“Writing in the Fallow”

Why am I here? Not getting married, not finishing an MFA, not moving to Oregon.

I’m heading into the deep freeze of Arctic-Iowa, after spending two-hundred dollars on writing contests instead of the boots I need. I just returned from RVing in Oregon, to gain some distance from my failed submission mission. I am back at the page with a new strategy: to meditate on just a few words, like the triptych poems I read in Hamilton Stone Review by Holly Painter (heinous horror impregnable). As I scan calls for submissions, I contemplate a poem in Buddhist Poetry Review about putting a salad spinner away, and a line about having the right to be right where I am right at this moment. I remember a therapist who told me that I will never understand Buddhism.

Maybe I don’t understand Buddhism, but I’m getting my head back in Writerly World. I recall the advice of a creative writing instructor. He sends a piece out ten to twenty times, and, if rejected, then decides to revise or retire it. Writers expect The Rejection. It’s just part of the process.

But we aren’t trained to know what to do in the fallow. We want the immediate yield. Instead, writing has a life of its own. We have to beckon it, not wait for it to drop from the sky and flow out of the pen in gold. Half of this battle is cultivating space then paying attention, letting a piece reveal itself, in its own season, like harvesting an Iowa crop.

It’s not so much the rejection that bothers me, but the frustration that I don’t often get feedback. At best, I’ve received a few comments here and there, like, “This has merit,” or, “To be honest I didn’t like the ending.” But, by and large, it’s the standard, “Thanks for thinking of us, but we’ve decided not to use this in our issue this spring.”

To get a second opinion, I ask my writing partner to look at my drafts. It’s Sunday morning and I’ve been up for a few hours finessing a poem that I worked on yesterday. I added another stanza, but something’s still missing. I’m so frustrated I feel like I’m back in high school wanting to throw my geometry books against the wall.

“Can I read the piece out loud to you?” I plead, worried about my lack of craft.

“Ok,” he obliges.

“Is it clunky?” I ask. “Does it flow?”

“It’s like you jotted notes on a napkin.” I would never jot 700 words on a napkin.

“You need to poke holes in it. It’s okay to rip and tear.”

“You were missing the turning point,” he says, “the moment of realization, the epiphany.”

I think about the conversation I had with my writing students last week about flying the helicopter but not landing it. How do I get this helicopter off the ground?

“I’ve got to do this for my students,” I tell him. “By the end of this semester, I’d like to have one piece that represents each of our themes.”

“That’s a lot of pressure.”

“I don’t have my MFA,” I remind him. “I just have my instincts. And one publication.”

“Yea, but it’s in an anthology. Harper Lee had just one and it’s an American classic.”

Then he adds, “You are a hot writer chick, you’re just insecure. Take a break, you won’t write well if you’re pushing too hard.”

All my years taking social science classes I never had time for creative writing. My essay experience was limited to my freshman English class. I wrote about my love affair with a man twice my age. My prof’s eyes gleamed as I shared the story, as if he knew one day I would be a writer. There were earlier indications too, like the poem I published in a children’s magazine. But then it vanished somewhere. Somewhere amongst voice lessons and community theater and travel abroad and boyfriends.

Now, years later, I want to be a bona fide writer.

“If writing brings you peace, I think it’s a good thing,” my friend Shafiq says, as if giving me his blessing. He asked to read my one published essay. After I emailed it, I didn’t hear from him for several weeks. In writer-time, that’s an eternity. When he did write back, he only said, “Good job.” Like many non-writers, I don’t think he really knew what to say.

I open my email. In it I find a note from the student secretary of the Minnesota Poetry Therapy Network. It’s a goodbye letter thanking the group for being so wonderful, and saying she will miss them as she graduates, marries, and moves to Sweden.

I have a moment of self-pity. I haven’t been to a meeting for over a year. I can’t afford the time or the money. Why am I here? Not getting married, not finishing an MFA, not moving to Oregon.

Not getting published.

I go to the kitchen, toast a bagel, spread it with peanut butter, pour myself a drink. I remember an Actor’s Studio episode with Dustin Hoffman. He said that great acting comes from pushing against the “AAARRRGGGHHH.” It’s the same thing in writing. When you’re up against the wall of utter inability, that’s often the moment of breakthrough. The one piece of advice I heard over and over was that the writers who make it are the ones who stick with it. “Be responsible for everything, but take nothing personally.”

So here I am, back at the page, dejected yet hopeful that my exercise in writing in the fallow will yield more than one published essay. Despite my crisis of faith, and knowing full well my limitations, this is my mission. Even if that involves throwing my drafts against the wall.

About Laura Sweeney

Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa. She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist's Conference in Oslo, Norway. Her poems have been published in several journals, and her essays have appeared in The Good Men Project, The Shriver Report, and the anthology Farmscape: The changing rural environment. She is associate editor for Eastern Iowa Review.




  • Ellen ODonnell

    I was tense reading this piece. Your experience is so familiar to me, particularly the part about sharing a work in progress with non-writers. “Say more please!” The nagging self-doubt, the fear of being an imposter. Great piece!