful to us. We’re in our deep space when we’re acting out our passions and being intentional with our lives. That deep space is critical, and we should not neglect time spent with it. I want to learn to be alone with my thoughts a little more often. I want to learn that I don’t have to chase the next idea, the next thought, the next piece of media to consume just to make sure I’m moving forward or not bored. I don’t have to always be moving forward. There is a time and a place to sit, be quiet, and look back.
This is the part when I realize the yin and yang of this whole idea: to go lightly and to go deeply through life are in some ways opposites, but married together they mean so much more. Their meanings rely on each other. You can’t truly go lightly without digging in and learning from the past because it’s necessary for acceptance, and there is no use in sitting down to contemplate the past if you don’t stand up and leave the burden on the floor, going lightly away from that place. A yin. A yang.
These are just some thoughts that are on my mind today. I hope you can find some kind of meaning in them. I hope you’re encouraged or inspired or thoughtful after reading them, but no matter what, just know that your life matters and you can make it matter to you. Keep your perspective on the light and the deep and reach out to others when you need to.
If you have thoughts, please share them in the comments, as always. Thanks for reading this far.
Poet. Reader. Lifelong Student.