Welcome to the Winter 2015 edition of Backporch, where writers talk freely and openly. We asked our contributors to give us a few nuggets of honest-to-God wisdom about being writers. Here is what they had to say.
What is the most challenging thing about being a writer?
What is most challenging about writing is what is most challenging about life: time.
— Maryanne Stahl
Persistence is a virtue writers need to nurture. It is also our greatest challenge. When I was in my early twenties, James Lee Burke told me how, when he was a student at the University of Missouri, he knew young writers far more talented than he was. However, year after year, more of them fell by the wayside as writers, their lives taking them in other directions. Burke also saw his novel, Lost Get Back Boogie, rejected 111 times over nine years before it was published and before it earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Burke was right. Now in my sixties, I, too, have seen once very talented writers off pursuing other careers. Some are teachers, good teachers, but no longer writers. And yet, we all heard of Wallace Stevens or Ted Kooser, who enjoyed corporate success. Of course, there’s William Carlos Williams who scribbled lines on his prescription pads after long days caring for his patients. We all should be so persistent.
What was the funniest moment in your writing career?
When I was fifteen I decided to send my poetry to the New Yorker. Go big or go home, right? So, I put my sheath of twenty poems (!), which had all been typed on an Underwood typewriter and which I had no copies of, in a manila envelope. And as I read you were supposed to do, I sent a self-addressed, stamped envelope. When I got the poems back – and God bless the sweet New Yorker editor who realized I was obviously too stupid to make copies and who put them in a full-sized New Yorker envelope – the rejection letter said, “Please be sure to send a full-sized envelope for the return of your work, not a little lady’s envelope.” But you see, I thought the self-addressed, stamped envelope was for the CHECK.
What was the strangest rejection letter you’ve ever received?
“Great query letter–not for my list.”
— Nina Romano
The strangest rejection I’ve ever received was for a poetry anthology and they asked for “working class” poems, so I thought it would be a good fit for my work. Anyway, here’s the rejection: “If we could have included every poem we received in our little book, we certainly would have included yours.” And one other that stays with me was the rejection note that came in response to a 100-page poetry manuscript: “We really loved the title!” And that was it.
I’d been reading a lot of short fiction, and wanted to try and write some of my own, so I began scribbling notes/outlines/character sketches. It was innocent enough; I was having fun, not harming anyone. One day I get a form rejection from a journal I’d submitted poems to maybe four or five times, and in the letter they rejected my short story. We’re sorry this story isn’t right for us, or some such. But I’d submitted poems, not a story. I had only notes for a story, notes that no one had seen, notes I hadn’t even told my friends about, and this journal THEY KNEW, and they already hated it, and they were telling me “don’t write this, you’re going to embarrass yourself.” It was crushing. Worst rejection ever.
Is there a habit in your writing style that you find you have to constantly edit for?
I absolutely fall in love with certain words and phrases, and for months on end they will worm their way into my poems. It only takes a few uses and edits to realize that I’m doing it, but for five or six months I have to be on guard that I am using them again and again. 2014 was the year I wanted to use the word “actual” and the phrase “flat black and gold” over and over. I removed the word “actual” dozens of times from the poems I wrote last year, and the phrase “flat black and gold” at least ten times. The same thing will happen to me in 2015 I’m sure, something in the language will grab me and demand a much larger role that it deserves. My first drafts are always very fluid, very open, and this is bound to happen. Luckily, I’ve picked up on the trend, and am aware of it when I edit.
— Darren C. Demaree
When I was working with Michael Griffith on the editing of my first story collection, I noticed that two of the stories ended with the protagonists (two different characters, two unrelated stories) on a front stoop bearing food. In one case, the protagonist cradles a country ham, having knocked on her own door. Her estranged boyfriend answers, wearing her nightgown. In the other story, the narrator proffers a dish of baked beans. She’s being turned away from a bridal shower, to which she had been invited, because the wife of the man she’s having an affair with is inside. I mentioned this to Michael–that I felt embarrassed for relying on this ending twice. Should I rewrite? No, no, he said, you should write an entire collection of stories that end with the protagonist and a covered dish–call it Potluck. Brilliant! I haven’t gotten around to it, but I haven’t forgotten the idea, so you never know. I left the stories as they were.
— Margaret Luongo
Was there ever anything you wrote that you wish you hadn’t?
My fratboy college roommate paid me twenty bucks to write a love poem which he gave to his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day. Back then, I thought I might be a poet. I certainly needed the money. I believe I wrote a sonnet. I believe it helped Logan get laid. The whole thing makes me super-uncomfortable and slimy. Dear Not-my Girlfriend for Whom I wrote a Terrible Poem: I’m sorry. I write fiction now.
— Jason Ockert
What would you do differently if you’d known then what you know now?
I would have written shorter. I wasted a good amount of time writing novellas, which no publisher wants because they’re neither short stories nor novels. When my wife and I had our third child, I suddenly had much less spare time on my hands. Short on time to write, I had to write short. So I took up the shortest form of all — aphorisms — those tiny one-sentence nuggets of insight, inspiration, and wit. It’s so satisfying finishing a piece of writing in three minutes instead of three years. Such instant gratification! And believe it or not, I’ll make a little money off them. A book of my aphorisms and those of 31 otherwriters, called Short Flights, will be published in November!
Here are a couple of aphorisms about writing:
A writer’s paradox: the complete draft.
Blame the limits of language? First check the limitations of the writer.