Writers learn from other writers. We see what works and what doesn’t. We learn from each other’s mistakes, and we grow together. The next writer in my interview series helped me to become a better writer. In fact, she was my creative writing professor in undergraduate school.
Mary Quade is a poet, essayist and college creative writing professor. You can find on the web maryquade.com and her faculty page at Hiram College. (If you are considering a degree in writing, then I highly recommend going to Hiram College and signing up for Quade’s classes!)
RC: What was your first experience getting published like?
MQ: I had my first poem published in a national literary magazine when I was 23. I’d had pieces in my college literary review, but it was different seeing my work next to poems by poets with books and awards and knowing there was an audience for such poems. I think my feeling was partly of relief: “Well, I guess someone wants to read these little thoughts of mine.”
RC: How did it differ from what you thought it would be like?
MQ: I don’t think it did differ from what I thought it would be like. I’d worked as an editor on a couple of reviews, so I knew the process of publication pretty well. There was no mystery to what happened on the other side of submissions. I didn’t have a particularly romantic view of what it would like to be published. I knew it was part luck and part hard work.
RC: As a writer, what has rejection taught you? What did you learn from it that made you into a better writer?
MQ: I always assume a piece or manuscript will be rejected; those are the odds. My first poetry manuscript was a finalist for a number of competitions before it was accepted for publication, and for some reason though the editors say “congratulations” when you’re a finalist, and I knew that meant it was recognized as worthy of attention, I couldn’t help wondering what was it that fell short. I wish I could say things went better with my second poetry collection, but it was a finalist for nineteen competitions, including the National Poetry Series three times, as well as semi-finalist for seven competitions, before it found a great publisher with Gold Wake Press. That’s a lot of close calls! I was worried it would always be the bridesmaid and never the bride.
What those rejections taught me was not to give up, but also not to settle for publication somewhere I wouldn’t be excited about. I tell my students that if they want to be published today, they all could be. There are enough journals out there, some with very low selectivity. Publication alone shouldn’t be their goal. They should find good homes for their pieces. Rejections remind me to revisit my work and see if there’s some opportunity I’ve overlooked or some revision I can make to strengthen the piece’s meaning. If I believe in something I’ve written, but it keeps getting rejected, I know I need to take another look if I want it to be in one of the publications where I think it could belong.
RC: What is your advice to new writers who are working with editors for the first time?
MQ: Editors are thoughtful readers, and they want your work to be the best it can be, so listen to their advice and consider it carefully. But don’t be afraid, on occasion, to insist on things that are important to you. I’ve had many editors make wonderfully wise suggestions for my essays and poems. I’ve also had a few suggest things I’ve just had to say no to, because they weren’t true to my intentions for a piece. I love getting feedback from editors and fact checkers; it’s fascinating to be inside someone else’s experience of interpreting my work. Some journals or reviews don’t edit your work at all, though, so be sure you’re your own tough editor, or you’ll put words out into the world you’ll wince at later.
RC: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started a writing career?
MQ: I spent my twenties writing isolated from other writers. I didn’t go to conferences. I barely stayed in touch with my classmates from graduate school. I felt uncomfortable reaching out to other writers because I didn’t want them to think I was just “networking,” which felt insincere to me. Now I realize when I reach out to other writers, I’m not networking; I’m making friends with folks who enjoy language and ideas the way I do. These people and their art inspire me. We all support one another. At least that’s how I feel about my own writer friends and the community of writers in northeast Ohio. I suppose there may be some writers out there who are only looking to advance their own work, but I guess I’ve avoided them.
RC: How do we become better writers?
MQ: I know this seems obvious, but writing is the best way to become a better writer. You can have the mind of a writer and the heart of a writer, but you have to have the habits of a writer to be a strong writer. I’m not a write everyday sort of person, in part because I believe experiencing the world is often as important as sitting in a chair. My favorite writers engage deeply with the world. But I do think it’s good to have a routine, a place you go to regularly (literally and metaphorically) to write.
Of course, reading is important, too, and I’m lucky my life as a teacher involves constant exposure to great literature and literature-in-progress; my students keep me always thinking about craft and imagination. There are so many places to read fresh, thoughtful, and relevant literature (often for free), so many great opportunities to taste what other writers are producing!