All posts by kwoyafaginmaples

About kwoyafaginmaples

Poet and Creative Writing Instructor

When You’re a Writer Who’s Not Writing

Placeholder ImageThere was a time you actually called yourself a “real writer.” You took every opportunity to write. You were desperate, at any time of day or night to get to your notebook. Maybe you slept with it next to your bed so you could write your dreams and thoughts immediately. You were an active lover of the written word and your nose was always in a book—if you weren’t writing.

Maybe you received some recognition for your work and people told you they liked what you wrote.

Then you stopped. Maybe now it’s been so long, you’re afraid you don’t have it anymore.

At this point, I’ve been a writer (professional and otherwise) for…well, I’ll say 22 years.    I didn’t always feel like I could call myself a writer, but the truth is, I was born one, and if you connected to the title of this post, you were too.

Here are few things I want to share:

1. Writing is a gift. It is not going to go away. It’s there, inside of you, waiting to be prompted. However, writing is a muscle we exercise, and if we haven’t been exercising it, we can’t expect to be strong right away. Do you go to the gym once and leave toned and HOT after two hours of exercise on a random day? No. Does it boost your confidence for the next couple of days? Absolutely. But the longer you go without exercise, your muscles may atrophy. You’ll lose confidence, and you’ll probably feel reluctant to go to the gym again, because you don’t want to fail. But when you really need exercise/writing, it will be there waiting. What you write may be weak, but when you develop consistency with writing, your “muscles” will strengthen.

2. “Sometimes the only job of a poet is to notice the different kinds of light on leaves.”—Abraham Smith. Abe is one of my poetry mentors and he told me this a long time ago, at a time I was worried because I no longer felt an impetus to write. This quote sounds a little lofty to some perhaps, but to me it is refreshingly reassuring. So you aren’t writing—as long as you are noticing and collecting, you are okay. Noticing how your daughter’s whole back fits the span of your hand, or where her ends are splitting, or how the yellow pansies near the driveway are wilting in the cold. Collecting experiences: memories, current events, words, colors. Because you are a thinking being you are always collecting, consciously or not. Especially as a writer. We often stand in witness. Be reassured if you are in a collecting and noticing place. Know that it is okay.

3. Be willing to start at the beginning. Toi Derricotte, author of “The Undertaker’s Daughter,” and co-founder of Cave Canem (an organization for black poets) said a few key things in a panel discussion I watched recently. She talked about her experience of a debilitating depression wherein she attempted suicide more than once. During this time she was extremely fatigued and because she had insomnia, she didn’t have the strength to write. When she finally began to write again, she says it was just her holding a pen, and moving it around on the paper. It was her beginning at the beginning, like a child—making shapes, then making letters, then finally writing.  I believe that because she loved writing, she was willing to do the work to build her muscle again. You may not be experiencing such a depression. It could just be that your lifestyle is not currently conducive to writing. I get that. But you too, can strengthen your work again. Be willing to start at the beginning. Be willing to do the work. You belong with us. You were born to do this.

4. The best thing for a writer is a book. Especially a non-writing writer. Keep reading.

5. Since writing is your gift, doing it can make you feel like the best version of yourself. It can be your “self-care.” It can be you, loving yourself.

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Writing Life: How to Deal with Rejection

Last semester one of my student’s poetry submissions was rejected by Young Arts (A literary contest for high school students.)
She’d spent a great deal of time on it. The work had been edited, memorized, and she even spent several hours recording a perfect performance of the poems by video. She’s tough on herself in several areas, an overachiever to be sure, so when she received the rejection she was devastated.
She cried in front of my desk for several minutes while I tried to talk her through it. “This is one place, one group of people who rejected your work.” I told her. “Rejection is part of being a writer.”
“But Young Arts is THE place, she said. I told her I knew how she felt and recounted a recent experience where my own work was rejected by a contest I respected. I told her how I cried, and I’m an adult who has been dealing with rejection for a while.
“But how do you deal with this all the time?” she said.
This question almost made me cry with her. It’s relevant to all of us. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

1) Accept that you will have your work rejected more often than not. On average, for about every 10 places I submit (individual poems) I’ll probably receive about 4 publications. My Submittable is pitiful. Submittable is a platform many literary journals and magazines use to compile written submissions. I have about 70% more “orange” (rejections) than I do “green” (acceptances.) About once a year I lead my students through the process of submitting to literary magazines. I only have them submit to five places and facetiously tell them to aspire to have 99 rejections before they are ever accepted for publication. One student walked in class one day and excitedly told me her work had been rejected and I gave her a high five. (This student was recently accepted to Yale but has never received a publication—this is a prime example of why one shouldn’t stop pursuing their craft in spite of rejection.) Rejection is part of being a writer.

