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Blood, sweat and tears: All worth it


August 03, 2018

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You know the jokes about English majors: do you want fries with that? I laughed at this when I left college, and laughed, too, when people asked me what I would do with a master’s degree in poetry upon entering a graduate program just outside of New York City.

 

There, I learned form and technique, the history and politics of influence, how to workshop other people’s poems and how to accept criticism. I learned how to navigate the subway and where the cheapest happy hour was. I learned the fine art of jaywalking and living off of ramen noodles. I learned when museums were free and which parks had benches in the shade.

 

I did not learn how to publish, or how to handle rejection. After graduating, I tried a few times to get my work published, but following several rounds of consistent form letter rejections, I gave up and decided that my writing may have been important to me as a human, but it wasn’t meant for the public. I was still prolific, but I kept it to myself.

 

I worked some jobs that involved writing — crafting want ads for the newspaper, writing grants, and compiling newsletters for professional membership organizations — but most of my work was much akin to what people would assume someone with my education might wind up doing: working on farms, waiting tables, making people decaf –nonfat-no-foam-sugar-free-vanilla lattes.

 

I did not dislike this work. In fact, I loved a lot of it, and it provided me with much fodder for personal writing. But, I was bitter about how much I spent on my education, seeing as how I wasn’t using it. I hardly tried to publish anymore, and when I did, the rejections kept coming in. I had a poem published here, one there, but the odds were against me and my ego was perpetually bruised. 

 

After beginning to teach at Georgia Southern, being surrounded by other writers, and working out a few things in my obnoxiously complicated brain space, I embarked last year on a new campaign to get published. The rejections came, like I knew they would, again and again and again. Until, finally, someone bit the bait, and not just for a single piece: my little book of poems was going to be published.

 

I cried when I got the e-mail. I didn’t know what else to do. It was late at night and I couldn’t sleep, shaky with emotion, confusion, and anticipation. Soon after, I signed a contract, had it notarized in the registrar’s office on campus, and posed with it for a photo before shipping it off to the publisher. Then all went silent for six months.

 

Last week, after what felt like an eternity, the book officially went up for presales. I can visit the publisher’s website and find my name, my title, the design I commissioned, and blurbs from writers I respect. There is an embarrassing photograph of me holding a flower and looking pensive. So it goes.

 

I don’t have the book in hand yet, and won’t for a few more months, because this presales period dictates the total press run for the collection, thus determining the book’s reach. But having reached this step, I am both proud and terrified. There is a sense of excitement that is coupled with equal dread.

 

The poems are about my family, our collective dysfunction, the ways we have supported one another and failed one another. They are old poems, as the collection was ten years in the writing, but they are heavy poems and they speak to issues that will likely alienate me further from the family from which I am already estranged.

 

While publishing a collection is what I have been waiting for, a goal I set but never truly thought I would achieve, it is also a fraught happening, and a complicated victory. Speaking the truth about other people’s lives is a tricky business, but what if those truths are yours, too?

 

I am writing this from the heart of Manhattan, where I am on vacation and where I used to wander as a graduate student, feeling as though I was truly living the writer’s life: whiskey at noon and a blinding odyssey from borough to borough. If only I’d known that the writer’s life is actually more like this: occasional tourism, an otherwise everyday regimen, a belief in oneself that is not ego so much as fraught defiance.


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