So much of my time seems to be taken up with organizing and prioritizing tasks. I still use a combination of iCal and Todo, although when I read on Facebook that uber-productive Cheryl Ball uses Things, I checked it out. It is much like what I use though, but without the project feature where I cluster together the different tasks for larger projects. It may have that too, but I am used to Todo now and will stick to it. The main drawback to any of these things is not using them and thinking I can just juggle a list in my head.
I almost can, but the things that get left out then are the renewing items, the ones that generate fresh writing or synthesize ongoing thought. I tell my ENG 551 students (Preparing for Literary Publication) to block out time on their planner for two things that they might not otherwise do. First, write one fresh poem or story draft and one revision a week. This was advice given to me by my first poetry teacher/mentor, Albert Goldbarth. He said that if I did this, even allowing for two weeks off, in a year I would have a book. The numbers don’t lie. Second, allow for a nuts and bolts weekly block of time to send out work, update the submissions database, and evaluate progress. This weekly check-in could lead to new tasks (i.e., reordering the manuscript if they are that far) or could be an intensification of the generative work if they do not have enough finished work for the gang of five packets I see as a minimum. I have eight packets of poems out now, but have a secret longing to up it to ten; It seems like a good number for someone who neglected to sent out poems for three years, with only one sent out then. Well, at least they took it and at least I had some poems solicited during that time, but I was not showing how much I valued my own work by sending it out regularly. That stopped August 11 when I revived my database and started sending out work methodically again. Within a month, I had five poems accepted, which was my secret goal for the semester. I now have a new goal which seems just as ridiculous as the last one. Goals like that keep me moving.
Most of my creative writing students do not do these things, mainly from a deep identification with their student status. Even when they think they’re good enough, they don’t think they’re good enough, and that kind of self-sabotage through inaction must stop if they are to grow as writers. Mainly fiction writers this time in ENG 551, they have enough story drafts to send out three to five packets (a packet equals one story or three-five poems), but their drafts reach a certain level, maybe what It took to get an A in workshop, and there they stay. The story is not ready to send out and they know it, but the feeling that they are somehow done with it because it’s been graded lingers. The transformation from good student (I got an A!) to a writer who has other motivations other than a grade is not automatic.
I went into teaching ENG 551, which is a very new course for my department, with the idea that I couldn’t in good conscience ask my students to build professional habits I did not have. Thus, the revival of my submissions database. Thus, the weekly to-do for drafting and revision. It is embarrassing how quickly I had acceptances once I started a routine for sending out. Here is the routine and it’s simple: have a minimum number of packets out at all times. For me right now that’s eight. That means when a journal declines, I have to immediately send those poems out again. I may alter the line-up. I may revise one or more poems. I may swap out one or more in the packet to better fit where the packet is going next. All of that may happen, but what can’t happen is the end of the day to come without sending the new packet out to another journal. The same process holds for acceptances. I replace the accepted poems in the packet with likely suspects and send out again–that very day. Some people feel that an acceptance day is lucky and you should use that luck by sending out one more packet or entering a contest (lots of poetry contests out there that are perfectly legit). I do that too sometimes and that is how I got up to eight packets.
This is so easy. Why didn’t I do it all the time? Well, it is easy except for when it’s hard. I was talking with another poet yesterday and asked about that hard part when I asked how many time s/he had individual poems turned down that eventually got accepted. Ten, even fifteen times, she said, and some of them much loved work that had deep significance, work that was eventually accepted in good journals, not because of deep revision, but because they finally found their time and place. Fifteen times for a single poem and I had been rejecting my own poems as not good enough after one or two rejections.
Maybe part of why I gave up so easily was because I also do academic articles. Academic submissions use a different system of peer review, one that gives feedback and assumes revision. People generally say what they want in editorial comments and that makes it much easier than the all or nothing that is the norm for creative writing submissions. On the other hand, there are far fewer outlets for academic work in my field than there are literary journals, so maybe it evens out.
This was a rambling jaunt of a blog entry, one that may have a point or may not. I mainly wanted to say that I am trying to do what I teach and surprise! It works.