DEAR WRITER: Tips for Young Writers (Vol I.)

I founded The Adroit Journal in November 2010, as a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore. Since then, a lot has changed—both in my writing life and in the writing lives of thousands of teen writers from around the world. I’m talking expectations, communities, and opportunities. It seems it is no longer enough to be simply passionate about writing.

Or is it? Below, take a peek into the minds of some of our favorite writers, and get inspired.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about your own writing?

Cortney Lamar Charleston: Looking back on how I began writing, I realize now that I first approached the page with a muted kind of arrogance; my intention, in my mind, was to speak to a world that needed to hear my voice and my perspective, working from the assumption that I was who I was and knew that with certainty. In the most conventionally understood ways, I suppose that I did: I had, after all, a grasp of where I came from—a respect for the people and the environments that produced me—and I knew what I believed in, what my values were, but experience (in life and in writing) has informed me just how delicate and intricate a tapestry someone’s personhood is. Sure, you can see the beautiful design from a distance and even make out some of its patterns, but until you get close, until your eye is fixed on the subject with the intention of inspection, you won’t notice the small and unique details: one thread’s relationship to another, where there may be flaws, and where you can begin to trace them to as you follow the needle work over the object’s body.

I’ve gotten a tad abstract here, but my point is this: writing has made it more clear to me precisely how I am put together: strengths and weaknesses, gifts and flaws, fidelities and hypocrisies. To me, this was a surprising challenge to my initial assumption, though in retrospect it seems foolish I ever expected different. If art, if poetry is the bridge to others we believe and hope for it to be, it makes sense that insight and learning would come back in the other direction on that same bridge. First and foremost, poetry is an act of self-discovery, even before self-expression, and it laughs at what you believe to know about anything; in short, you’re never smarter or wiser than the poem, even and especially when it comes to yourself, and the most helpful trick I’ve found is to never try to outsmart it, either.

What has your greatest writing-related failure been (not necessarily one you’ve already recovered from)? What has been your greatest writing-related success?

Emily Jungmin Yoon: I had to think hard for the first question because so often, what feels or seems like “failure,” in hindsight, ends up being not so much failure. One example would be when a poet gets rejected from a journal, contest, or fellowship, but later is accepted to another opportunity or another place that believes in the poet’s vision more strongly. I have felt often that I fail at being a poet, without really considering what it means to be a poet. I was sad when I wasn’t writing enough because I was under a lot of pressure from other facets of my life. This isn’t necessarily permission to be lazy, but I have to continue to remind myself that the identity as a poet isn’t measured by the amount of production. I don’t find the “So-and-so has xyz demands and if they can find time to write, you can” assertion or the “just write every morning for x minutes” suggestion helpful. People’s minds and bodies work in different ways. One should find their own way to make their time the most fruitful and to be happy at the same time. My way is to read a lot—in books, journals, and The Margins submissions pile—and be grateful that there are so many beautiful poems born every day even when I can’t make one. The inspiration from reading moves me to write, as well.

My greatest writing-related success, as cheesy as it sounds, is that I found many writer friends who will support and uplift me. We’re there for one another for failures and successes. We share opportunities and news with one another.  Some people say that writing is a lonely, solitary act, and it can be, but I feel that at least in the US poetry world, community has been very important. Writing a poem is like putting out a hand into fog, hoping that someone will take it in their hand to say they’re listening and that they feel it, too, whatever it is. I appreciate all the hands that have held mine before I had publications and awards. They’re the people who encourage me to keep doing what I believe in, whether that’s writing-related or not, and give me the boldness to be a poet.

How do you handle success when your friends are dealing with rejection and vice versa?