2) Once you receive a rejection, make a practice of sending the work back out, immediately. Re-submit as tears of sadness are still drying on your cheeks. If you feel it needs editing, edit right away and get it back out into the world. Your work should always be under consideration somewhere. Since it takes so long to hear back, you don’t need to waste time to be depressed about it for a month before re-submitting. Google and find another literary journal/ press/contest and get it back out there. *Remember when submitting you can have the same work under consideration at one time. (I’d recommend having the same work at no more than five places.)

3) Make sure you sent the work to the right place. All literary journals, magazines and presses have an aesthetic, and publish work with certain themes, subject matter, etc. Use websites like Poets and Writers and New Pages to find places that match up with the type of work that you are submitting. When you find a literary journal or press, make sure that they actually publish the type of work you are submitting. You can do this by thoroughly reading their site, looking at previous work they’ve published, etc.

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I took this photo of myself last summer, right after an ugly cry. MEND had been rejected for the Cave Canem Book Prize. As a fellow of Cave Canem, they are my jam. It was my toughest rejection of the year.

 

4) Realize that a rejection of your work is not always a rejection of you. There are so many reasons why work can be rejected. Here are some: your work wasn’t completely edited before sending, space in the publication (perhaps there’s a limit in page numbers, the press feels that your work doesn’t connect with their mission/vision, they received hundreds of submissions and yours was one of the last ones they considered, one person on staff was sick the day they reviewed your work and was in a bad mood…okay, I’m reaching here, but you get the point. Writers continue to the work after they are rejected because they love what writing does for them.

5) Keep it in perspective. Cry, be upset, do what you have to, but don’t stop. Don’t stop writing. Don’t stop submitting. Don’t stop improving your craft. One place– no matter how much you’ve built it up in your mind–should not decide the future of your writing career.

6) Know that someone, some literary staff, organization or press is going to see your work and love it. They are going to get it. They are going to say, “YAAAAASSSSS… this is what we’ve been waiting on!” If you’ve done the work of getting your submission in the best shape possible, it’s going to happen. Be patient.  And when it happens you will receive affirmation that your work is respected by your peers. You will be on cloud nine. You will glow with the warmth of success.

And sometime after, you’ll submit somewhere else, and you’ll face another rejection. Cause it is what it is, as they say.

 

How to Write or Finish Your Book in 2018

When I tell people I’m a writer, they usually respond with some version of, “I’ve been trying to write a book…” and then this trails off into infinity. But then I ask, “What’s it about?” Because I’m genuinely interested. Because I want to see everyone write what they have inside of them. I love talking about manuscripts and drafts with writers (it’s something I geek out over) and especially with people who don’t yet call themselves writers. So, since I’m often asked this question in person, by direct message, Facebook message, etc. I thought I’d make a list of things I’ve found helpful.
1) Compile what you already have. I’m hard pressed to write in a notebook. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’ve written on napkins, the backs of receipts, post it not336es, my hand, baby wipes, and yes, on good days, in a notebook. (I was kidding about the baby wipes.) Here’s what I’m saying: wherever you have written parts of your book, ideas, etc., find it all and type them into a Word document, in any order. Save the Word document as Manuscript. Don’t worry about a title now.
2) Stop thinking “masterpiece,” every time you sit down to write. You don’t need “the muse.” You don’t need for every sentence or line to be perfectly inspired at the moment of its conception. Just write. Just put your pencil/pen on to the paper and move it around to form letters. If you are afraid of writing something bad, you may never write. The way I’ve heard it—
you’ve got to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Stop being afraid to write something bad. The best writers do it all the time.
3) Stop editing while writing. You’ve decided to write two pages today. But after the first paragraph, you look up and see spelling errors, grammatical errors, etc. Then you spend 15 minutes correcting that one paragraph. By the time you are done, you may not feel like writing anymore. You may feel discouraged. My suggestion would be to finish writing what you’ve committed to write that day. There will be time for editing later. The important thing is that you follow your train of thought, uninterrupted, and get out what you want to write, first.
4) Read, read, read. This is crucial, especially for beginners. Read other books that are in the same genre as yours. Read books that are like the book you want to write. See what others have done so you can see where you fit in. And stop being afraid of reading other’s work. You have your own personal style and voice. Reading only enriches your own voice and sparks your imagination. I began writing a new manuscript last January and what I did for constant inspiration was to read one collection of poetry a week.
5) Set writing goals. Decide on a reasonable time (based on your schedule, personality, lifestyle, etc.) you’d like to be done with first draft of the book. Decide on a number of pages you’d like to write each week or month. In 2017 I decided I wanted to start working on my second book. I decided I wanted to write 60 poems by August 31. That meant that I’d need to write two poems a week. To keep the momentum going, I knew I needed to read so I set a goal of reading one book of poetry a week. I’d read; get an idea for what I could do, and then I’d write two poems. A lot of them were messy and bad, but when I got into the habit, some of them were good. In the process of writing the new book, my current manuscript MEND was accepted for publication. I had to put the new book on the back burner, but I accomplished over half of my goal.

