Monday Discovery: A Link to Prairie Schooner’s Oxcart

Prairie Schooner, a publication of the University of Nebraska Press and the Creative Writing Program of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department, has been in print continuously for more than 85 years. Yes–you read that right! A veritable institution among literary journals, Prairie Schooner is evolving with the times. PS continues as a print journal, but the editors have added some features: Air Schooner (an audio series) and a blog by Editor-in-Chief Kwame Dawes called Oxcart.

Today, I want to call attention to an Oxcart essay that resonated with me. In “Lie to Me,” Dawes explores the topic of rejection–the lies we writers tell ourselves and a myriad of reasons why rejection really happens. This is such an insightful piece! I encourage you read it.

“The Word Rejected”
(by suphakit73) Courtesy of



Futile Seeds

The seed stealer

My husband and I are novice gardeners. Last year, he built raised beds and put in tomato plants, peppers, squash, eggplant, and sugar snap peas, and I planted herbs and a single heirloom tomato in a smaller patch behind the arbor in the back yard. For our efforts we harvested two or three small bell peppers that we figured cost us about $40 each.

This year, we were less ambitious. We planted basil and artisanal lettuce seeds. We’d read some good gardening books, and we scattered the seeds generously, thinking we would cull the weaklings and save the stronger seedlings and transplant them. No cold frame starts for us! We waited until there was no danger of a freeze and put those seeds right into the ground. In about eight weeks, we figured, we would start to have homegrown salads, no more of that store-bought “spring mix” that’s already going bad by the time you bring it home. That was six weeks ago.

At this point we can’t tell the tiny lettuces from the clover that threatens to take over. If we were into clover salads, we would be all set. Something has been enjoying them; there are holes all over the little plot where some little critters—maybe the one at left, or one of her many offspring, or maybe the birds—have dug up the seeds and wrought havoc of my neat little rows.

Futile seeds, I call them. Poor babies . . .

My backlog of story ideas and drafts seems something like those seeds. For whatever reason, some stories don’t flourish. What seemed like a good idea falls on infertile ground. It goes nowhere, or sometimes, it goes on for pages and pages. Maybe it even gets finished. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t work.

So what to do? Consign it to the story compost heap? Move on to new ideas?

Well, new ideas are always good, but never underestimate the power of a failed story! I used to advise my writing students when they were “workshopping” each other’s pieces to look for positives before they raised any questions or negatives. That’s not a bad idea for most of us. I look for what’s working in a piece. Maybe it’s a scene; maybe it’s a paragraph or a sentence or an image. I think about other stories that have succeeded. By succeeded, I don’t necessarily mean they’ve been published, although some of them have been. They feel complete; they’re satisfying; there are no “holes.” They’re tightly woven, without excess. They move along. I still get emotionally involved with the characters when I read the story, even though it’s mine, and I’ve read it a hundred times. They surprise me. They make me cry or laugh, or they make me ashamed or angry. I can read them without getting that feeling in my gut, however vague, that something’s wrong. That gnawing feeling always, always tells me I need to go back and have another close look.

So what nurtures a “good” story into print?

Ah. Luck, you say! There’s some of that, certainly—the trick of finding just the right niche for a story. But mostly, it takes perseverance and the courage to keep trying, to keep getting better. It requires openness to doing things differently and learning the craft. It requires picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. It takes the willingness to swallow hard and turn a rejection, sometimes multiple rejections, into possibility.

When I revise, I ask myself two very simple but crucial questions:

1)   What doesn’t belong? I prune unmercifully; after all, nothing, absolutely nothing, belongs in a short story that doesn’t advance it in some way.

2)   What’s missing? I try to read like a stranger to the work. Will it make sense, will it resonate for another reader? A story can be much clearer in my head than it is on the page.

I also get somebody else to read it–two or three people, if I’m lucky. It’s always interesting what someone else sees, or doesn’t see, in a story. That’s crucial, too.

And I read. I read short fiction by writers I admire. I analyze what they do and how they do it.

So, poor seeds of stories, poor wilted ones—maybe you have a chance after all. I’m writing this post mainly to me, of course, to remind me to get back in there and get my hands dirty. That’s what it takes.

What are your favorite revision strategies? How do you bounce back from rejection? Please share; I’d love to know!

Nobody’s Perfect! Or, The Case of the Ugly Duckling

Perfection? Not even this.

Over at The Artist’s Road, Patrick Ross has a great post today (May 18) entitled “Does Insecurity Drive Creativity”? He started me thinking about perfectionism: a driving force? Or a recipe for failure?

Born a “Pleaser”

I’m not sure where the trait comes from, but I’ve always been a “pleaser.” When I was little, whenever I was disobedient, my mother wielded the switch (for those of you who aren’t Southern, that’s a small branch or twig, not an electrical device), but all my dad had to do was look at me—a look that conveyed his disappointment—and I would crumble in shame and remorse. I had failed to live up to expectations. My growing-up faith played a part in it, too; if I misbehaved, God wouldn’t be happy with me, either. The report card with straight A’s, the flawless piano performance, the honors and awards at school affirmed I was a person worthy of love and acceptance. It was never said; just understood. Later, it was marrying the “right” boy, having children who also measured up, being the “best” teacher. Affirmation was a deep need, and sometimes, it still is.

Recipe for Failure

Perfectionism’s twin is self-doubt. If I set impossible goals for myself—substitute “my writing” here—how will I ever measure up? I’ll never be good enough at what I do to risk putting it “out there,” which is absolutely necessary to succeed. Those countless times I read over a manuscript before I submit it—fiddling with it, putting a word in here, taking a word out there (sometimes the same word), even after major revision is done—are signs of self-doubt that must be overcome if I’m going to succeed on any level.

Granted, none of us should ever throw a story out there without careful thought and attention both to what’s working and to what’s flawed (and that includes a careful proofreading). But obsessing over it and trying to make a “perfect” product will most certainly undermine us. At some point, we have to let the work go. We have to take chances. Hopefully, the successes will come, and we’ll learn from the rejections.

Growing Pains

At some point, too, it’s necessary to give the work over to others whom we trust to bring to it a different context of knowledge of craft and insights. When we do that, we have to be prepared for criticism.

Having my work critiqued has generally been a positive experience, and I value it highly. I had a fine writer/workshop leader tell me once, though, in a private moment outside of the workshop, that I was a terrific writer, but I needed to be more confident. Duh, I thought. But she was right. I never want to be blindly confident in my work. That’s a recipe for disaster, too. But I want to strike a balance between knowing something is good and being open to criticism that might make it better.

Liken the process to Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “The Ugly Duckling.” That hatchling was an odd bird indeed among the “normal” ducklings. The mother duck looked after him, she defended him, but the cruelty of others led him out into the world time and time again, where he continued to be rejected until he found his proper place: among beautiful swans. Lucky little guy; his growth process was genetically engineered. He wouldn’t stay ugly forever, but he had to get to the beauty not only through the process of growth but also through hardship.

None of us wants to be the brunt of cruel criticism. That has no place in a productive writing community. At its best, feedback nurtures us and nudges us toward better work.

Let’s let go of perfectionism. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s choose confidence  over destructive, bottom-skimming self-doubt. Let’s seek out and build a community of readers and writers who know how to be kind and supportive, yet can deliver the kind of insightful help we need.

Is perfectionism a hindrance to your growth as a writer? If so, what strategies do you use to overcome it? I welcome your comments!