The Goddamned Writing Life: Submitting to Contests When You Know You’re Going to Lose

Ah, the submissions game! That nasty sport that comes with a double-edged sword. If you’re a writer and you want to have something resembling a career, you have to participate, but you also have to be secure enough with the knowledge that you will be hacked to pieces over and over again for each chance you get to win. It’s a messy business. Usually, the more you submit, the easier it gets to take all those impersonal rejections, but then again, the process itself forces you to be vulnerable. Here is my manuscript, you say as you bend the knee to an editor, agent, or slush-pile reader. It is the best work I’ve got. I submit for your judgment and approval.

I submit, I submit.

Even when publishers and other receivers of written work are as nice as they can be about the system, the submission of a manuscript and the submission to authority are still intertwined in an uncomfortable way. And when it comes to writing contests, that discomfort increases a hundred fold–at least if you’re me.

See, I don’t like to lose. I REALLY don’t like to lose. I was one of those little kids that accumulated ribbons and certificates and teacherly praise. That was my identity in school–the winner!–and if there was no way in hell I could win (say, in P.E. class, where I was flubby and slow and didn’t like having things thrown at my face), I let other people compete and hovered near the sidelines in the hopes no one would see me.

I don’t like having to do that with my writing. I really REALLY don’t like the idea that I have to compete with hundreds of other writers–some with well-established careers and several books to their names–to get a chance to, say, publish a book of poetry, or even a chapbook. That seems patently unfair to me. I realize it’s the system, but it also seems like the reverse of vanity publishing: instead of paying a fee to get your work published, you’re paying to get someone else’s work published.

Of course, you might win the contest. You might also win the lottery or get into Harvard Medical School–your odds are roughly the same, or maybe slightly worse. Most small publishers are looking for maybe a handful of titles per year. Some are looking for only one. One out of a pool of hundreds of manuscripts–500, 750, maybe even more like a thousand. And you have to pay for the opportunity to lose big time. Christ. Why am I even thinking about going through this humiliating process again?

Well, because I have a chapbook manuscript to send out. Actually, I have two. One is arguably better than the other, but it would be nice to get something published again. And yes, I did beat the system once. Several years ago, I got published by Finishing Line Press, a small press based in Kentucky. It was a wonderful feeling to say, yes, I have a book out–a little, tiny book, but something that’s all my work. Finishing Line publishes a long list of titles per year. They have a contest, but they also choose titles (like mine) that don’t make the cut but that the editors still think are worthwhile. They are not gatekeepers and have given many writers a chance to get their work out into the world. I’m thoroughly humbled and grateful that they gave me my first break. I’m not so sure how I would have fared otherwise.

So why am I shopping more manuscripts around again, when the same clunky, resource-eating, soul-crushing contest system is still in place? Well, I guess part of it’s my eternal optimism. (Hah!) Part is understanding that, at the very least, the contest fees I submit help the publications and presses that I want to support. Just this weekend, I sent one of my manuscripts to a contest, and I know I’m going to lose. No, really, I KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that I will NOT be taking home the prize, nor will I get a mention on the list of notable entries, either. Still, I like the press, and I like the editor who runs it. So I decided to take a chance, because it’s always possible that lightning could strike, and because it’s nice to help out a good organization.

In this day and age, I don’t know if that makes me a Pollyanna-style idealist or a chump. But that’s what I did, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do until I get lucky again or run out of stamina or disposable income. That is the news from my writing world that I submit to you, Fickle Readers. Wish me luck.

Yesterday It Was My Birthday…

…I hung one more year on the line.

–Paul Simon, “Have a Good Time”

So now I’m the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. My husband, Inspector Spacetime, reached this age last month, and he doesn’t seem to be more enlightened yet. Maybe it takes a while to kick in.

Anyway, to celebrate my first full day of being a brand new age, here are a sampling of the callouts I’ve wanted to make for a while. I haven’t gotten around to writing them all down because I’ve either been chasing after small children, playing with poetry, lying around in a semi-conscious haze, or just generally being insane:

First, I’ve had some nifty Publication News in the past couple of months! (You know the Goddamned Writing Life? Sometimes it ain’t so bad.) I had a horror poem, “Mother Killer,” published in Spectral Realms, along with many a fine spec poet, such as Ann K. Schwader, F.J. Bergmann, Marge Simon, Mike Allen, and spec-poetry bigwig Bruce Boston.

