I was this way in school too. When test mates would huddle to see who put what answer for what question, I’d make myself scarce. While I understand on some level the need to dissect and assess, there’s an instinct in me to let it go. The deed being done, the outcome being out of my hands brings a sense of relief not aided by picking it apart. It’s crossed off the to do list, time to move on to the next thing.
I am the same way, today, with literary (and project) submissions. You assess the work, I’ll be over here moving on to the next thing. I disassociate so completely in fact that I give thanks for my careful record keeping when I do hear back. Why, yes, I did submit X poem to X market on X date. Useful as well for avoiding multiple submissions of the same piece of writing. You can understand then why I’m a bit panicked about my hard drive being MIA with all my information.
But obsessing is little more than chasing your tail, so I compartmentalize (shout out to the lady who asked me if that was a real word or if I was making it up); it’s a way of multi-tasking that allows me to juggle different things by keeping everything in its lane, and a way of coping with outcomes I can’t control by putting it ovahdeyso.
Besides when it comes to literary submissions for me, the outcome is such a small part of it.
I spent much of last night editing a story. This particular story was born when, while reading Stephen King’s On Writing, I decided to take up one of the challenges he gave his readers…just because. I enjoyed the challenge. When done, I put down the story, no particular plans for it just then, some vague notion of tinkering with it, at a future date. Then comes last night when, during my clearing out and recovering of information, I came upon a market I’d meant to submit to. I found one very old story ‘d always wanted to submit that might work for that market, but then thought back to the story from the Stephen King prompt. Digging it up took some doing but I found what might have been the earliest version of it – the version I’d emailed to a writing partner for feedback (thank God, for email archives). It was (fun isn’t the word but) fun revisiting the world of that half born story and midwifing it. When I came up for air, several hours into the editing process, I realized that I’d been absorbed in the world of the story, a place in which real time loses meaning, and that I emerged feeling stimulated in a way the real world with its routines, deadlines, and interruptions can’t stimulate me. The world of the story, in this case, the chiseling and polishing of this rough stone into something jewel like is exhilarating, even at its most taxing. I felt excited about the story too when I was done with it; the desire to share, that normally precedes submission somewhere, stirring. The market that had prompted me to dig it up in the first place wasn’t right for it though, and I remembered that another market (this one a paying market, not a small thing when you’re a working writer) had a deadline coming up. So, I ended up making two sets of submissions last night, and woke up this morning feeling really accomplished. Then came the impulse to open the doc and peruse the story again. And that’s what prompted this bit of reflection because opening it up would’ve been like going over test answers I can’t change, obsessing about outcomes I can’t control. That’s not to say that I won’t tinker with the story again, but for now, it is done.
And this got me thinking about Musical Youth and an interview I did yesterday as one of the top three finalists for the Burt Award. I didn’t feel settled after the interview, like I hadn’t been clear …but …I can’t change it so I put it out of my mind. Or tried to. Here’s what bears clarifying though, it was the Burt Award that prompted me to write Musical Youth but I didn’t write Musical Youth because of the Burt Award. I know, that doesn’t clarify anything, so let me explain.
When I started Musical Youth, I hadn’t even got out of bed; I woke up with or was woken up by an idea or maybe I hadn’t gone to sleep yet, I don’t know, it was somewhere between late night and day break and I was in bed but awake and the lap top was on the floor by the bed and I picked it up and started writing; I wrote the first sentence and it flowed into the second and so on…the characters and the world of the story taking shape and pulling me in to the world of the story. The Burt Award had been at the edge of my consciousness for a time, in the way that all opportunities I hear of are. At such times, I might dig through to see if I have anything suitable, and if there’s something not quite there I might use the opportunity as my prompt to tinker with it. If by the deadline it doesn’t feel finished, it won’t go. I knew I didn’t have anything appropriate for Burt. My first two books The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight might have been but they were ineligible and the thought of taking on a writing project of that scope with only months to go, when I barely had time to breathe (real life can be is a demanding bitch) was just impossible…not worth even thinking about. So I didn’t. Somewhat regretfully I accepted that the Burt path wasn’t for me. And then, with less than two weeks to the deadline, I woke up or stayed awake that morning and suddenly I had story, and story kept pouring out of my fingers. Unlike the stagnated manuscripts I’d been fighting with for years, this story opened itself up to me so willingly that the challenge was pulling myself away from it. Real life didn’t stop after all just because my Muse was feeling chatty. I know it was very early in the writing when I thought, huh, this could work for Burt but I also knew that the Burt submission deadline was maybe 12 days away, less than two weeks, so the chances of me finishing and refinishing this in time was ridiculously small…but I kept writing anyway, couldn’t stop then even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to. At times, I paused to figure things out, would this character do this, say this, etc etc but I was never stumped by the absence of story. It was a good place to be. I was enjoying these kids. It was fun hanging out with them, and as I dug in I realized that when story is on, the lack of time to give to story, is at times an excuse. There was no extra time, and no relief from real life, and perhaps sleep was sacrificed to the writing but I hardly sleep anyway and the kids of Musical Youth certainly beat late night infomercials. I might have been working on something else, sure, there were other things that needed working on, but I gleefully carved out a space of time for the story and it was real life’s turn to bend itself around it. And when I was finished it was so rough I had to talk myself – or well my sister had to talk me – into submitting it, especially with no time. I had one night to go over it, I asked my niece to help (she is the target market, after all) and she read some of it, giving her feedback, I edited, and then hit another bump with the logistics and cost of printing, binding, and couriering (they really need to make it so writers can email the manuscript especially when it’s multiple copies, because talk about a disincentive to submit). My sister helped with some of the printing, until she couldn’t, and I remember a long conversation with a binding guy who couldn’t help me on such short notice but wished me well. Every little bit of aid and encouragement helps. Even with all that, I wasn’t sure it would get there on time; when I say I cut it close, I’m not kidding. But I was going to take my shot (dammit), these characters deserved no less. So did I write it because of Burt; yes and no. I was conscious of Burt, of the audience for which this was intended, of a finish line that I was sprinting toward, but the story was what drove the story not outside factors, and certainly not money, though what working writer doesn’t need money, right?
When it was gone, I put everything about Musical Youth and Burt out of my mind, out of my conscious mind anyway. Didn’t open the story to see what was wrong with it, all the reasons it was inadequate; just let it go. Good thing too… word that I’d made the top six came via email on one of those mornings between night and day break, and I felt like I wanted to jump out of my skin, in a good way. I called a sister-friend instead and at some point in that conversation finally, for the first time in months, opened the Musical Youth file reading the words, fresh.
Sure it needs editing, and once I settle in with a selected publisher no doubt that process will take place, but for a time, it was good to let things go. Now, now that the outcome is something I have a hand in shaping, now I can take it up again, and now comes the work.