Dear poetry professor: self-doubt

Giant squid considers applying for a poetry opportunity then second-guesses herself

Q: I question the worth of my writing on a near-daily basis. Is there a way to just get over it?

A: Okay, okay, I admit it, that question comes from Dr. Ms. Poetry Professor herself, but it’s a genuine one. If you have better answers, please post in the comments. In the meantime, here’s what I’m telling myself.

I should say, before I start, that I’m speaking from a well-supported life, with access to friends and meds and counseling. My own self-sabotage AND successes are rooted in having grown up with many privileges and some challenges; my well-educated engineer father, for example, constantly undercut and disparaged my bookish mother, who left her British high school at sixteen to apprentice at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital. As the first woman in my family to go to university, I felt like both of them and neither, struggling to find a different way. Through hard work and good luck, I’ve won some great honors and opportunities, but I’ve also been underestimated for most of my professional life because of my gender, and I’ve endured episodes of assault and harassment. The laws of my time allowed me to marry the person I loved, who loves and supports me still. While I’ve had health problems, I’m more able-bodied than many. The thoughts below arise from a stew of factors, many nourishing and some toxic.

First: there are different kinds of self-doubt. Some are salutary. Every writer SHOULD say to herself sometimes: hmm, I’m not sure this poem/ essay/ story etc. is very good–because most drafts aren’t. Without self-doubt, weak first starts would never go the distance, yet many eventually do. The most constructive response to this species of doubt, if you can recognize it as reasonable, is to work harder. If your standard repertoire of tweaks (strengthening diction, cutting adverbs, etc.) doesn’t banish that tentacle of uncertainty, can you free write about what makes the material so important and interesting to you, then try to bring that urgency/ clarity back into the piece? Maybe there’s a missing link you need to develop. If neither of those strategies fly, maybe talking to a smart friend about it would help? Or take a break–exercise, adjust your blood sugar, or do some unrelated task–and come back when you can see the piece clearly. Maybe that’s weeks from now, and unless you’re under external deadlines, that’s fine. Poetry keeps.

Even a giant squid-sized portion of self-doubt can be helpful, to a degree. It’s good to think long-term about your aspirations as a writer and whether you’re really taking the necessary steps to accomplish your goals. Your imagination won’t always obey your agenda, but that’s why it’s good to have a couple of projects at different stages. If something stalls, you can then procrastinate productively. I find it grounding to return, too, to the less-elevated kinds of writing that directly help people, like reference letters and reviews. The sentences don’t have to be beautiful and you KNOW you’re being of use.

But misgivings attached to the work rather than your capacities as a person–well, that kind of doubt isn’t really what motivated my question, although I find it useful to remind myself that self-questioning helps smart people work smarter. Nor am I all that worried about the occasional acute episode of writing-related panic. I had a rough time getting started this summer and tried slogging doggedly through the doubt. Then I put myself on a course of related and unrelated reading, and that helped more. Reading is the best tonic I know (which probably explains some things about my career choice). I finished a draft of the short project that was killing me, put it aside, and then moved onto work that feels more congenial. This is a standard cycle in my writing life, and some combination of grit and rest always gets me through it, eventually.

The self-doubt that I find hardest isn’t about my relationship to the work itself. It’s about my relationship to other people. Like the juvenile giant squid in the video above, I’m both curious and wildly reticent. I’d much rather submit work towards publication or a grant from a distance, say, than approach an editor in person, at a conference. I’ve shied away from conversations and connections that might have helped me about a zillion times. And when you’re a middle-aged woman without influential mentors, no one’s rushing to hand you opportunities because you’re doing such good work in your quiet corner of the deep. I mean, it happens–I’ve put the work out there steadily, and sometimes nabbed a win–but it would happen more if I didn’t sabotage myself and hide in the murk. I’ve vowed to do better, especially with new books coming along. I WILL put myself and my work forward, because I DO believe in it fiercely. We’ll see.

Dear poetry professor on submissions (plus dropped balls, tombstones, & “Hap”)

The New York Times ran a “Working Woman’s Handbook” section in the print edition this Sunday, and I read it from cover to cover, even though it defeated the REASON I get the print edition on Sunday mornings, the whole indulgence-with-a-pot-of-tea-on-the-sofa vibe. The handbook made my adrenaline surge and muscles tighten: “Negotiating While Female,” “Ditch the Mommy Guilt,” “Document Everything”–all too close to home! The feature was very business-oriented, and some of it underplays the self-questioning that SHOULD be part of an artist or an intellectual’s working life no matter the gender, but I’m still keeping it open to the article by Jessica Bennett on impostor syndrome. Self-talk and visualization feel goofy, but I am SO guilty of some of the self-undermining behaviors Bennett describes, and I need to stop.

