In my early years I was a novelist. That’s exactly how confused I was. To think I dreamed of banging out 100,000 words on the keyboard when today a solid piece of work might not even break the 100 mark.
(I still have ideas. Notions. Inklings… maybe one day I’ll return to playing with the “big stories”.)
Noveling actually taught me, by accident, that I was a poet.
My early years as a poet consisted of a few key points:
- Entering every contest I could find that I thought I could “win big” at and preferably cost less than $30 to enter
- Thinking up all of the amazing titles I could use for future poetry collections (I have whole lists in some of my poetry journals)
- Writing only when the mood, the air, the sunlight, the whatever seemed conducive for poetry
- Figuring out what exactly qualifies as “real poetry” (Hint, it isn’t always perfect end rhyme)
- Wondering how on earth someone “finds their voice”
- Somehow still being certain that I was pretty damn special and the world just had to find me to see it
Do you see a pattern here? In the early years we want to make it big with as little effort as possible as we romanticize the glamour of being a mysterious writer.
The early years are like writing with a fabulous feathered quill by candlelight. The middle years are a Bic pen that only sometimes works while you sit next to an uncomfortably dim lamp.
So long as you remember that magic can happen regardless of the utensil, you’ll make it through.
Winning Big vs. Getting Exposure
Early years: There is not a thing wrong with contests, though of course I hope you research them well and ask any questions that are not addressed in the rules before entering. People do win contests. Contests can do crazy things for people, even aside from money. (What writer doesn’t like money?) But there is a catch. In most cases, just one person wins. Do you really want to fight to be THE best when you are just beginning? Is it worth all the money that will most likely be lost… when you are still searching for your own voice?
Contests have done a few things for me:
1) They taught me deadlines, which in the writing world is extremely valuable. If you want your writing to ever be anything more than a hobby, you will have a deadline at some point in your career. Get used to them now.
2) I got lucky and they gave me the confidence that maybe I didn’t suck after all. The Writer’s Digest competitions held each May are examples of paying a decent amount of money in the hopes to win big… while only a select few win. However for the baby writer, there is a broader chance of another benefit.
When the results are emailed out, if your work placed in the top 100 for your category, they will tell you what place you came in at even if there isn’t a single prize to be had. I can’t begin to tell you how elated I was the year I got a “98th place” email from them. I ranked. No one else knew my name, but I knew they thought highly enough of my work to rank me at all. The next year, my email said “18th place” and I was over the moon. I haven’t placed since then, but that’s okay. It was the confidence boost I needed.
If you insist on contests, let me suggest looking for those from small presses and journals. Often they will have a handful of winners, but will also evaluate every entry for publication. Publication, to me, is a win. It’s how I ended up in the 2012 Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize Anthology, my first “big girl” publication credit.
Middle years: I submit to a handful of contests from time to time, often those that look at all entries for publication, as I said above. But for now my focus has shifted to exposure. It’s all about answering open calls for submission from journals and presses to try to get my work out there. It’s free. (Usually. Some places charge reading fees and that’s an entirely different can of worms in the poetry world right now.)
In my middle years something dawned on me… when I eventually have a completed chapbook or full collection manuscript, why would any press want to take me on if I haven’t been trying to make a name for my work already? Writing is a tough market everywhere. Poetry takes “tough” to a whole different level. Everyone writes it in high school and you don’t see any movies being made from it. The general public doesn’t really get into poetry. (Hopefully that will one day change, but that’s another post too… I apparently have a lot of “other posts” to write.)
Unknown poets can definitely break into the industry, but having smaller credentials as you work your way toward the bigger accomplishments never hurt anyone. It’s worth the time, the effort, and yes, the fear of disappearing into the slush pile, if what you want is to be a published and recognized poet.
The Elusive “Voice”
The first thing I discovered about finding your voice is that if you actively search for it, you may never find it. It’s not something you can lay a trap for and wait. Crackers and cheese will probably attract mice before your voice.
Everyone talks about having a voice and until you discover your own, it’s easy to worry that you may not have one. You do. I promise.
It was about a year or so ago that I realized I had found mine, or rather I’d found what mine is for now. One day it might change and if that happens, so be it. Writers evolve.
My voice snuck up on me. It made no fanfare. I didn’t get to plant a flag anywhere claiming my territory.
It happened when I was going through my work and planning out a few submissions to journals. I always reread my work before submitting it. It’s a last once over to make sure I haven’t accidentally saved a horrible typo and to see what I think of the flow of the overall submission, which often includes multiple poems.
I had traditional forms, free verse, simple and complex rhyme patterns… a wide variety of styles. But somehow when I wasn’t looking they had all started to sound like they came from the same person. There was something cohesive among them. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a certain pattern to word choice, line breaks, and rhythm that is all… me.
I have found my voice! But what if no one wants to listen?
FEAR. The last thing I want to talk about. I have come to the conclusion that no matter where you are in your writing career, it never goes away. It just wears different hats when it comes around.
- I’m afraid that I’ll never get another acceptance to one of my submissions.
- I’m afraid that maybe people will like a handful of individual poems, but never want to see a book.
- I’m afraid other poets will think my “voice” is silly or unrefined.
- I’m afraid people will think I’m trying too hard to be a poet.
- I’m afraid people will think I can’t write because I decided to be a poet instead of writing whatever the media likes best.
- I’m afraid people will belittle me, because poetry is the easy way out if you want to be a writer.
- I’m afraid other poets will think I’m not serious, because I don’t have a specific writing schedule or routine.
- I’m afraid I’ll never make it because networking is hard for me, and I don’t know how to meet other poets or talk to them.
- I’m afraid people will think I am presumptuous just by writing this post.
The middle years is about recognizing the fear, giving it its own space, and demanding your own space from it too. It’s about realizing it will never go away, just change shape. It’s about knowing that no matter how annoying your fear roommate may be, it can never stop you unless you agree to let it.
If you’ve made it to the middle years, you know you want to write. Some of the glamour has worn off, and yet, you’re still writing. You still believe in your words. You have to keep believing, no matter where your career takes you or doesn’t. With a bit of luck, other people will begin believing in your words too.
“If you didn’t get the money then you didn’t have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.”
– Neil Gaiman, on writing for money alone