Many years ago my Grandmother and Great Auntie Babe decided to take my cousin and me for a hike up the Blue Hills. We were seven or eight years old. It was one of those memorable days, not because of the weather (hot and sticky) or the prediction (a warning to watch out for rattlers). No, it is engrained in my memory because of the silly conversation we had along the way.
My cousin and I sounded more senior citizens than the seniors who were taking us up the hill. We hadn’t progressed very far when I let everyone know how I was feeling.
“My legs are killing me,” I said.
“You can say that again,” my cousin chimed in.
With that my grandmother and aunt howled with laughter. They thought we were far too young to be complaining about aches and pains. Needless to say this became one of the legendary stories that we would retell at family gatherings. I am still surprised they didn’t lose complete faith in the younger generation at that point.
That said, getting up that hill did take some effort. We had our sneakers and our walking sticks. We were young and energetic, not to mention confident that we could beat our older relatives to the top. No problem. Boy, did we have a few things to learn.
So too with writing, and more so with publishing. Since grade school writing had come easily to me, unlike chemistry, which was a natural disaster in high school, or economics, which ruined my first semester in college. Give me an article to write, a short story to create, and I was in my element. Or so I thought, until I submitted my first piece of poetry for publication on a cold day in 1999. Then I got a reality check.
My first rejection letter appeared in the mail (back in the old days). Soon I was keeping a pin cushion by my desk. I stuck red pins in for all of my rejections. Now and then I would add a green pin to represent a meager acceptance. I was starting to realize this publication gig took leg work, and my legs were killing me.
“You can say that again!”
It wasn’t as easy as whipping out a poem one night and seeing it in The New Yorker the next month. This was a climb and I was going to need some assistance. Turns out the best guidance came from my critique groups. I can’t recommend this enough. Allowing your work to be workshopped and critiqued is never easy but, for most of us, it is one of the best ways to perfect your art.
Other advice came in the form of books. A few of my favorites can be found in our library. While I haven’t read one of Stephen King’s works of fiction (too scary), I love his book On Writing. Through memoir and inspiration, King inspires his readers to better their craft.
Another book that tackles the nuts and bolts of writing is Words Fail Me by Patricia T. O’Conner (also the author of Woe Is I). The byline for the book is “what everyone who writes should know about writing” and this former New York Times Book Review editor hasn’t failed me yet.
For those who loved Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, I would recommend her latest work called The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. This book is intended to light a spark and to inspire authors to pick up a pen, long before you invite the criticism in.
If you decide to submit your work to a publisher, however, you must be ready for the possibility of rejection and more criticism. The effort that goes into each revision is never easy. I have revised for editors and agents, changed my characters from boys to ducks. I have added words, subtracted metaphors, and editors have claimed to love the story. Still, the Big Kahuna editor who sits on the top of Blue Hills may decide it’s not quirky enough or it’s too quiet. So I rework it, and send it out again.
As authors the question we continually ask ourselves is “when will this thing be finished?” I have two answers. Ellen Bryant Voigt is famous for telling one poetry student, “Honey, it’s all draft until you die.” Certainly this is one thought. Maybe we will be revising until the day we die. However, there is another thought. Perhaps we are finished when we reach the top of the hill, i.e. when we have finished the climb.
Case in point, I received a phone call from Writer’s Digest when I was literally on a mountain. They wanted to let me know I had won the grand prize for my poem, White Birch. At the time I was attending the Frost Festival of Poetry in Franconia, New Hampshire. That very poem was being critiqued when I received that prize-winning call. Some people in that workshop had no idea what my poem was about. Others suggested a variety of edits. And, irony of ironies, in the middle of that the editors at Writer’s Digest thought it deserved a grand prize out of 18,000 entries. Sometimes success is a complete surprise.
My point? Hike those hills. Work hard. Write, and rewrite some more. At some point your work may be a winner in some editor’s mind, even if “it’s all draft until you die.” Someone will always have another criticism to add to the pile. Only you, the author, can decide when it’s done. All in all, it’s worth the back-breaking climb and then some. Don’t forget, “you can say that again!”
Nancy Ling is an Outreach Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library and an author. Read Nancy’s column in the October 6th issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.
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