6) Lastly, find a space that is conducive for you to write. As I type now, Eden, one of my twins, is braiding my hair, pulling it and tugging my head to one side. Seriously. Right now. Vivienne is asking me to replace the batteries in her toy. Unless I’m relentless, I usually don’t write at home. Finding time to write for me means writing at work, on lunch breaks, early morning or when my kids go to bed.

When is the best time and place for you to write?

Mend: Why It Took Six Years

Two weeks ago I shared the news that my book, MEND, was accepted for publication by University Press of Kentucky.

So since my acceptance letter I’ve been doing my best to figure out marketing, as well as editing and preparing MEND for publication. I’m only now realizing too, the fact that I have written a book. It’s still a pretty fantastic idea, especially after working on it for 6 years. It shouldn’t have taken six years, but it took me so long mainly because other important things were happening. In the past six years I’ve had a twin pregnancy, a single pregnancy, moved, began a new job, and did I say I became a mother? I only had one year of writing the book before I had children.

It was difficult to find time to write once I became a mother, but it became necessary that I use the time I had. The days of lingering in coffee shops for hours were over. “Writer’s block” became a thing of the past. If I was going to sit down to write, I had to do work, whether it was good or bad. And a lot of it was bad. My creative energy was now divided into writing a great poem, braiding my daughter’s hair or a myriad of other tasks. The first year of my twins (Eden and Vivienne’s) lives, I made their shoes. Yes, I am that woman. It was a unique time, and now I don’t know how I did it. I made barefoot sandals and spent hours finding perfectly coordinating outfits and making headbands to match.

Suffice it to say, it was tough to make writing a priority, so for a while, it was on the back burner. What motivated me more than anything was the thought of losing my gift of being a writer. I was afraid that if I continued to not write consistently, I’d become the example of every old poet who’d cho094sen “the simple life” over their art. So, after the first couple of years of motherhood, I returned to work full time and began working on the manuscript again, slowly adding piece after piece until finally I attended a writing conference in Miami with the Homeschool. Homeschool Literary Lambda is an organization that holds workshops on visual art and poetry. During the workshop, which was a surreal experience—perhaps because it was my first time away from my children—I wandered around Miami in a kind of daze, listening to music and breathing in the salt of the city. The workshop I was in was taught by Cathy Park Hong, and she was teaching us the art of the long poem. We’d been assigned to write a series of poems. I was mildly annoyed. I thought it would be practical to just write what we wanted, and I didn’t want to have to stick to one subject. This annoyance was short sighted.

A year before, I’d been constantly praying and thinking about what would make the book complete. It was given to me in the middle of the night—and I know it was divine—three words. “Crown of Sonnets.” I know this may sound crazy to some, but this was exactly how it happened. I’d never written a crown of sonnets. I didn’t even have a clear concept of the form. A year later at the conference, I still hadn’t written it. Two weeks after Hong’s workshop, however, it came. I began writing the long poem in my collection, a  sonnet corona entitled, “What Yields.” I worked on the poem for three weeks and by the end I had written eleven sonnets for the series.  I finally had the end of the book.

That was February of 2016. By March I’d finished editing the collection and was sending it out for publication. It had been six years since I’d first begun researching.

Becoming a Poet: Making It

This is the final post in the series.