Maryse Meijer: I think the question of jealousy–our own and others’–is one that’s best placed into a larger context, one that goes beyond the personal and into the political. Professional envy is cultivated by a capitalist society. We see ourselves as constantly in competition with our fellow artists for what we perceive as limited resources. Publishing, finding an agent, getting into a prestigious MFA program, landing a good teaching job, receiving awards or fellowships… all of these “rewards” are granted to us by institutions which, by and large, care more for themselves and their own agendas than they do for writers as human beings. It isn’t possible for an institution to be truly “fair,” or objective, or benevolent–the institution must build its own brand, promote the myth of its own prestige, and increase its power. Once we as artists understand that that power is often used against us–to divide us by destroying community through competition, by encouraging us to believe that success is handed down from above instead of defined and owned by individuals creating the work in the first place–we can perhaps divorce ourselves from toxic envy. When a fellow writer’s work is recognized or celebrated, it enriches my community; it takes nothing away from me, but only affirms the writing world that is so precious to me. And when my own work receives recognition, I accept it without asking it to define or affirm me. Success, to me, is reaching my own standards; is producing work of which I am proud; is living as a writer with integrity and commitment within a larger community. The truth is, any success is fleeting; I can’t really derive lasting pleasure or deep satisfaction from “rewards” granted to me from an institution that does not know me or truly care about me. When I form a real and meaningful connection with another writer or reader through my work, that’s the true reward; and that’s precisely the sort of thing others don’t bother to feel jealous about.

Of course, we don’t always live up to our ideals; envy finds its way in. When I find myself feeling less than overjoyed for a friend who is experiencing success, I ask myself: why do I feel threatened? Maybe it comes down to feeling that I deserve something I’m not getting; or perhaps I feel my friend doesn’t deserve what I do. Has she worked as hard as I have? Has she written a story I think is “good enough”? Is it a question of feeling superior, or inferior? And from there I force myself to remember: these feelings serve no one, least of all me. They poison my friendships and my relationship to my own work. Why do I have to place myself above or below the people I care about most? Why am I thinking in terms of a hierarchy, rather than a community? Am I truly endangered by someone else’s success? How am I complicit in the destruction of my own self-worth, the worth of my fellow artists?

On the other hand, if I’m the one who is enjoying a publication or other success, I am happy to celebrate and share with friends, but I don’t over-advertise. I’m not on social media; I don’t assume that a bit of luck in getting a story published or receiving a good review confers special status on me. It doesn’t. Those successes, I remind myself, are inherently transient and without deep  meaning; I can’t hold on to them or store them up like they’re material goods. After a brief moment of pleasure in receiving recognition, I’m back to where I am on most days: struggling with the work in front of me. And it is a joyous and meaningful struggle; that’s where my reward is as a writer. That’s my success. That I’m still writing after 20+ years; that I’m still reading; that I’m ever more engaged in the community of artists I’m so proud of. I fight for my own work. I celebrate the work of others. I acknowledge moments of jealousy and then I move through them; I recognize when others might feel envious of me and I accept that, too. I deal with those issues by reminding myself what matters; not success as it is defined by institutions others have built, but as I define it for myself. Remember who has the power–you do! Your friends do. We do, together, because we create and we keep on creating, for ourselves and for each other. Just keep writing. Keep reading. Be an audience, and speak to your audience. Someone is listening. That’s what matters.

How and where did you search for inspiration when starting out as a teen writer? And how did you manage your expectations when submitting to contests (specifically, high school writing contests)?

Sojourner Ahebee: Other poets have always been some of my most significant resources. As I was developing my voice as a teen writer, I looked to other poems, other models to witness how the old was made new again. In high school, with the aid of my poetry teacher, I began a practice each year which I called my “Important Excitement.” As a writer, this project allowed me to focus in on one of my many obsessions, and to intentionally create a collection of poems that revolved around some reoccurring theme. A hearty mix of rigorous research on my selected theme coupled with the drafting of poems gave me a huge sense of purpose and direction, and taught me what it meant to write with a collection in mind, to write beyond the borders of a single poem. In other words, I do not think inspiration for writers arrives at our doorsteps one day, or appears inside of us. I think writers have to will inspiration into the light, and we have to intentionally make a practice of it.

