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The Need to Write

Ever since I returned to school to become a writer, I have spent August prepping essays to submit for publication. I read drafts filed away when summer began. I clean up whatever messiness I find. I research what journals might enjoy those essays. Then, when those publications open, I am ready to go. But not this August. This August, I submitted not a single essay. After weeks spent stress baking instead of writing, come August 1st, my annual ritual gave me the drive to return to my desk. I gathered three essays I put aside months earlier and tried tidying them up. They seemed fine, maybe even good, but they felt unfulfilled. Maybe if I kept submitting submitting submitting, the essays would have eventually found a home. Instead, I spent the month writing new drafts, then put those away to revisit them once again with fresh eyes. On one hand, I was excited that those essays seemed deeper than I once gave them credit for. I looked forward to exploring new connections and new ideas. But on the other hand, I felt frustrated that this meant I had nothing to publish. This frustration was not because those essays needed more work. Nor was it because I would have to wait longer for readers to experience what I had made. I was frustrated because I wouldn’t add another line to my CV, couldn’t show others proof of my writing. In May, after a hellish five years, I graduated with my PhD in English. For years, I worked toward my dream of becoming a creative writing professor, which meant stressing over my CV. For months, I watched the pandemic worsen the already terrible job market, and I soon found myself, for the first time in a decade, outside academia. I had seen talented friends, much more talented than I, stop writing once they left school. I worried—more than worried, freaked out—that I put in years of study for nothing. That now writing would become just some thing that I used to do. During my MFA, a professor said the key in continuing to write was to transform writing from a want to a need. We create excuses to avoid what we want—don’t feel well today, I’d like to see that movie with those friends, I can do it tomorrow—but if we need to write, we will. Academia, I thought, would provide that need. I needed to publish to get a job, to earn tenure, to stand in front of a classroom with confidence as I explain how to write. Now, there was no need to write. So afraid of losing writing, I made myself write every day, even if only for a few minutes. I have never found such joy in writing as I have these past few months of having no need to write. I rediscovered the amazement one can feel as they figure out an essay. I focused my concentration on the memoir I have worked on for eight years. Immediately, when revising (for the thirtieth time) the opening chapter about my parents’ divorce, on a whim, I thought research into Greek mythology might be the missing piece. And it was, surprisingly. Throughout the fall, I moved from essay to essay, chapter to chapter, unlocking what I had I struggled with, in some cases, for half a decade. The only thing that seemed to change about my process was the realization that I had time. That there was no need to do anything but write. Write and think. I am slow at everything I do. Just ask my old cross-country coach. Each night, when I sat down to write, I only concentrated on the vague notion of making progress. No word counts. No page counts. Only my own feeling that I was further today than I was yesterday. My writing time was no longer centered around completion, around publication. It was meditation. I meditated on the content of my essays, and I meditated on my writing process. My writing time every day ended up lasting hours. I would have to force myself away and off to bed. On days I had headaches or felt frustrated with my job, it was easier to sit down to write. I didn’t have to accomplish anything, so I didn’t have anything to be upset about if I didn’t get it done. I only had to work on my writing in some way. Some nights, I paced for the first hour, thinking through a transition. This does not mean that every day was joyous. Some problems I tried to solve in my work frustrated me, but none of it was stressful. There was no reason to stress. All I could do was write. I could either accept that or let myself get stressed out. I finish less drafts than I used to. I spend longer on every sentence. But the writing is stronger, deeper, more concise. I make more progress in a single draft than I used to in three drafts. The other day, as I thought about the year ending, I realized this is the first year in almost a decade that I have had zero acceptances. Not a single piece of writing was accepted for publication. Part of that is due to me barely submitting this year. I think I received only ten or so rejections. But, mostly, I think, I used to be so consumed with publishing that I rushed my work out, and just kept submitting submitting submitting. Every essay I ever publication has been revised in a meaningful way after I began submitting, and began receiving rejections. Some work never found a home. When I look at my rejections, I agree with 95% of them. Those drafts were not ready. And the worst thing is, I realized, is that the writing has always been there for me. When I think of good times in my writing life, it is always times I figured out problems in my work and solved them. It is always when I realized new connections, surprised myself, made myself laugh, made myself cry. When I publish, I feel good that day of the acceptance, maybe as long as a week. But that fades. Only the writing remains. As I craft my New Years resolutions for 2021, for the first time in years, I have no item about publishing. If I publish, great. If I don’t, that’s fine too. My items are about writing. Finish my memoir. Write a draft of a new short story. Revise two old essays. Going forward, I don’t need to write. I want to write. And that’s enough.

