Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.