Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Writing Year: Get thee behind me, 2020

Derailed subway train in the Netherlands saved by a whale
sculpture, 11/2/20. Seems like an apt metaphor for the year.
I will just start by saying: All through the shitshow of 2020, the writing world remained an inspiration for me. I don’t know quite how we did it, but writers kept on writing. Poets figured out how to do readings online. Everybody learned Zoom. Literary journals continued, adapted, and sometimes thrived. A few really beautiful anthologies were produced about the pandemic, the ugliest of subjects. 
        Back on March 11, I wouldn’t have believed any of this. That was the day the NBA shut down, which, for some reason, was the watershed moment for me—the end of the civilization I knew. I pictured us at the end of the year, holed up in our dark bunkers reading old can labels to each other and trying to find the last station on the hand-crank radio. 
        So yes, as of today, we’re still here, but I won’t say it was a good year for writers. Or for my writing. Or for anything. That would be crass, cruel, and beside the point. Still, there were times of beauty and weirdness. Here are some things that changed, and things that surprised me, and some actual good things that grew, mushroom-like, in the dark year now ending.

Zoom poetry events: some good, some bad.
Seeing friends read in other cities—amazing! Seeing famous poets whose voices I'd never heard—fantastic! Attending open mikes with readers from other countries—transcendent! Going to online poetry
        Okay, let’s talk about that for a minute.
        I “went” to some online poetry conferences, the kind with presentations and workshops happening at various times through the day, where I could pop in on Zoom to check out each classroom and pop out if the thing wasn’t to my liking. I’m a restless conference-goer at the best of times, and on Zoom it was very easy to hit the “leave meeting” button when a presentation wasn’t floating my boat. At one day-long conference, I found one class I liked, stumbled across another that I sort of liked, and then bailed on another six—six!—after watching them for five or ten minutes. I can’t imagine walking out on six classes at an in-person conference; it would be too embarrassing to stand up and look at my watch as if thinking Oh dear, I left the baby in the car and clunk noisily out the door. But on Zoom, leaving is easy, silent, instant. Click. And I’m not sure if that’s good (freedom!) or if it’s hazardous to people like me with short attention spans; I wonder if I missed anything good. And the one thing I love most about writers’ conferences—the hanging out with other writers, grabbing a coffee between classes and drinks at the end of the day—was completely absent from those online ones. So, for me, Zoom conferences offer all the things I like least about conferences, and none of the things I like most.

I wrote a lot about the pandemic. 
I journaled to preserve the strange, disaster-movie quality of it all: the sudden shutdowns and surreal speed of it, the news from overseas, the appalling lack of response from the U.S. government, the rumors, the social divisions. It felt important to chronicle these things. I also wrote a shit-ton of pandemic poems early on, some of which I posted on Instagram with graphics, which was an empowering, absorbing project. I published some others in journals and anthologies. Some poet friends, I know, didn’t write at all about the pandemic. I totally hear that (see the next paragraph); I just felt compelled to make bread with the dough at hand, and pandemic dough was what I had.

I wrote almost nothing about a disaster close to home.
As if the pandemic, layoffs, racial tension, and that nail-biter election weren’t enough, my region got hit with another huge blow on September 8 and 9 when the Almeda fire tore through our Oregon valley, destroying more than 2,500 homes. It was epic, horrifying, unbelievable, frightening, and very, very sad. Many of my friends and co-workers lost everything. Even now, the burn zone—which starts 3 miles from my house and stretches 10 miles to the northwest—is a mind-altering, life-changing thing to see: miles and miles where homes and businesses used to be, everything now reduced to a hip-high, gray/white landscape of debris that looks uncannily like ruined tombstones. I’ve written a grand total of one poem about all that, although I did journal a lot. It was just too close; I know too many people whose lives are forever changed. To make art out of that and put it up on the internet did not feel like the right thing to me. It’s delicate, and I was not in the right mental space to do it.
        This made me think a lot about poems of witness and current-events poems. I write a lot of those, and I’ve always recognized that it’s different when you’re farther from the disaster; of course it’s easier to write about it. But there’s a voyeurism to it, an inauthenticity that, paradoxically, makes it possible to take the art/poem in different directions than if you’d seen the event yourself. But when it happened to people you know, there’s a line of ethics in there. Maybe there’s always a line of ethics, and we just trample over it all the time without thinking. 

Working at home hasn’t given me more time to write. 
I’ve been working at home full time since March 17 (and am so grateful to be working), and I still never feel like I have enough time to write. It turns out working at home in sweats is still working. I still really look forward to weekends.

I superly, very muchly miss drinking with poets in bars.
This surprises me, how much I miss the after-reading drink with a few friends at the pub. The big group walking to the restaurant for a meal with the famous poet who’s in town for one night. The random meet-ups in the hotel bar after a long day at the conference. The dinner with a poet friend where we talk about sequencing manuscripts and have a bit too much to drink and laugh our asses off. Writing is great, but being a poet is also about living in a world.

