Last night I realized I have been writing and submitting my work for publication for 50 years. At least. I wrote my first poem when I was seven. By eighth grade I was writing a novel. (It was about a little girl named Emily whose house burns down, killing both her parents. She hits the road by herself and embarks on a series of adventures.) My first non-school publication was a short poem I sold to a magazine when I was a junior in high school. There was never any question I was going to be a writer.
My Grandma Rachel, who wrote poetry herself, gave me my first copies of Writer’s Digest. I followed the instructions given there for submitting my work to magazines and newspapers. I got plenty of rejections in the mail on little slips of colored paper, but I also won some prizes and got some things published. I still have copies of those early publications.
I would have stuck with poetry and fiction, but a girl needs to earn a living, so I majored in journalism and went to work for a series of newspapers in the Bay Area, starting with the Milpitas Post in 1973. Name a South Bay newspaper, and I probably wrote for it, either as a staff writer or freelancer. Most of those papers have now either folded or merged into one big company owned by Bay Area News Group, but I had a good time back then. Before and after work, I was still doing my own writing and sending stuff out because I was a writer.
After Fred and I moved to Oregon and I wore out all the Oregon Coast papers, I went back to school, earning my master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction through Antioch University Los Angeles’ low-residency program. Today I’m still writing, seeking markets, and sending stuff out. My God, the reams of paper I have sullied.
I have no idea how many articles I have published. Lots. Plus eight books and numerous poems, essays, and stories. (See my book page. Buy one or two.)
A lot has changed. Instead of rejection slips that come in the mail, we get emails offering the same message: “Sorry, we can’t use this. Good luck with your writing.” Some publications exist only online, living in cyberspace only as long as we have electricity, WiFi and compatible formats. I like the way people all over the world can read them immediately, but I still treasure the smell of paper and ink, the heft of a book in my hand, and a page that has my name and my words on it.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the pay. Literary magazines pay mostly in copies of the magazine. Some pay a few dollars, but not much more than they paid 50 years ago. Journalism paid better until the Internet ate the newspaper business. If you need lots of money, become a plumber.
In the end, none of that matters. It’s the writing, capturing the moments and the ideas that would otherwise slip away, writing things that make readers stay up all night to find out what happens or that make them nod their heads and say, “Yeah.”
I’m still submitting my work. My odds have improved, although I still get rejections. I belong to a Facebook group of poets trying to get 100 rejections in a year. As of this moment, I’m up to 71. But it’s not all rejections. You can see some of my recent publications on my website, and I’ve got a couple other things coming out soon. It’s a gamble. I tell people I don’t need to go to casinos or play the lottery; I’m a writer.
Fifty years. Wow. I thought of this while reading an interview with the new editor of The Paris Review. She wasn’t even born 50 years ago, but I remember sending my baby poems to The Paris Review way back in the early days. Rejected, of course.
Rejected or not, I’m still scribbling. I was always going to be a writer—except for that one year in high school when I decided to become a home economist because writing was too hard. But then I published that poem . . .
Thank you for reading what I write. Forgive my absence last week. I was back in San Jose visiting my dad, but was writing in my notebook the whole time. The ideas kept coming.
Here’s what it’s like to be a writer: I was on my way to the hot tub last night when I saw that article in Poets and Writers about The Paris Review and got this idea. I grabbed my journal. Four pages and 45 minutes later, I was still on the floor by the pellet stove wearing nothing but a terrycloth robe, writing as fast as I could.
Sometimes people ask me if I’m still writing. Silly question. Fifty years, and I’m just getting started.