Embrace Your Ignorance and Just Get Started (again)

by Rachel Sona Reed

The best part about having to repeat Algebra in high school was the amount of class time it gave me to write fiction. I had been doing this since 4th grade, using interstitial moments gained by finishing work early to scribble the stories, scenes, and sentences bubbling up into my consciousness before they spilled out of my brain and evaporated.

Like the tragedy that follows any bout of hubris, these epiphany-fueled, frantic (epi-frantic?) creative outbursts struck less and less, until writing became “something I used to do.” By college, my fiction, much like reading for pleasure, seemed to have officially left my life. My irrepressible urge to write hibernated so I could allocate energy to more intense academic work. Xanga, LiveJournal, and the many blogging platforms that have come since also played a role in redirecting my creativity away from its first love: fiction.

In truth, the structure of my life had changed, and I hadn’t realized that meant my writing practice needed to change with it. There were no more free moments in class to indulge my imagination. I’d have to find the time elsewhere.

Time presented itself in the purgatory between graduate school and a viable career path. I started a novella, and a personal research project. The creative parts of my brain began to stir, but were soon diverted toward volunteer, and later full-time work for nonprofits. This was certainly fulfilling in its own way. I was valued for my ability to turn a phrase and get our press releases reprinted in local papers. But I missed being overcome with an idea; I missed my inner 4th grader.

About a year ago, I decided missing my former hobby compulsion wasn’t enough. I would have to start thinking of it as a serious pursuit and give it the time it needed. Especially since I aspired to publication. The only problem was how to begin. There was so much to know, and by this time I was 30.

I want to pause here and reiterate some advice I’ve heard from many other writers; advice that’s applicable to life in general: have your own definition of success, and pursue your own goals. Otherwise, we waste far too much time comparing ourselves to incomparable colleagues. We are the only versions of ourselves, so we may as well embrace this reality and aspire to our unique manifestations of awesomeness!

At this point, my writing goals were amorphous, and my definition of success was broad: I wanted to publish my writing, whatever type of writing it ended up being. Because WWS excels at supporting women who target literary publication, I’ll focus on resources that have aided that aspect of my journey from uber-newb to the ever-abundant “emerging writer.”

Writing Groups

Starting out with, I knew I would have to pick something among the overwhelming variety of paths and resources–many of which I couldn’t even see–or remain a paralyzed non-writer. So I decided joining a local writing group would be my first move. Ideally, this would provide an external pressure to keep me accountable to my own goal of producing creative writing.

Meetup.com was a helpful resource to learn which groups were nearby, and after participating in a few of them and meeting people, I settled into the one that felt best. Everyone is working on different types of projects, but we share the common goal of supporting one another by providing thoughtful feedback. One thing I learned through the process is we don’t always find the right group at first, and what constitutes the “right group” might change over time.

Conferences

A month or so after dipping my proverbial quill into the world of feedback groups, I learned about BinderCon. On a whim, I decided to volunteer and thereby attended my first writing conference. It was a revelation. The rooms were filled with intelligent, successful, confident writers, none of whom were men. Panels and workshops discussed revolutionizing literary representation, finding and asserting one’s expertise, and so much more. It was inspiring to meet and learn from women who were making a career of writing. Publication was possible!

I’ve found conferences to be a good way to open myself to new ideas, meet interesting people, and learn practical tips about the industry I’m just beginning to navigate. If a conference provides volunteer opportunities, this is often a way to secure a free or discount ticket without having to be on a panel. You might miss a session or two during your volunteer shift, but attending is still valuable.

Women Who Submit

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many ways that Women Who Submit and its members have paved the way for my little creative renaissance. As it happens, I learned about WWS at a happy hour meetup held a few months after BinderCon. I had carpooled with a woman named Jenny, who organizes the San Gabriel Valley Women Writers group and is far more outgoing than I am. She started chatting with WWS organizers, Tisha Reichle and Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, who soon shared the work they were doing with WWS. Jenny asked them to speak at an upcoming meeting, and that’s where I first felt the swell of I could do this, too course through my consciousness. Thanks to their presentation, the mystery of it all wasn’t quite as inscrutable.