This post is occasioned by another piece from that suite: “Work Life Balance Is a Myth” by Tiffany Dufu (this one doesn’t seem to be online although Dufu has published these ideas in other venues). On the way towards the subheadings “Drop Balls” and “Say No” (Drop the Ball is the name of Dufu’s book), Dufu offers a “visualization exercise adapted from the book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’: Imagine three people eulogizing you at your funeral. What would they say about you? What do you hope they say about you?…Now ask yourself: Are you on the path to becoming the person they describe?” 

In grad school, I had a running joke with some friends that I wanted my tombstone to read “Brilliant and Lovable.” I’m not invested in those particular adjectives anymore–I think I was beginning to worry, back then, about the implicit conflict between them, the idea that for a woman to be brilliant (work first) requires violating the social requirement to be nurturing (people first), and that therefore a brilliant woman is unwomanly. Anyway, I’d rather sidestep THAT mess these days, but the content of my aspirations is similar: while I don’t care if Joe Schmoe finds me “nurturing” and I resist spending my whole life on care-taking activities, I do hope my friends and loved ones feel loved by me. I hope my writing is valued and enjoyed by others. And I hope my students find me to be a good and generous teacher. 

It strikes me that these hopes are not entirely consonant with Dufu’s admonitions to “Drop Balls” and “Say No.” My list does reveal that I don’t care about appearances, not in a deep way, so I should ditch those vestigial anxieties. But being a good and generous teacher means saying “yes” a lot, even when you’re tired and overextended–giving students your full and open attention, when you can. And I’ve been in this job for 25 years, and many former students are still looking for help, so it can be a lot! For instance, I received another out-of-the blue query last weekend from someone who graduated maybe 10 years ago. I thought, first, this is the sort of ball I should drop; and then, second, but I want to be helpful; then, third, maybe I can repurpose the help I give by editing these occasional, mostly off-screen scraps of mentoring. Maybe if I collect and, occasionally, post them, they’ll help others. One exchange is below, a little edited and developed, name redacted. I hope to do it again sometime, so let me know if you have a question, whether or not you’ve ever been enrolled in one of my classes!

And finally, a request. I am collecting the names of essays, books, and poems for a future blog on literary menopause occasioned by a recent New Yorker review of Steinke’s new book. I have several to start with from the latter piece, but I really wish I could think of more poems (besides Moira Egan’s terrific Hot Flash Sonnets!). It’s personal, too, of course: I’ve been in an exhausting amount of joint pain lately, and still have other doctors to consult, but my not-very-helpful GP suggested yesterday these may be untreatable menopause systems (some people react to a drop in estrogen with painful inflammation). I need medical enlightenment, but I’d also appreciate some literary company.   

Q: Hi Professor, 

I have been published a bunch of times but never poems I expect – my best stuff hasn’t been picked up yet and I am curious – how do you go about editing or curating your poems so that you can get them published? 

A: The short version: time/distance plus persistence, with a garnish of recognizing how random publishing can be.

In more detail: I wait for months until the poem is strange to me, so I can be objective about its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve just been rereading poems I drafted during the past year or two, preparing to submit or re-submit them, and I found a few gems; a lot of poems with strong potential but clunky or underdeveloped passages; and some I was once excited about but now realize might not go anywhere. Some poems I thought were shiny and near-complete disappoint me now, and that’s common–with critical distance, I’m better able to admit that a certain element doesn’t work, even though I’m fond of it. Sometimes I have to excise an opening stanza or two, but for me, problems more often occur at or near the end of the poem. (I’ve observed that some poets are great at punchy beginnings and weaker on closure, and others reverse those traits.) You have to be a ruthless trimmer/ re-developer, both for the good of the art and for publishing success, and it just takes a lot of time. There are SO many good poems out there competing for an editor’s attention: the winners are great, or lucky.

Having a few fellow writers to bounce work off of helps, too, whether it’s an informal/ online writing group or an official class. And sending in batches that hang together well, the poems illuminating one other, can help deepen an editor’s sense what you’re up to.

All that said, I’ve heard multiple book editors and contest judges note that the best poems in a book, when you check the acknowledgments, aren’t ones that have been taken by magazines. I’m polishing my next book ms now, including 50-something poems, most of which have been published independently. I still shake my head over the ones that haven’t been, because I feel they’re among my best. Sometimes that’s because they’re risky in some way that’s supported by the book as a whole, but might seem off to a magazine editor with less context. Other times it just seems random. Or am I just wrong about “my best”?…In any case, in addition to bringing your own work to the highest possible shine, keep reading magazines, thinking about fit, and getting the work out there. Hard work and persistence are under your control but the rest is “Crass Casualty,” as Thomas Hardy might say if he were blogging about the po-biz.