I also had not one, but TWO essays published this spring: the first, “Rape Stories,” is a reprint from Mid-American Review but made its official Internet debut in Hippocampus Magazine, a journal devoted to memory and memoir. I have to say I couldn’t be happier about this publication. Not only did Hippocampus provide a new forum for a piece that is really important to me, the layout folks on staff found a picture of the fountain from my old stomping ground in Rome, where the essay happens to be set. Many, many heartfelt thanks to whoever found that picture. Even though I wrote about some fairly dark topics, the fountain itself takes me back to a beautiful time and place.

The second essay, “Dead,” appeared in the 2015 issue of Moon City Review, which isn’t online but can be ordered here. A really gorgeous journal, which also includes a piece by Curtis Smith, an amazing writer and all-around beautiful guy who incidentally helped me work on the very essay that appears in MCR. Lots more deep and heartfelt thanks to Curtis, whose workshop did so much to boost my confidence when I felt like I was starting from square zero.

Back to Hippocampus: this month, I had the overwhelmingly self-esteem-boosting experience of opening an email about a journal’s latest issue to see my name listed as a contributor. Yes, in case you missed the umpteen times I announced this in the past week, I’m officially on the schedule of Hippocampus reviewers, and my very first review appears here. The book is Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Light of the World,” a stunning piece of writing that shows what extraordinary innovations a poet can bring to prose. Definitely a must-read.

Two last things: as a birthday gift, I finally got the Poet Tarot, which is in fact a pack of Tarot cards plus a guidebook for “creative exploration.” This nifty item is produced by Two Sylvias Press, which is also currently running its poetry chapbook prize. (I personally covet the trophy they give out with the award, but I’m not sure I have anything on hand that’s especially prize-winning.) And I must say, I’m SO looking forward to playing with my Tarot cards and seeing what happens. I looked through them already and noticed a certain Mr. W.S. is not among the poets represented. Very ballsy, ladies!

Fie on thee, froward, fen-sucked flax-wenches!

And finally, April is over but the PoMoSco poems will be up for one more month! Here’s the official wrap-up post discussing the 3000+ poems that were written, plus links to some favorite individual pieces. Though my own work isn’t featured here, you should still explore the site for some excellent poetry! (And if you think I’ve forgotten about my proposed list of ruminations on my own found poems of April, oh how very wrong you are. I may just pick a few I like or want to grumble about, or I may write about them all in one lump, but you can be sure you’ll get bugged about them, yessirree!)

The Goddamned Writing Life: A Question of Time

This year, I can honestly say I have never been happier that the holidays are over. That’s no mean feat, either. When I was in grad school, especially when I was teaching, I never really got to enjoy that thing called the Holiday Season. I was always trying desperately to get all my grades in before zero hour at whatever college or university I was working at. Once grades were done, I usually had somewhere between two and four days to shop and wrap and prepare to leave to visit family, usually my parents. Now, though, I’m a mom and not a teacher. Moms are required to come up with special memories for their kids: making lists for Santa Claus and decorating Christmas trees and baking cookies and whatnot. I didn’t get the cookie-baking done this year, but we did manage to get a Christmas tree together and play some festive music. For a few minutes, at least, the first floor of our house managed not to look like a closet.

Now, it’s time to put the holidays away in the Fickle-Spacetime household. We should have our tree up for a few days more. That’s always nice. I have a hard time letting go of things, and our tree is especially pretty this year, with its new string of jewel-tone lights and all the cute retro ornaments. Once again, our dining room table looks like it belongs in the post office. Once again, there are heaps and heaps of boxes and toys everywhere. But hey, there’s always crap to clean. Now, thank God, there’s finally time to write!

Right?

