by Emile DeWeaver
I keep learning the same lesson about writing: Write from where you are, not from where you aren’t. Tap into who you are, discover what you’re inspired to say today, and write it. I’m going to call this a rule to write by because when I forget it, my writing life crashes through a guardrail and tumbles into a landfill.
You might think no one should need to tell me to be myself on the page, not anymore than someone needs to tell an apple tree to bear apples, but that’s the problem with being a new writer and not a tree. New writers need reminding of the obvious. So I’m making a list of obvious things that will keep me out of landfills. My top three: To write, you need to read; a rejection of your work isn’t a rejection of you; and write from where you are, not from where you aren’t.
I wrote about the 12 years I took to learn the latter in my first column (12 Years an Unpublished Writer). The lesson propelled me to 15 publications in 10 months. Then I forgot the obvious. Fast forward, and I’m dragging myself out of the artistic dumps this month.
Since June, I’ve finished a short chapter, three poems, and little else. I started journaling to keep the gears turning, and though the effort kept me writing for another week, it didn’t solve my problem. I couldn’t maintain motivation to write.
To write, you need to read; a rejection of your work isn’t a rejection of you; and write from where you are, not from where you aren’t.
I had plenty to write about; inspiration struck a dozen times. But I’d convinced myself that I should break away from writing confessional poetry and personal essays for a while. I wanted more distance between my subjects and my inner life, so when inspiration hit, and I couldn’t direct it into something impersonal, I’d reject it. An aside for new writers interested in compiling their own lists: never but NEVER reject inspiration. Treat inspiration like a delightful child with bright ideas. You only have so many times to rebuff it before it keeps its delight to itself.
I told myself I’d become a stronger writer if I forced my craft to develop outside my comfort zone. The truth is, I’d forgotten that rejection of your work isn’t a rejection of you.
My urge to be other than the writer I am coincided with a summertime slump in acceptance letters from magazines. Rejection kicks everyone’s ass, but it can be a beetle-browed bully for writers. Literary work reflects something of the author’s inner life, so it’s easy for, let’s say, me, to conflate my sense of self with my work. When I’m not careful to keep the differences clear between my personal worth and my work’s relevance to a magazine’s current need—and let’s face it, I’m not a careful man—a polite denial of my work becomes a rejection of my vulnerable parts. And if I can do a writer’s job, here, and delve into the Devil-loving details, it’s worse than the denial alone. It’s feeling that bubble of hope when you see that answer from Rattle or Boston Review. You click and then pop.
Writers build careers by subjecting themselves month after month to this emotional whiplash. It’s hard. I know beautiful writers who will never see the light of a published page because they can’t endure continual rejection. I endure only slightly better than they do.
Depersonalizing rejection is the easiest principle for me to forget because it’s the one I, as a prisoner, am least able to internalize. Rejection burns because it thwarts the human need for acceptance, of which so many prisoners grew up deprived. Deprivation rendered us too hungry for appreciation—so hungry that we joined gangs or internalized the sociopathic ethics of drug dealers whose flamboyant lifestyles effectively purchased admiration.
In short, I’m needy. For me, the submission process at its worst is like my love life—Overemotional Dating for Dummies. Like declaring my love to a woman who gives my hand a heartfelt squeeze and says, “Thank you so much for your time!”
Just as failed relationships raise questions about self-worth and futility, the summer procession of “your piece is not for us,” prompted internalizations about failure. I told myself they weren’t true (because all my friends and self-help books tell me I’m phenomenal), but suddenly I wanted to be another kind of writer. I’d forgotten in two months what it had taken 12 years to learn.
An aside for new writers interested in compiling their own lists: never but NEVER reject inspiration. Treat inspiration like a delightful child with bright ideas. You only have so many times to rebuff it before it keeps its delight to itself.
I did remember that to write, you need to read. So I read. I laughed and cringed through Nabokov’s Lolita, marveled at 4-D tech in Popular Science, and learned how to etch from The Steampunk Bible. In POETRY magazine, I found John Wiener’s “Seven Letters.” The Boston-based poet coaxed my inspiration from reticence.
In one letter to his college friend, Wieners relates the elation he felt in a writing class. He’d drafted two love poems, and he didn’t like them because they were preoccupied with the self, “written while [Wieners] was in tears up to [his] knees.” Reading Weiners’ letter, I perked up because his self-criticism echoed my own. Wieners writes on to describe how, after he read the poems in class, he asked how he could stop writing those kinds of poems.
His mentor, Olsen, laughed and answered, “You never can, and you better not.”
I read that line and woke up. I remembered. Of course I couldn’t be any poet, any essayist, or any fiction writer but the one that I am. My challenge isn’t that I need to expand my artistic range; my challenge is I need to love my writing. In the same way that we find lasting love by learning to love ourselves, we become great writers by learning to love our own work.
Last week, I wrote a poem inspired by a still-born romance. It’s confessional, a tad angry, and it occasioned the invention of the adjective “fuck-mad.”
And I love it.