I miss doing road trips for out-of-town readings. I also enjoy not doing them.
Honestly, my relief at not doing them slightly outweighs how much I miss them. That’s mostly because of my 18-year-old cat, whose health has (knock on wood) been more stable during this quiet, stay-at-home year. I’ve also saved a lot of money by not traveling. I've loved the online readings I’ve done, but they don’t sell a lot of books. So the metric is all different. Two online readings I really enjoyed doing this year were the Spring Creek Project’s video series The Nature of Isolation (check out their other videos too, with writers and visual artists) and Rattle’s interview/reading series, Rattlecast, where I talked a lot about poem sequencing and revision and last lines and the music business and the problem with persona poems. 

I had to take some new author photos.
Because my hair is much longer now. I wasn’t identifying with the photos taken a couple of years ago, the short-hair ones. Is this isolation some kind of chrysalis? Will some of us emerge with antennae and tails? Will that be a wonderful thing? The pragmatist in me says Stop it. Cruel. Crass. The writer in me says…wings.

Netherland subway train photo by Robin Utrecht/Getty.

Almeda fire photo courtesy of Governor Kate Brown's office.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

NaPoWriMo, Plague Year Edition

I got an early start on NaPoWriMo by writing
Instagram poems in March. Let's just say
there was a theme.
It’s April 15th, which means I’m halfway through National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). This is the annual poem-a-day writing marathon that thousands of people do during April, and that I've been participating in for about 12 years. As usual, I’m running a small private Facebook group with about 15 other people who are writing poems every day and sharing them there, where only we can see them. Every year, I rely on NaPoWriMo's discipline to help me produce a stockpile of first drafts that I can revise later, poems I probably wouldn’t have written if I hadn't set myself the goal of writing one every day for 30 days. And I’ve always loved the camaraderie of doing it with a group. (Left on my own, I’d flake after about three days.)

Hard syrup
So, how’s the marathon going? I won’t lie to you, reader; this one's been a slog. I haven’t had a single good patch of days where the poems were flowing freely; this year they’re all feeling sort of extruded, like old maple syrup that you have to squeeze really hard to get out of the bottle. Most years, there are a few days like that. But this time, it’s every day—a steady diet of hard syrup.

Of course, this year is different. Everything is different. We’re all carrying the immense weight of the Coronavirus pandemic, a horror show that keeps morphing with its shutdowns and layoffs and fevers and ventilators and shortages and epic presidential incompetence, and so many of us are waiting it out at home, isolated and bewildered. (For my part, I'm working at home, extremely grateful to still have a job, and staying away from people as much as possible.) There’s no guidebook for how to live and be during something like this, let alone try to keep up a writing practice. I see writers on social media talking about how they haven’t been able to write at all, and others saying how all their writing is doom and gloom and mostly cathartic, or they find themselves writing chirpy upbeat nonsense that even they don’t buy. On Twitter I’ve been reading good advice that people are getting from their therapists and counselors, and most of it boils down to this: You are going to feel all the feels, and many at the same time. Whether or not you choose to make art out of this (or substitute “be productive” or “stay positive”) is up to you, and there’s no one way; we’re all learning this, and because it’s grief, it will take its own path through you. Just know that it will.

Getting out there, metaphorically
But I had a poetry-writing marathon to get on with, and I realized that the pandemic felt a lot like the choking wildfire smoke we've had for weeks at a time in southern Oregon in recent summers. I was writing a lot then too, and all I could write about was that damned smoke; it was literally in my face, constantly. The pandemic is functioning like that as well, but of course everyone, everywhere, has it in their face. As with the smoke, I felt like I needed to break the current crisis down into small increments, micro-scenes of my own everyday life; it’s too vast and overwhelming—not to mention still developing—to take on much more than that in a single poem. And the whole thing is surreal, isn’t it? Like a dream that you’ll wake up from and think, Whoa, that was nuts.

I started writing poems about the pandemic back in March, before NaPoWriMo began, because the emergency was beginning to hit us locally and hard. And I decided early on to post a lot of them on Instagram (@amymillerpoet). I’ve been dabbling with Instagram poetry the past few months; I like the mixture of text and images, the block of art. The whole thing about how the poem is now published because I went and blabbed it on Instagram is just another interesting thing; I’m not sure what to do with that. But suddenly it felt like a time to let the poems walk out the door, since I literally couldn’t. We are truly all in this together, and I had a strong compulsion to get poems out in the world where all sorts of people could read them, not just the ones who subscribe to literary journals. And, I don't know, maybe I just needed a gigantic distraction. The discipline and techie geekiness of making those Instagram poems was like a lifeline I was following through some very dark water.

And now that NaPoWriMo is halfway through, I’m continuing to write and post some Instagram poems; the impulse to put together words and images is still strong. So maybe NaPoWriMo has felt like a slog because I was already tired from writing a poem a day in March, more or less. But, like I used to say about the great NBA player Tim Duncan, what made him great was that he kept going on bad days too; he just changed his game a little. So I’m still welcoming the daily discipline of NaPoWriMo, even if it hurts more than usual. I’m still hoping to hit a few three-pointers.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

100 Rejections: Pain or Gain?

I keep the guidelines of journals I'm interested in
on my desk. That way they're right in my face
and I can't avoid them.
It’s the start of a new year, and I’ve just crossed the finish line of a marathon I began last January, a strange, windmill-tilting quest to collect 100 rejections of my writing in one year. Yep, that’s right—I sent my work out to a lot of publishers during the past year, hoping that 100 of them would reject it in 2019.