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My mother has five children. She has always considered me her turtle. And I am–sometimes to my own frustration. But being a turtle works, too, because little by little, bead by bead, you are moving forward. All that matters is that you are moving forward—if only at a snail’s pace. Life is not a series of races to the finish line. I try to keep this in mind, but of course as a human I’ve often spent a lot of time frustrated that I wasn’t further along. The older I become I’ve made an effort to embrace my “turtle-hood” while also pushing myself to dive in.
What I want to say here is that even turtles make it to their destinations. For me, it was only by the love and grace of God. I’ve written a collection of poetry entitled MEND. These poems tell the story of women who were experimented on by Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, AL. Sims is known as the father of gynecology. It is heavy subject matter to be sure, but I was taken with this story. You can read more about MEND and my process of writing it here.
I made a choice to embrace and study what I was most passionate about. Every day I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given, and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.
I am pleased to say that last Thursday I signed a contract for MEND with University Press of Kentucky, as my book was accepted for publication in their New Poetry and Prose Series! My first full collection of poetry will be released in the fall of 2018!
To everyone reading this, your encouragement and acknowledgment have meant the world and made the difference. It has moved me forward and I thank you.

 

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Becoming A Poet: The MFA

I wish I was a better student and peer when I was in graduate school. I had an exceptional opportunity at the University of Alabama. I had free tuition and a monthly stipend. My professors in the creative writing program were kind. I finally had the chance to write and focus on the love of my life. It was a wonderful opportunity that I almost sabotaged.

Call it bad habits, depression or ADHD. Call it all of that. The bottom line was that I couldn’t allow myself to be happy and content doing what I could only dream of before. I was the first person in my family or social circle to pursue an MFA and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. My professors tried to help me, but they assumed I knew more than I did.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know (from what I can remember):
1) Spending time with your classmates outside of class is just as important as being present with them in class. The relationships developed with them are important because they could possibly be life-long editors and readers of your work and vice versa. (I met classmates I still love and communicate with, but I didn’t give of myself the way I was expected to.)
2) You pursue an MFA with the idea of a collection of some sort already brewing in your head. You write your work in themes that could possibly contribute to your first book. (I wrote poems of all topics, styles, etc., not realizing I should have been working towards a thesis.)
3) Showing up on time and being prepared are of the utmost importance.
4) Every “little thing” matters. 059
And so, suffice it to say, the hardest professional lessons I ever learned I learned in grad school. I was the only black woman in my program. I couldn’t hide or stay under the radar. I walked around not seeing myself and I thought others couldn’t either.
I’m thankful for the patience of my professors, particularly Joel Brouwer, for standing back and watching me grow. He had a quiet manner—in all things, really. His comments on my poetry were sparse and abstract, forcing me to stretch and grow as opposed to giving me direct guidance. It made me feel like I could be flexible with my work and with who I was–that there was room for me.

Here’s one story that still sticks out in my memory: One day I came to Joel’s office crying. I mean, ugly crying. I was taking a course in the English department with a professor known to be hard-nosed. One day he kept me after class to talk.  He was older, tenured and had written a ton of books.  He opened a text book and asked me a question.  In my brain, language—words, are flexible and come in categories. I often hear words and immediately see their homophones, or I am sent off thinking about how words compare to one another while someone is talking. The harder I try to focus, the worse this all gets. If I am tense or anxious it’s terrible. And I’m sure that day this was exactly what happened. I didn’t know what to call it then. The professor pointed to a sentence in the text and asked, “What do you call this?” I was already tense and anxious and I couldn’t answer him. I tried to, and he “clarified,” his question by saying, “no this,” and still pointing to the words. I couldn’t answer him. He was frustrated. He said I would have to withdraw. There was no way I was prepared to write the paper required for his class. I panicked.  I could feel the lump throb in my throat. I needed his class (it was a requirement to graduate) and he had never seen my writing! There was only one paper for the course and before I’d written it, he had told me I couldn’t write it. He made a snap decision about me that day founded on ideas that may have been partially true. The part that was true: I didn’t have a degree in English. I read voraciously on my own, but I hadn’t taken courses that required the level of academic writing he expected. The part that wasn’t: he had assumed, probably because of my background as a poet, my appearance and my lack of access to “his language,” that I wasn’t capable of academic writing. This experience cut deeply. That day when I burst into Joel’s office, he said, “What’s wrong, kiddo?” His arms opened immediately and I sobbed. He talked to me a long time that day, and again, I don’t remember what all he said, but how he made me feel. He made me feel I had value at a time when I didn’t see it for myself. Later, the aforementioned professor said he “would allow” for me to write the paper. It took several drafts, and I was afraid to turn it in, but I did, and I passed the class.
I’m not really sure why Joel believed in me, but I’m glad that he did. I still have no idea how he may have gone to bat for me. To be fair, other than this experience, my classes were informative and I was always excited to learn. I took poetic theory, forms courses, workshops and read poetry by a myriad of diverse writers, thanks to my creative writing professors.

