When I was in the writing program at Oklahoma State University, some fellow students I encountered refused to re-write. Baffled by their resistance, I began to doubt what I was working on. Was I paying too much attention to some of the same stories that were part of an earlier MA thesis? Was this a kind of double-dipping or cheating? Was my imagination so stunted that I couldn't come up with new material? Was I subconsciously trying to avoid writing or more work? These questions weighed heavily on me; in fact, I began to doubt myself so much--being an insecure 40-year-old student in the program--that I went to see the head of the creative writing program, Dr. Gordon Weaver. I confessed that some of the stories I had submitted to workshop were the same ones I'd been working on for a few years. Gordon had a puzzled look on his face. "So?" he said. When I expressed some doubt about whether or not this was fair game his reply was simple. "It's all writing, Learst," he said, and I was relieved. And as I continued to revise, the stories evolved into something different, and they got better.
They were no longer the stories I'd started at Northern Michigan University because they had transcended my earlier attempts to write fiction, which I obviously did not know how to do. The more I revised, the more the stories became stories worthy of publication, and published they were (I worked on "Point Man" for almost eight years until it was finally published in War, Literature, and the Arts and then as part of my collection). For me, learning the craft of writing was an exceptionally slow process. It's takes me a while to get on the learning curve, and I'm easily distracted by life. In the Oklahoma program, which was just as rigorous for us creative writers as it was for the literature track people, students in the writing program seemed to have difficulty with revision (I see it now as I teach undergraduates), and I'm not sure why. There is probably some psychological or philosophical answer to this question.
Students who resisted re-writing for whatever reason were the students who were most prolific. Instead of working on something they'd made for workshop, they continued to crank out new stories, very few of which had been published. They possessed so much great material that it seemed to me a waste not to go back to it. Perhaps one day they will. Here's my point. Some stories are hopeless and we have to let them go, but most of the time the material we already have is worth more consideration and attention. After all, there must have been a spark, a desire, a strong emotion that inspired the story in the first place. Work it through, find the core of its truth and be honest in your portrayal. If your fiction changes into something you did not intend and you discover something you didn't know, let it happen and be grateful.
In this first blog entry, I just want to note how important it is to enter contests. The rationale for entering contests is simple. They create recognition, which we writers need (even if we don't like it) to get our names out there. You can never tell who will see your work and respond to it. I entered an essay called "The Blood of Children" in Water~Stone, a journal published at Hamline University. Though I did not win the competition for best essay, people began to notice my work. From this publishing experience came a radio reading, a reading at the Minnesota Arts Board, and it was reprinted in an online journal called Perigee. There are a couple concerns: First, do your research. Who is judging? What kind of literature has that person published. Is the entry fee worth the amount awarded for 1st Place? Contests are used to generate money to fund journals and presses. It's a good idea to make sure the journal or press is a member of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses [CLMP].
If it's a small press, it's easy enough to find out their publication history. Look for names you recognize and then look the authors up on the internet. Small presses are a wonderful opportunity, especially if they have a history, like Leapfrog, for example. Research whether or not the small press adequately works to promote your book. You will have to do some of the work yourself, but you should not have to do all of it. Leapfrog Press, for example, has a small staff and a publicist. My experience with Leapfrog has been very rewarding and I have enjoyed every step of the process. Be involved, express your opinions. Small presses are often a better deal because they give you more attention. The big publishing houses will forget about you after they've gotten rid of as many of your books as they can. It's about profit, but the small press is about the writing, the subject matter, and the author.