As a writer, one goes through many different stages. I am a creative writing student going through my first round of undergraduate workshops at Cleveland State University. The action of moving from being a personal writer to an academic writer included declaring my major, which was in itself a decision to move forward as a writer, to dedicate my life to this. Now, whenever I am asked what I’m studying, I have the honor of saying creative writing. Every time the words come out of my mouth, I feel more and more like a writer.
The first time you share your work in public is a monumental moment. I, and many of my peers, have been writing for years and years, mostly in private. We’ve been quietly and diligently following that insistent urge that burns deep inside, calling us to write. We’ve occasionally shared little pieces, chapters of stories, or modest poems with our friends. They respond with genuine interest and praise, or with half-hearted remarks—“Cool! I liked it!”—and that was all she wrote. Whether we’ve found one or two helpful, or at least interested, readers or retreated from sharing our work almost entirely, most of us have not had to endure any criticism. We have possibly been encouraged by friends or family members (bless their souls), but we still had (or, rather, still have) little to no idea if we’re doing anything right or special.
Workshops are intriguing. When a fellow student, or even better, the professor, picks up on your intentional choices within a piece, when they “get” what you were trying to do, you feel humbled. You feel encouraged. When they don’t, it is much more valuable. You learn something. The authors they choose to guide you with, the books they assign or suggest, serve as icons, as models, for the end-all be-all of (usually) modern, (always) relevant work.
Even more exhilarating has been the start of my involvement with Whiskey Island literary magazine. I have stared down the barrel of the submit button many times, but now, as an intern, I am on the other side of the machine. Working with editors is an invaluable experience. I am witnessing what kind of work gets accepted quickly and feverishly versus the work that is denied relatively fast, and the work that falls in between, that is pondered, considered in spite of not being perfect, that is perhaps almost “there” but not quite. And of course, there is no set formula—the work that the editors and interns get excited about varies from reader to reader, and varies in content, focus, and style. The things that are consistent in every piece that gets accepted are attention to detail, and precise and intentional decisions made by the author in regard to language and form. And, equally important, they are all of authentic voices, speaking in inventive ways about honest truths, whether those truths be founded in our current society, in the human psyche, or within themselves. I am learning that anything can be relatable and accessible to a reader if it is written artistically and honestly.
Reading submissions from all over the country and watching them flood into our submission manager is simultaneously exciting and overwhelming. It is encouraging in that, even though I’m seeing the portion of declined work grow exponentially over accepted, I am learning that it’s not personal. Maybe it registered with some of the readers, but not at all with others. Maybe it was good, parts of it were enjoyed, but it wasn’t great. The writer is largely unimportant in our decision of whether or not to publish the work, because it is in fact about the work itself. It is encouraging to see the wide variety of what gets published, not only in Whiskey Island but in other literary journals across the country. If you work doesn’t register with one magazine, more than likely it can find a home in another. Not everyone is your reader. It is exhilarating to read writers with fresh, original styles, or perhaps with voices similar to your own—which should not matter or be the goal, but is encouraging in the mind of a young, fresh, unpublished author.
On the other hand, reading submissions has been overwhelming (but extremely beneficial) in the sense that I am witnessing what seems to be a large part of how much incredible talent exists in the world of writing. This is a seriously competitive field, and as Bukowski said, “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything,” this path probably isn’t for you. The writers that literary magazines are looking for are serious, driven, and committed to constantly improving. They stick out among the rest.
One evening while I was working at Barnes & Noble, a customer asked me casually about our magazine selection and which ones were my favorite. I showed her the section of literary magazines and told her most of them publish new work in poetry, short stories, flash fiction, or creative essays. She was delighted and said she was going to submit to some. She said, “I’ve always been good with writing. I’ll dig out some of my old work.” I applauded her excitement and encouraged her, but I thought immediately of the growing list of submissions waiting to be read at Whiskey Island. In general, and as I can only assume, I believe the writers whose work catches our eyes and whom we choose to publish are writers who are consistently working hard to master their craft. It shows when we read their submissions. Their passion and drive are evident in every word. I believe that these writers are people who likely write something every day.
Creative writing is an art, and though there is no one way to do it, there is a universal step you must make to succeed: commit to it. That is one of the most important lessons I am learning in my transition from personal writing to academic and professional writing. The more I immerse myself in the world of writing, in workshops, in my internship at Whiskey Island, and the more I surround myself with people who want the same things as me, the more I am growing as a writer.