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Revision and Life Changes

There have been a lot of changes over the last few months, seemingly for the better. I graduated with my PhD in English, and I moved out of Missouri. Both of these changes have been very invigorating. Mizzou was a terrible school (which I’ll get into in a few essays soon), and it was really grinding me down much more than I thought at the time. When your environment is toxic, your writing can’t go well. I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and started work with CDC as a Health Communications Specialist. I miss the act of teaching but not how I was treated as a teacher by the school/department. One day, I’m sure I’ll return to teaching, but until I get a book out, I think the “good” teaching jobs are out of reach. So my focus has been on my writing (and getting back into shape after gaining a few pounds during this quarantine). I finished three comics (gun, On Fucking, and Our Boots Caked in this Mud) that are being sent out to journals now. Hopefully, they’ll place, but this is actually the first fall that I haven’t had nonfiction prose to send out. In some ways, it’s demoralizing after being at Mizzou in an environment that was not at all helpful (which is the nicest way I can put it). But it’s also nice to not have to worry about building my CV. I hadn’t realized, or maybe realized but didn’t accept, that I wanted publications so bad I was sending out work too soon. Pretty much every essay I have ever published changed between being first sent out (and getting rejections) and finally being accepted. Last month, I wanted these two essays I had been working on to go out for publication, but I felt there wasn’t harm in putting them aside. I’ve been able to concentrate on the writing, not on the publishing. Those essays will be much stronger, and I’ve already been thinking of ideas for them. These ideas are about exploring the essays, not “getting them ready.” It’s been helpful. Mostly, which means every day, I’m back to working on my book, As Many Roast Bones As You Need. I won’t be sending out more chapters until I get an agent who can advise me. Eight out of twenty-one have been published already, so I want to be careful moving forward. This has also helped me focus on the messier chapters, instead of getting the stronger ones complete for publication. Out of the twenty-one, about sixteen are strong. The other five need work, at least that’s how I feel about it. Others have said they’re done, but not I know that’s not true. I went at it hard on the opening chapter, “Reconsolidation,” introducing greek mythology to help bolster the theme. I’m pretty happy with it. Now I’m on to the second chapter, which needs a lot of work. Going back to the drawing board on it and taking it all the way back to notecard stage, which the notecards are currently being organized on the floor. It’s messy and a lot of work, but the essay will be stronger in the end because right now it’s not about publication–it’s about exploring that essay to the fullest. In two weeks, I’ll be doing the Gotham Writer’s Conference and sitting at a table (well, a Zoom meeting) with two agents. Some people hope to land an agent this way, and if that happens, great. I’m mostly looking to get feedback and advice on my query letter and the opening ten pages. I have spent the last month or so making a list of about 250 agents that might be interested in my book. I’m starting to divide it into groups of 10. Once I get that feedback at the conference, I’ll make whatever changes need to be made, and then I’m querying. And I’m not stopping until I land an agent.

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Break Time

Well, on April 17th, I defended my dissertation, which is the book I’m currently working on: As Many Roast Bones As You Need. I passed! Since I turned in the book to my committee members at the very end of February, I’ve kept my distance from it. I’ve draft a few essays and I’m 5 pages into a 19-page comic. I’ve also been revising my book proposal. I hope to have it perfect in June to renew my agent querying. Of course, things have been hectic with the pandemic and the usual issues of separating oneself from, well, not nice people. In some ways, I feel like I’ve done nothing. I’m not submitting work. I’m not working as hard as I was when finishing my dissertation. But I’m enjoying the work I’ve been doing. It’s getting better. And I find that for the first time in months I’m having ideas. About the book. About other projects. You need that rest, I think, that time away from the hectic schedules and big projects. It has helped me regroup. I have a pile of post-its when ideas beside my computer right now for when I pick back up on the book. I have two and a half weeks left of my final semester. Once I get my classes’ final grades turned in, I’ll get back to the book, having taken almost three months away from it. I’ll probably take a couple of days just to sort through the ideas I have, and then I’ll get back to it. My plan is now that I’ve worked through 95% of the overall structure issues, I’ll go chapter by chapter. Probably until the end of the year, and then I’ll put it all back together in 2021. Hopefully by then, I’ll have an agent.

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