Having the courage to submit your work to publications as a young writer is certainly no easy feat. The very act of submitting one’s work indicates that we desire a meaningful engagement with our stories, an audience. I think managing my expectations around writing contests was a necessary part of my journey as a young writer. I remember receiving my first rejection, and it was easy to take it personally, to see the rejection as a reflection of my value as a writer and the value of my stories. But I think rejection is actually quite healthy and important for young writers. It pushes us to return to our works in progress with renewed energy and purpose. Rejection allows us to see that we are capable of the better story, the better poem, the better play. If you are a teen writer who is just beginning to send your work out, I would encourage you to embrace rejection. You have so much time and space to hone in on your craft, to become more sure of your voice. Do not place a high premium on acceptances into lit mags. Continue to write, to revise, to submit work and to grow and the rest will fall into place.

How many literary organisations do you work with or for? How do you navigate paid and volunteer writing, publishing, and editing opportunities?

Loma: My day job is doing criminal justice work but I do a lot of freelance work in the literary world. Poetry income is about 30% of the money I make annually. Most of that comes from touring. Some of that comes from awards, writing, editing, teaching, book sales, etc. Thus, my affiliations are wide and always changing. The one organization that has always felt like home to me is Lambda Literary Foundation. They have always provided me with artistic and editorial support. I began editing a journal with them four years ago and I frequently write for them. The other two organizations that I’m in frequent contact with are Sibling Rivalry Press (because they published my first chapbook and host the Undocupoets Fellowship, which I cofounded) and Nightboat Books (because they are publishing Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color that I founded). Maybe after my first full-length poetry book comes out then I’ll go on the academic job market. Before then, I like working in criminal justice. The other main organizations that have brought me into the poetry community are Poetry Society of America (where I once interned) and NYU (where I completed my MFA).

When I first began participating in the national literary scene, I had a policy to never say no. I would write, interview, speak as frequently as possible. Now, even though I’m prior to a first book, my schedule has gotten much too busy. I say “no” a lot to strangers who want free labor and “yes” as much as possible when it’s for a dear friend or paid appropriately. I always try to ask for compensation for everything, it adds up. I generally don’t “pay to play” in the literary world though sometimes I get suckered. I generally would rather make money than spend it.

For whom do you write? Have you ever stopped, or considered stopping?

Jane Wong: I write for you, for myself, for my family, for young women cultivating power and vulnerability, for ghosts, for the hungry ones, for the weird ones, for the laughing ones, for the fighters, for the restless sleepers, for the ones who can’t stop pressing their hands against the glass at an aquarium. I’ve never considered leaving writing; it’s a life source for me. It gives me hope, allows to me to ask hard questions, and offers me a new way of seeing the world. I write when I am at my darkest hour (not sure if kindness exists); I write when I am experiencing the utmost joy (plums ripening on a tree). It’s my way of making and unmaking sense of the world. I’ll never stop writing and I can only hope to welcome new writers into our communities as a teacher. I can only think expansively! I’m writing creative prose now, after a decade away. It seems natural to extend genres and to test out my voice in different, but utterly amazing outfits.

If you could go back in time to just before you began writing and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Dalton Day: Be patient. Don’t let any sense of community you feel become an unrealistic & toxic & competitive pressure to consistently share your work (& yourself) with the world. Be protective of it (& yourself). Don’t worry if the poems don’t “look like poems”, or if anyone tells you that they aren’t “poems enough”. They are, trust me. Take as much time as you need & know that eventually there will be a solid few who will give you permission to present the world as you see it & it will be ok to trust them. Know that you are one of those few. & oh my god, please, laugh.

Have you ever dealt with the fear of offending or upsetting someone close to you while writing—and, if so, what about the tug between sharing such work and hiding it? How did you ultimately make a decision about what to do?

Molly Brodak: When you write a memoir about dark family secrets, two things happen: one, someone will be upset about it, and two, you realize you are not alone. You realize everyone has dark family secrets, and by telling the story of your own you are shining a light on all dark family secrets everywhere. And this is such a useful and productive action that it makes up for the small pain caused by knowing some person is mad at you about it, and you take on your role as the ‘betrayer’ of secrets with lightness and dignity.

I was terrified of what my dad would think about me writing my memoir Bandit, which details his secret criminal life. So I had to put that thought out of my mind in order to write it, or I would have been paralyzed. I wrote the first draft of my memoir as if I were writing a diary entry, convincing myself it was utterly private and I was utterly safe to say all the things I really wanted to say. I edited it later with an audience in mind, but I was never editing it for that one person who would be mad about it. It wasn’t for that person. It was for the people who needed it, the rest of us.