The idea of boosting your submission process by trying for 100 rejections was championed back in 2016 by writer Kim Liao in her now-famous article “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” It’s great reading, and it got a lot of writers talking about Liao’s philosophy, which was inspired by a friend’s advice to her: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

I like this approach, and although I’d never really counted rejections, I knew that in past years I got way fewer than 100 per year; probably more like 20 or 30. So this past year I decided to participate in an online group where everyone was trying to get 100 rejections in 2019. (I like to do these things with groups because without any accountability or encouragement, I know I'll probably blow it off after a couple of weeks.)

The count & the amount
How did it go? In short, I didn’t make it to 100 rejections. I got 52, so I basically ran a half-100 marathon. And to get those 52 rejections, I sent out a lot more submissions than I normally would in one year. So my first takeaway is: It’s really hard work sending out enough submissions for 100 to bounce back.

My second takeaway was that it was fascinating to actually keep track of how many submissions I sent out (71*), how many were rejected (52), and how many were accepted (19). That meant a 27% acceptance rate, or roughly 1 out of every 4 submissions, and it held steady pretty much throughout the year. That 27% stat makes me happy. I’d never done enough analysis to figure out my acceptance rate in past years—I was afraid to, to be honest, fearing the percentage would be so depressing that I’d hang up my notebooks and never write again. But 1 in 4? I can live with that.

I kept a simple ongoing list of rejections and acceptances in my Notes app so I could jot them down anytime I got an e-mail with a yes or a no (and even at that, I may have missed one or two; I track submissions with an index card system that I love but that isn’t stat-friendly). By my calculations, I made $970** from writing in 2019, most of it from a second-place win in a national contest and reprints of a couple of articles that I wasn’t expecting and that I counted as a win. I didn’t keep track of how much I paid in contest entries and reading fees, but I'm cheap about those so I figure they came to about $100.

The reckoning
Because I’ve never kept meticulous stats on acceptances and rejections in the past, I can’t say how many more of either I got in 2019. But at a glance back through my 2018 submissions, it looks like I got more than twice as many acceptances in 2019. So based on that alone, this is a good system. I got into a few journals I didn't think I had much chance at; I was in "why not?" mode a lot this year, and that's a good way to be. And although, as I said, I worked a lot to send out all of those submissions, I never felt exhausted or defeated by the project. It was fun; it was a game. I’m a sucker for games.

However, I can’t help thinking that the whole process made me very eager to be published, perhaps more than was healthy. Like many writers, I was often told early on that writers should write more and publish less. (Somebody famous said that; I forget who.) Parts of me are at war over this. That publish-less thing is sort of a puritanical philosophy, like we all need to suffer to be worthy, and I know there are times when I rush off poems and essays for publication before they’re ready. (I can only hope they get rejected.) I also know that I’m 57 years old and don’t have the luxury of time that I felt in my 20s or 30s. And I sort of feel like, if I can’t rush to publication when I’m pushing 60, when exactly do I get to that? And I laugh, because writing is all about joy and not about rules. And I know I need to just keep writing and send out what I like.

On to 100?
I guess this was a success, since I’m already planning how to get more rejections in 2020***. But as always, I was surprised during this year of rejections by the way some of them broke my heart and others rolled right off me. In general, the 100-rejections practice helped take the sting out of them; when collecting them was a goal, it changed my feelings about them a little. ("Rejection? Great! Put it on the list!") That said, it didn’t mean I enjoyed getting rejecting any more than usual. This system is not a magic antidote; it’s more like desensitization. But, as I always tell young writers when I do presentations for them, this kind of desensitization is your friend. If you’re the kind who wants to rip up every rejection letter and mail it back to the editor in a Sharpie-scrawled envelope, you’re going to get very tired of doing that when they’re coming in at this rate. You log them in and move on and send out more, and that’s what takes up a lot of time in a writer's daily life.

Which brings up the question: When do you have time to write when you’re beating your brains out sending out all those submissions? I didn’t actually find that to be a problem; I continued my usual practice of doing two month-long writing marathons in April and August, and I sent out fewer submissions during those months because I was concentrating on a lot of writing. Through the rest of the year, I wrote about the same number of poems as usual, as well as some essays. So I guess the answer is that the writing still takes first priority; the submitting time, for me, ended up pushing something else out of the way, like Netflix or yard work. Which reminds me, please steer clear of my yard. While I was sending out submissions, I think skunks moved in there.

* I tracked submissions, not individual poems or pieces of writing. And note that the “submissions sent out” is just the sum of acceptances and rejections received during 2019; some were submitted in 2018, and I think a couple of publishers sat on them longer than that.

** I love it when writers tell you how much they make, don't you? The great taboo. This figure only tracks journal payments and contest wins, not book sales or honoraria at readings.

*** I'll try to be more methodical, like make lists of journals I want to be in and then actually go down the list and send poems to them. So far, I've been very good about making the lists. Not so good about the sending part.