A few months later, I attended an actual WWS submission party and was treated to the official orientation. Tisha and Xochitl provided concrete submission tips, insider information about the world of literary journals, and a cover letter template I could actually follow. They made the submission process both comprehensible and accessible. Tammy Delatorre’s presentation at February’s meeting resulted in my very own manageable contest submission plan. All the members of WWS I’ve met have instilled confidence by being themselves and putting their writing into the world. Everyone has their own goals and methods, but once a month they come together and form an unstoppable force of collective awesomeness.

Online Resources

Websites like The Review Review, Poets & Writers, The Write Life, and Write On Sisters, to name a tiny fraction of what’s available, offer strategies and tips about the writing process, the business side of things, and available markets for our writing. I keep a folder of bookmarks just for writing-related websites that I can check in with as needed.

An alternative to websites are podcasts, which provide similar information in a different format. Plus interviews with interesting people! I’m partial to Ditch Diggers, Longform, and The Other Stories (again, to name but a few of the myriad options available).

Creative Revolution webinars, hosted by Leigh Shulman and Jeannie Mark, helped me discover my writing goals and formulate a business plan. It’s one of those “living documents” that you can use as a guide and modify as your life and goals change.
Applying all the tips and philosophies gained through online resources is always the tricky part, but knowing where to find some of them has been invaluable.

Classes

Like thousands of people around the world (this sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not) I signed up for the University of Iowa MOOC last October. It offered message boards to connect with other students, peer feedback on writing assignments, and video lectures from published authors. An ostensibly great opportunity! Unfortunately, I stopped checking in half-way through and stopped completing assignments even earlier, learning the valuable lesson that online courses are not my optimal educational environment.

Much more effective has been a UCLA Extension course on Creative Non-Fiction. It meets in a physical classroom with a real, live instructor. (The future is the past, people.) What’s more, the class has opened my to the possibility of writing in that vast genre, and has resulted in several essays I’m shopping around. In sum, being a writer means I get to be one of my favorite things at the same time: a student.
Embracing Ignorance as an Opportunity to Learn

Some of my biggest hang-ups have to do with the often insurmountable mountain of my own ignorance. How does the publishing industry work? What genre should I focus on? Should I be networking more? The best way to overcome this, I’ve found, is to embrace my ignorance—of course you don’t know anything yet; you’re new to this!—and just do something. Anything. Doesn’t matter. And above all, write.

My definition of success evolves as I learn more about the many genres, publications, and industry machinations. But having a group of peers who offer mutual support, alternative perspectives, and connections to resources has remained a necessary constant. That’s what’s so wonderful about Women Who Submit.

I still don’t know what I’m doing much of the time, but I’m getting better at celebrating my small triumphs as I learn bits and pieces of what it takes to be a working writer who aspires to publication. When I can, I remind myself that I’m in a learning stage, and will likely remain here for the rest of my career. There’s always something different to delve into, after all. So I try to enjoy the process as much as possible. I seek out new resources, push past my shyness to meet other writers, and every so often work up the courage to submit.

Taped above my desk is a motivational phrase I came up with to remind myself how easy it can be to get started: Conditions don’t have to be right to just write. Some days I even take my own advice. And on days I can’t see it through the self-doubt, I try not to beat myself up about it. Small steps. Incremental progress. My destination may be unknown at times, but I’ll get there, wherever it is, and so will you.


Final Note: I’m pleased to report that I composed the first few paragraphs of this post in my head while I was driving the Arroyo Seco Parkway back from my UCLA extension class. My inner 4th grader is alive and well.


d9f1c19a-a9de-4f11-89a2-0f7a7d5e920bRachel Sona Reed left her job last fall to pursue freelance writing full-time. She is still discovering what genre(s) she should focus on, but as of this posting she writes grants for local non-profits, fiction, mediocre poetry, and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared in Angels Flight • literary west, Hello Giggles, and Rose City Sisters, among others you probably haven’t heard of. You can read her more fanciful fiction at tinyletter.com/lostisfound. She has been blogging at contemporarycontempt.com since 2011, and no you may not read her livejournal.

Twitter: @seriousrachel

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