Only Writing Is Writing

April 21, 2006

Last week, when I wrote about the three writing conferences I had applied to, I made a reference to “the rest of my writing life.” The next day I learned I’d been rejected by the conference in Aspen, Colorado. I felt more disappointed than I thought I would. 

I didn’t really have much time to sulk that weekend. It was Good Friday when I got the bad news, and I had some spring cleaning and an Easter dinner to prepare. Mindful of my commitment (maybe that’s too strong a word) to my weight loss efforts, I spent more money on flowers for the house than I might have otherwise, using their beauty to cheer myself up rather than soothe myself with the solo consumption of a large chocolate-covered coconut cream egg. Today I noticed that the roses on the dining table are fully open and only just now ready to start drooping. They’ve served me for a week. The coconut cream egg would have done the job for only a few hours.

And this week I endeavored to get on with “the rest of my writing life.” I analyzed the Aspen rejection experience. That festival is as famous and well-regarded as Bread Loaf, so presumably it attracts the same number of applications. But it offers only one-third the number of workshop spots that Bread Loaf does. If Bread Loaf is “highly selective,” then Aspen, by virtue of its applicant-to-admission ratio, must be classed as “most selective.” That is, if getting into Bread Loaf is like getting into Harvard, then getting into Aspen is like getting into Harvard with a full scholarship. In my years as a teacher I held the hand of many youngsters whose tears cascaded onto their rejection letters from their favorite “most selective” colleges. I would tell them that this was information, not a judgment, feedback, not failure.

I took my own advice and tried to discern the feedback from Aspen. Just what information could I take away from this experience? Am I working at my writing or just spinning my wheels? Do I set goals and then do little to achieve them? Just what do I want from my writing, and what am I willing to give up to get it? How can I work smarter, not harder?

As a result, on the day after Easter, I began some spring cleaning, of my physical writing space and of my head. I gathered up every single writing guide and instruction book I own, and I started compiling a bibliography (currently at page seven). I gathered my three fiction binders (one holds the material for my contemporary novel, one my historical novel, and one some fragments and drafts of stories), two willow baskets holding 25 years of private journals, and a plastic tub that has more bits of writing and research. I made tables of contents for all of them, cleared my desk, dusted and polished the bookshelves in my study, and washed the windows.

Cleaning and organizing and rearranging and getting the grime off the windows are all important household tasks, and they feed one of the Six Goals of a Quality Life (“6. Declutter the house”), but they don’t do much for #3, “Develop as a fiction writer.” As Judy Reeves, author of A Writer’s Book of Days and Writing Alone, Writing Together, says (paraphrasing E.L. Doctorow), “Talking about writing isn’t writing. Thinking about writing isn’t writing. Dreaming or fantasizing isn’t writing. Neither are outlining, researching, or making notes. . . . Only writing is writing.”

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margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)

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