This is a case history. I’m sharing my long, arduous, and disjointed writing journey with you in the hopes you can skip to the good part.
I started writing short stories in elementary school.
In my teens, I shifted to writing very bad, very schmaltzy, very angsty poetry.
In my twenties: As an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I applied to the creative writing program. Before I got a response, my life shifted drastically, and I dropped out of college. I’ll never know if I would have been accepted.
I kept writing.
In my thirties: I submitted a short story to Redbook magazine. I got back a tiny, form rejection slip printed in red ink. When I read the “story” now, I realize it’s not even a story. It’s 5,000 words of me grieving the end of my marriage. But I cherished that rejection slip. I still have it. It’s proof of me putting myself out there.
I kept writing.
In my forties: I had an opportunity through a local writers’ conference to have a published author critique one of my stories. Catherine Ryan Hyde, the author of Pay it Forward, told me she liked my story. She said I had a natural understanding of story arc and that she was sure she would see one of my stories in print someday. Much better feedback than I’d gotten from Redbook. I was elated.
I kept writing.
In my fifties: I went back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree in English. I chose an emphasis in creative writing.
I kept writing.
But I didn’t submit anything for publication. Nothing. NOT. A. THING.
In my sixties: I graduated from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. I know there’s a lot of debate about “to MFA or not to MFA,” but I think it depends a great deal on the program. At UCR Palm Desert, I not only learned to be a better writer, I learned how to focus my efforts. I began to approach my writing dreams the way I approached other things in my life. I set financial goals, health goals, career goals. Why wouldn’t I set writing goals, too?
In 2019, I submitted three pieces to various markets. One (a poem) was accepted and published in a fundraising anthology. One (an essay) was rejected. One (another essay) languished for a year—I withdrew it when it was accepted for publication elsewhere in 2020.
In 2020, I submitted to various literary journals and magazines eight times. Three times my pieces were rejected, three times my pieces were accepted, and twice my pieces were withdrawn when they were eventually accepted elsewhere. I fell far short of my goal, though. I’d gone into the year with a goal of racking up 100 rejections—a game strategy recommended by a peer who told me that, if I tried to rack up 100 rejections, I’d surely end up with at least a couple of acceptances. This made sense to me and appealed to my goal-oriented personality.
In 2021, I decided to do things differently. Focusing on rejections wasn’t the right mindset for me, I realized. For one thing, it focused on the negative versus the positive. But for another, it was a goal I had little control over. I like being in control. Publishers take a long time to respond to submissions—I can’t control how many rejections come back to me in a year, so that goal isn’t giving me the kind of motivation I need. What I can control is how many things I send out into the world. So for 2021, I set a goal to reach 100 submissions. So far, I’m at 106 submissions for the year. Of those, I’ve had 49 rejections, two acceptances, and I withdrew one piece when it was accepted elsewhere. That leaves 54 submissions still out there as I head into the new year. This is what Catherine Ryan Hyde calls “keeping hope in the mail.”
If you’ve read this far, you’ll notice two things: (1) It’s never too late to pursue your writing dreams in earnest; and (2) things finally started to happen for me when I began setting specific, measured goals for my writing. In the years before now, I squeezed in writing when and where I could, but I wasn’t consistent about it, and I didn’t have any direction. I wasn’t disciplined. I read books, but I didn’t apply any of the things I was learning about writing from successful writers to my own writing. These things used to cause me a lot of remorse—I felt like I’d wasted so much time. But to be honest, nothing I wrote in my early years was anywhere close to ready. I needed all those years of practice. And I needed to learn to write.
But I also needed a sense of direction and to set goals. I never once considered where I was going with my writing—I just wrote and had vague dreams of publishing a book someday. I never stopped to think about how that was supposed to happen. I guess I figured a writing fairy godmother was going to drop in unannounced, find me scribbling away diligently, and reward me with a book deal. That’s not how it works.
My stats over the past three years don’t sound all that great. Out of 117 submissions, I’ve had six acceptances. Something like a five percent success rate. But let’s look at it this way: Out of the nineteen stories and essays I’ve been submitting, I’ve found homes for six of them. That’s the result of persistence, and that’s a thirty-two percent success rate. Plus I still have a whole lot of hope in the mail. And a whole new year ahead of me.