A couple of years later I walked out of grad school beaten into shape. I had more to learn, but I was a professional. My writing techniques had sharpened and I’d added more tools to my poetic toolbox. I would continue to read and write, and I had a thesis!

Poetry as Protest (Protesting at the James Marion Sims Monument)

Read about James Marion Sims, here. Sims is known as the “father of gynecology.” He conducted gynecological surgery on at least eleven slave women without anesthesia from 1845-1849 in Mt. Meigs, Alabama. This case is the subject of my book of poetry.

It was the morning of the solar eclipse. I woke and started my day pretty normally—breakfast, dressing my daughters and doing their hair before they left for school. Between walking around the house with coffee and checking faces for crumbs, I mentioned the New York protest and  Steve Benjamin’s statement to my husband. Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, had just said he believed that of all the statues at the South Carolina statehouse, Sims’ statue should be removed.   Once the kids and Marcus were in the car and headed to school, Marcus called me on my cellphone.  “Let’s go to Columbia,” He said. “Do whatever you need to do, but let’s make it happen.” Since we have three young children together, Marcus and I always have to partner on all our ventures. We support each other’s careers and individuality.  We try to make it so that regardless of the fact that we have three young children, we both feel free to pursue the things that are important to us. I think honoring each other this way keeps our relationship strong.20170907183132_IMG_0476_1504971744566

After this call, my mind went in to overdrive.  I went to my computer. I started by finding the number of the mayor’s office. “Hello.” I said. “Uh, I read an article about how Mr. Benjamin is interested in having the Sims statue at the statehouse removed, and I wanted to offer my help.”

I awkwardly explained who I was and that I’d written a book on the case of Sims.

“Oh.” She said. “So you’re a poet, you’re a researcher…so, do you want to meet with the mayor? What’s your end goal?”

I told her I would call her back. I didn’t know what my end goal was. I didn’t know what form this need would take. I made calls and wrote emails all morning, trying to get in touch with a network of people I’d never met. I didn’t know anyone personally in Columbia. That day at work I was so exasperated and mentally worn out, I couldn’t even hold a conversation. I hate when I get like that. I call it hyper-focus. It’s when my mind gets so stuck on one thing that I can’t do or think of anything else, even if I want to. That night was the first of two weeks of sleepless nights.

“It’s just the first day,” Marcus said that night. “Of course nothing happened.”

But it did. I’d compiled a list of names— writers in South Carolina from a Cave Canem friend of mine. (Cave Canem is an organization for black poets.) Among this list of names, one stood out. Joy Priest. I contacted her on Facebook, found out she was at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and the wheels began to turn from that moment. I contacted the statehouse and Joy got an event form sent through by her department head. After we decided on a poetry marathon, we wrote an email to potential readers, and made decisions over the phone on how we wanted the event to go.

The statehouse offered electricity so we brought five heavy duty electrical cords that would stretch from the statehouse outlet out to the monument. Once I arrived in Columbia we had to buy three more electrical cords because the ones we had didn’t reach. We sped all the way to Lowe’s— I was driving and broke a few traffic laws, including running a red light to make a last minute deadly left into the Lowe’s parking lot, and thankfully Joy only nervously laughed while gripping the dashboard.

I wasn’t prepared for seeing the statue of Sims. For years I’d researched this story and never seen the monument in person. It was moving to actually stand in front of the depiction of a person who I knew had caused so much trauma to women whose voices I’ve sought to reverence.

I didn’t have time to process how it made me feel. The marathon began at two and lasted six hours. Ten readers read poems all day on women’s pain, histories, and empowerment. Lucille Clifton was there with her love, and Bettina Judd’s poems were read again and again.  Instead of a traditional protest, this was a meditation on the black female experience, and of course, in particular, on the experiences of the eleven unnamed women that were Sims’s experimental subjects.