When you’re drinking Rolling Rock with a bunch of poets after a sparsely attended reading in a far-flung corner of Brooklyn, it’s hard to keep in mind that writing isn’t just an art—it’s a business. Especially in poetry, it’s easy to become enamored of the bohemian aspect of the writing life, to cultivate a contempt of the so-called “po biz” and to neglect not only the most crucial aspect of the vocation—that is, actually writing, revising, and sending out poems—but also to forgo submissions to literary magazines, fellowship applications, residency applications, job applications, and all the other affairs that comprise a writing life and distract from drinking cheap beer into the wee hours, waking with a terrific hangover at noon, and watching videos of confused-looking animals on YouTube while eating peanut butter straight from the jar.
Don’t get me wrong: I love cheap drinks and screwing around on the Internet as much as anyone (and possibly more than most). Sadly, I’ve got a full-time job and a fatal allergy to peanut butter, and the truth is, taking charge of the professional dimension of your life as a writer doesn’t make you a hack or a sellout. Poets and writers of literary fiction are not above the myriad forms of self-promotion; if you want to be a writer, that means you want to communicate something important, and if you want to communicate something important, you need an audience. You can’t expect recognition from the writing community without putting work into it.
I wish someone had shared this with me earlier in my career. For a long time, I figured writing would happen when it happened and the poems would take care of themselves (and potentially, one day, me). I’ve since figured out that writing is work, and the work involved isn’t limited to turning out the poems or the short stories: it includes personal statements, curricula vitae, artist’s statements, and on and on and on.
This may sound like administrative drudgery, but I think it’s more along the lines of being your own CEO (Chief Executive Odist?). You’re in charge of every aspect of your content, schedule, and goals as a writer, which means you’ve got a lot of creative latitude and a lot of responsibility. Here are some of the things I’ve learned while figuring out how to manage my own writing life/general existence:
• Set a writing schedule and stick to it. Writing is your job, even if you have already have a day job that actually pays you money. Whether you set aside thirty minutes or three hours a day to write, block out the time and use it. Reward yourself when you do a good job! Do not reward yourself when you spend your writing time playing Plants vs. Zombies. (Even if you defeat all the zombies.)
• Establish measurable and attainable goals for your writing. Whether your goal is simply to submit to a dozen literary magazines this year or to put out your first book, identify what you want to accomplish, map out the steps necessary to achieve it, and work out a reasonable timeframe in which to get everything done. Again, reward yourself when you succeed.
• Submit regularly and manage your submissions effectively. This is a big one for me. Whether you submit a couple of times a year or a couple of times a week, it’s important to keep doing it in the face of good-try-but-not-this-time rejection, no-answer-means-no-thanks rejection, boilerplate-language-printed-on-a-third-of-a-piece-of-paper rejection—everything short of the actual dissolution of your friendships and/or relationships with family and loved ones.
Keep submitting and, just as importantly, keep records of what you submit and where. You want to know which editor has sent you personalized rejections, how long a given magazine usually takes to get back to you, which places you’ve simultaneously submitted something that’s finally been accepted somewhere (hooray!) and that you now must withdraw from everyone else, &c, &c. Be efficient and be organized. This is how you publish creative work, participate in a community of writers, and reach an audience while everyone else is sleeping off an evening of Big Buck Hunter and Busch Lite.
Does this mean you can’t get drunk on two-for-one beers and shoot deer with an orange plastic rifle? Of course not. It just means you’ve gotta do these things after you write, submit, apply, lather, rinse, and repeat.
• Apply for positions that interest you. Whether you’re looking at residencies, fellowships, grants, teaching positions, or a spot in a reading series, figure out which ones catch your fancy, get your materials in order, know your deadlines, and submit everything polished and on time. You’ll open yourself up to new opportunities, make new connections, and (worst case scenario) gain a lot of practical experience in filling out these sorts of applications. The more fully you participate in the writing community, the more you’re apt to get something out of it.
We all know that drinking and suffering (one often causing the other) is our lot in life as writers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be effective managers of our creative lives. With a bit of discipline, organization, and hard work, you can have your keg and drink it, too.