Imagine that you are an athlete, and you’ve been preparing to try out for a soccer team. You’ve worked on your fitness, your directional changes, your speed, your dribbling, your passing, your penalty shots for weeks, for months, and you have a strong desire to be on the team. You head to the field for the tryouts, all of your equipment in place, and . . . then you just turn and walk away.
Or you are an actor who has been waiting for this one particular role in a revival musical to become available, one you have been rehearsing since you were young and singing the score in the shower. Your agent has procured you an early audition and reports that the directors are very excited that you are considering the role–they’ve seen your work before, as you’ve done multiple recent plays and even received a Tony nomination for your previous work. You go to the audition, the piano begins, and . . . you say “never mind” and walk out.
Doesn’t this sound ridiculous? But we’ve all done it as writers–scrolled through Twitter to see every other writer you know being accepted by a dream journal/winning a contest/signing an agent or a contract/being asked to speak at a high-profile conference/generally winning at the writing life. Your inbox, meanwhile, has just received five rejections, you just signed a contract for someone to fix your long-dented car, and the only speaking engagement you’ve completed is the long rant you rattled off to your dog about the news. You look at the list of journals open for submissions. You have new poems that you think are strong, and you thought you were ready to send them out into the world. Odds are that fifty percent (or more) of the time, you do not send.
The “you” above has been me, many times. I can easily rattle off all the reasons I should not bother to submit to a prize, a high-tier journal, a residency or grant opportunity. I can pull up all of my failures on Submittable and personal spreadsheets, wallow in all the things I have not accomplished. I am an expert at this. The “why bother.” And every rejection I receive can be viewed as justification that I was correct. Luckily, when I was first starting to take my writing seriously, I took as many summer workshops as possible. Diana Goetsch became a friend and mentor over many summer courses in Iowa City, and aside from making me believe that my writing was worthwhile, her best advice to me was about submitting. I don’t remember the exact words, but she advised me to believe in my poems as if they were the most important thing in the world while I was writing them, but to submit them as if they didn’t matter. To remember that outside validation should not be the reason I write.
So if, like me, you want to turn your impostor syndrome attitude from Why Bother? to Why Not Me?, try these list-making exercises.
1. Make a list of all the reasons that you write. Try to include at least ten reasons. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (Insert Jeopardy music here…)
2. Circle the three that are most important to you.
3. Read your list back, focusing on the three you circled. I will go out on a limb and guess that your list does NOT consist only of items like “become poetry famous” or “make one million dollars from my poetry manuscript.” Sure, we would all like to be successful, but for most of us, this is not why we create. My top three were to make sense of the world, to process how I feel about the world, and to bring my careful attention to things that interest me.
4. Now focus on what you HAVE accomplished. There are several ways for you to do this. Do as many as you’d like until you feel confident!
a. Make a list of all the journals that have published your work. YOU DID THAT. (If you haven’t yet been published, make a list of all the pieces you’ve written in the past two years. YOU DID THAT) If you’ve been in print journals and/or anthologies, physically lay your copies out on the floor or the bed and take a photo. (Or roll around in them like Scrooge McDuck in money…go for it.) YOU DID THAT.
b. Make another list to remind you of what obstacles may have been in your way while achieving those goals. They may be related to personal issues, time, professional responsibilities, etc. For instance, my top two reminders for myself are that all of my poetry collections were written and published while I was teaching full-time in a public middle school, and these accomplishments happened without the benefit of an MFA or the connections one would foster.
5. You should be feeling like a badass about right now. So, for your last list, make a WHY NOT ME? list of three things you want to go for with your work that you’ve held yourself back from. This year, I applied for a state arts grant, and I sent to my first single-poem contest. I haven’t heard back from the state grant as of yet, but my poem reached finalist status with publication in the contest. I am currently working up the guts to perhaps start my own reading series.
I find that this process (which I have done more than once, believe me) not only helps me to refocus on my strengths and personal confidence, but it also helps me to feel genuinely happier for the successes of others. Anything that helps me feel more connected to other writers in a positive rather than competitive or remorseful way is not only good for my writing, but good for the writing community. So, why not you? What are you waiting for?
Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications, as well as eight chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Rhino, Tinderbox Poetry, Poet Lore, Sugar House Review, Waxwing, and other journals, and she serves as an associate editor for Rhino Poetry. Recently retired from 36 years in public education, she can’t wait to see what happens next.
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