Yeah, that’s the thing about writing. Even when you have time, there’s never enough time to do what you want to do, finish what you want to finish. That’s the way it’s always been for me. When there’s no time, I grumble about how many projects I want to start, how many books I want to read, how much research I could get done. When there is any little amount of time, the pressure to use those free moments, that half a day, that couple of hours together late at night, increases exponentially. One story isn’t enough–no, I have to draft five story ideas, or maybe I should be looking into that poetry contest I saw when I was dicking around on Twitter (because I’m too nervous to do any writing). Which path should I follow? Why am I so freaking slow?

Somebody, for the love of God, TELL ME WHAT I SHOULD BE DOING WITH MY TIME!!!!

In a perfect universe, we’d have some sort of button we could press that would stop the universe while we completed every project we felt the urge to complete. But then that probably would mean all writers would simply disappear from existence, because we’d all be sitting in our chronos-immune chambers frantically scribbling and pacing and bitching to one another via ansible that there’s just not enough non-time in our time-suspended states to really get anything done. And then we’d poke around until we could find an old version of Minesweeper and fritter away our lives until we forgot what brilliant works we were supposed to be creating.

Yeah, I think it’s time to do some serious frittering right about now. Goodnight, Internet world!

The Goddamned Writing Life: Rejections

Ah, rejections! The bane of the writer’s existence. Like submitting your resumé to hundreds upon hundreds of tiny jobs all the while knowing you’re going to get turned down for each one. No question about it: rejections suck.

Some rejections suck less than others, though. The personalized rejection is always nice: the one where you get a human being giving you some chin-up-style feedback on the other end of the note. Back in the old days, this came in the form of handwriting on the tiny slip of paper you had to dig around for in your SASE. Karen Craigo, then poetry editor for Mid-American Review, was an expert at giving personalized rejections. I got a happy little note, complete with smiley face (that’s a handwritten emoji, for all you young’uns out there), every time I submitted. I think by the time her tenure as poetry editor was over, Karen must have had carpal tunnel syndrome from all the niceness she sent out over the years.

Then there’s the thoroughly amusing rejection, a turn-down so witty or unintentionally hilarious you just can’t stay depressed about it. Wanna hear my latest in this category? Well, here it is, anyway:

Dear Writer,

Thank you for entering the [BLAH BLAH BLAH EXTREMELY PRESTIGIOUS] Prize this year. We received more than [HUGE NUMBER] entries, and were delighted with the high-quality of the work we received. Our contest, and consequently our magazine, is only as good as the writing we receive, and we’re grateful that you gave us the opportunity to read your writing. On behalf of [MEGA-IMPORTANT JOURNAL’s] editorial staff and our contest editor [WRITER OF EMINENCE], I’m pleased to announce our winners and finalists in each category: [A LONG LIST OF WRITERS WHO ARE NOT YOU]

Wait a second, you might be thinking to yourself. This is just standard boilerplate for non-winners of writing contests. How is this thoroughly amusing?

Well, in my case, it’s because I didn’t enter this contest. I’ve searched all over my Submittable account and my email, and I can’t find any evidence that I sent anything to this journal recently. I’m know I’ve entered their contests in past years, but I’ve been passing on award submissions nowadays because a) they’re expensive, b) I never win, and c) I hate not winning.

Not to worry! says Mega-Important Journal. You have such a terrible history with contests that we thought we’d emphasize your miniscule-to-virtually-impossible chances of winning by preemptively rejecting you! That way, you won’t be so surprised when we do reject you next time around!

See why I hate writing contests?

Anyway, my overall point here has been said many times but bears repeating: rejection is part of the writing game. Don’t let it get you down. It’s okay to lick your wounds for a day, especially when you get a thanks-but-no-thanks from a journal you really like. Remember to move on afterward, though. Believe me, the more submissions you’re able to send out into the world, the thicker your skin will grow to the doors closed to you. Keep going until you find that one open door. Then keep pushing until you find a few more that might unlock one day.

The Goddamned Writing Life: Quelling Your Massive Ego

So, Midterms last night. Republican wave. Whole new ball game. What will the future hold? Blah blah blah. Can I just say I really, really don’t care this year? Because it’s true. I don’t. For purely selfish reasons:

1) Our state’s crummy governor got voted out. That’s worth about 1 million points of selfish relief right there.