When Anne Lamott says, “you own everything that happened to you”, she is telling the story of consciousness. We are all allowed to have this one sliver of existence for a while, and we ought to feel free to say how it really is without anyone intimidating us out of the truth. Otherwise, you lose yourself.

Would you recommend starting a publication to young writers starting out? Why or why not?

Joseph Parker Okay: Yeah, absolutely, it’s a great way to get exposure to lots of different writing styles that maybe you were unfamiliar with before, or didn’t know could be used in that way. Also, there’s a lot of talented people out there with a lot of good work they’re trying to share but are having a hard time finding a place for it, since a piece being published or not doesn’t usually rely on the quality of the work but on the publisher’s personal taste. The more people out there with different tastes running publications, the more level the playing field gets for everyone and the more writing that gets shared with the world.

What’s your biggest writing-related fear?

Khadijah Queen: My biggest writing-related fear is that I won’t get everything written that I want to write before old Thanatos knocks on my door. I plan out my books loosely, and have several and I mean several in the works. But will I have time to write them, between mothering and teaching and PhD-ing, not to mention eating well and getting some real sleep? I just. don’t. know. That’s not a complaint, but it is a concern — a slight fear at times, a big one at others. I don’t want whoever deals with my papers once I’m gone to be publishing my terrible half-drafts. Ha. So I’m trying to finish as many of them as I can, though progressing very slowly right now. I have always felt a deep urgency to write, but now it’s accompanied by a desire to take my time and enjoy life, too. It’s an ever-shifting balance.

Many of us describe ourselves as “aspiring poets”, which has always felt weird to me—we write poems, we don’t aspire to write them. At the same time, there’s a tricky sense of obligation that accompanies dropping the word “aspiring”. How did you navigate this transition, and do you think there is indeed a heightened obligation to being a “poet”?

Jennifer Givhan: Growing up I didn’t know there was such thing as contemporary poetry—I’ve said this before elsewhere and it strikes me often seeing what amazing things young poets are accomplishing, as editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal, for instance, where we accept knockout poems from high school students, and of course I see the same happening again and again from The Adroit Journal, which always knocks me out with its stellar lineup of editors and poets, all so young. When I was in high school growing up in a small farming community on the Mexicali border, there were no poetry readings or slams—there were no coffee shops even, ha!

My point is that I didn’t even know to call myself “aspiring” toward anything because I had no idea of the opportunities that existed for writers. What I knew was that I had to write down my lyric images and narratives and ideas or I would unravel with a thick ball of string in my throat knotting down from my stomach and pulling out through my mouth and I was choking. I’d tell people I wanted to be a poet though I was already writing. Terrible poems, yes, but they were clotting in my psyche and would be there waiting in that incipient form for when I finally said yes I am a poet and got down to the hard work of digging into the dirt for water and learning my craft, which has taken me over a decade. But it wasn’t until I said I am a poet that I got into the ditches. I was dipping my feet into the murk before, but when I finally freed myself to sink down below sea level and fill my lungs with that muddy stuff—that’s when the real work of learning began.

There’s too much at stake not to declare it: Here I am. I am. I exist. Declaring ourselves is survival, is joy, is hope. We can aspire until the cows come home though they may never come home. Now is the time. Whatever obligations exist do so whether we accept them or not. Should we give back to our peers? To those following in our footsteps? Those are decisions you’ll have to make for yourself all along the way, for there will always be those at your level and a few steps behind in the craft, no matter whether you’ve just dangled your feet into the murky ditch or you’ve flung yourself in head first. But wherever you are and whether you’re sunbathing on the sidelines or treading water or marathon swimming in the deep and nearly drowning—if you’re a poet, declare yourself so. The accolades will mean naught when you’re writing your own survival. The work is the water and the lifeboat. The work is everything.

  1. No matter that road, there is no smooth success in this world. When I was young, I felt I had to be a great writer. Now my idea is to persist in writing what I love and write. It gives me great meaning in life and never give up.

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