2) I’ve seen all this before. In 2002, the Democrats in Congress were voted out in droves. They’ll be powerless for seven generations! the pundits yelped. (Or something alarmist like that.) Apparently, the pundits were speaking of purebred dogs, or possibly pond algae, because in 2006, a wave of Democrats came rolling in. Then came Obama and the Supermajority, which lasted, what, a year? And then it was Scott Brown, then the next set of midterms. And on, and on, and on. The pundits who shout about What a Roller Coaster Ride All This Has Been belie the fact that the U.S. political system is relatively predictable. So predictable, in fact, that we know exactly who’s going to be on our TV sets all night yammering about how tremendously Unpredictable Politics Can Be.

You know what’s not predictable? When any given piece of writing you produce will see the light of day. Because unless you’re blogging, paying to publish, or your name is Neil I-Signed-Twenty-Book-Contracts-Before-Tea-Today! Gaiman (dear God, the spell-checker on WordPress recognizes the word “Gaiman”! It doesn’t even know “WordPress”!), you have no control whatsoever over whether your work gets seen, who sees it, or how enthusiastically it gets seen. And that’s far, FAR more interesting–and stressful–to the average writer. Especially when the Average Writer is Me.

I used to do the Submission Tango all the time. Way back in the days before Submittable, we had to photocopy manuscripts in bundles and print labels for all our SASEs, most of which would be filled with Rejection Coupons (that’s a rejection slip printed on 1/6th of a page or less–literary journals had no money in the old days, too). I scheduled chunks of time to walk to Staples, copy, collate, stack, clip, stuff, address, and mail my submissions. It was a job, as depersonalizing as any that paid you actual money. I was a machine, churning out my work until I got lucky. My friends were machines, too. Some held regular submission parties. That was the only way for a writer to get published. We all knew it. We were like ants, with exoskeletons of steel.

Steely-eyed submitting is still the way to get published today, but I’ve gone soft. I got older. Published a chapbook.  Had a baby. That’s a big deal not only because it sucks up a lot of your time–it also teaches you that not every endeavor in life is marked primarily by rejection. (In fact, if that’s the way parenting is for you, you’re doing it wrong.) I wanted things to be easier, even though for writers far more experienced than me they still weren’t.

So I hesitated. Held back. Got out of the habit of rapid-fire submitting. And then, of course, online submitting is so blissfully immediate, compared with the Copying/Collating/Stacking/Clipping/Stuffing/Addressing/Mailing Dance of Yore. It’s so easy to wait by your email server, play Candy Crush and refresh every few seconds for that response from your favorite journal that you KNOW will come soon because these people are SO FAST they’ll pick out your high-quality work from 5000 submissions in SECONDS!

And then, instead of writing something, you decide to check Facebook, where you discover that everyone you know and their Aunt Mabel has a Brand-Spanking New Book-Length Publication and YAAAAARGH!!! Are you serious?? That 22-year-old who was in your workshop three years ago has a contract with Harper Collins now????

GAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!

And Twitter’s even worse. You get to see all those Famous Writers and all the RTs from happy superfans. Not that you necessarily want superfans at this stage, no, you’ll settle for ONE measily publication in a high-quality online journal. Plus another one. Maybe one a month, or a week. Okay, crap, it WOULD be nice to have superfans. Or maybe just a group of followers that would fill out a small theater rather than a subway car. Is that so much to ask?

Apparently, it is. That’s because, as anyone who’s worked at this weird thing called Writing knows, counting up followers and other people’s publications isn’t your Writing Self in operation. It’s your Ego. All writers need some amount of ego to make it in the publishing industry, but letting your ego run wild isn’t good for your morale, your creativity, or your personal relationships. You have to feed it somehow. You have to give it its triumphs–that one little green “ACCEPTED” tag in a long column of “DECLINED.” Sometimes, you even have to turn off all electronic devices, step out into the world, go for a walk, count the Japanese maples that have turned deep red, and focus on your interests, your work, your life. The writing’s not worth it otherwise. If you let the rest of the world, even the larger-than-life literary world, suck you in too far, you’ll end up spending your life like a little dog snapping at every ankle she sees.