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The Odds Are Against Me

May 22, 2010

There are a couple sources of inspiration for this post. First, the other day I was typing some poems out of the ol’ notebook. Second, recently my Reservoir Dogwoods brothers have taken to calling me a, “poetry superstore,” because I tend to publish books and poems at relatively rapid pace. The relativity in this case is in relation to other poets, I think. All of this got me to thinking about my writing process. I came to the realization that it’s remarkable I write anything at all, and I also realized the odds are definitely against me when it comes to writing anything worth reading.

Every writer works differently. There is no doubt that I’m my own harshest critic. I think being objectively critical of your own writing is a blessing and a curse. It means that there is a little editor, or perhaps an entire workshop, living in my skull telling me what works and what doesn’t work. However, this tiny audience is tough to please, therefore they tend to think everything I write is complete rubbish. This makes the writing, editing and publishing process more laborious but I think the writing is better for it in the end.

Let’s walk through my writing process (perhaps yours is similar!) and let’s do the math. The first step in my writing process is the notebook.

The Notebook

I start out writing all my poems long-hand in a notebook. There is just something about putting pen to paper that makes the writing process real for me. Sure, I’ve written poems on computers but I find that I do too much instantaneous editing and revising.  This means that it takes an eternity to write a poem in this fashion because I’m editing and revising every line before I’ve even written the next one. The notebook gives me the freedom to say, “Just get it down. Don’t revise as you go. You can do that once you type of the poem.” That’s what I do; just let it roll.

To keep a statistical calculation of the writing process, let’s say that I’ve written 10 poems in my notebook. Right now, 100% of these poems could be keepers. By “keepers” I mean poems that eventually make it to the submission process, when I think the poem is ready for the world .

The Word Document

After I’ve accumulated a few weeks worth of writing, I’ll go through the notebook and start typing the poems into a Word document. Who am I kidding? Let’s face it, I usually type up poems every couple of months. During this period, I re-read what I wrote in the notebook and if a poem seems to have some momentum, I will type it out.  This is my least favorite part of the writing process; the transcribing from notebook to laptop. Since this is the case, I try to type out as little as possible. Why type up a poem that is DOA? It’s a waste of time and my fingers get friggin’ tired.

During this process, I usually weed out about half of the poems I’ve written. I’ve gotten pretty good (or the editor in my brain has) at determining which poems have potential and which were just random ideas, or just complete crap.

So, if I start out with 10 poems in my notebook, only 5 actually get typed up. This means that half of the poems I write don’t even make it out of the notebook, or 1 in 2 poems don’t see the light day (or computer screen).

Digital Revision

Once a poem has been transcribed into a Word document, then I’ll take some time with that poem and do some tweaking, revisions, and general meditating. It’s usually at this step in the process that the shape of the poem will begin to form (pun intended). When I write in the notebook, I usually just stick the left margin of the paper. However, now I start experimenting with the space on the page.

While I’m digitally revising a poem I’ll often realize that it shouldn’t have been typed up in the first place. I’ll be frustrated for a moment that my internal editor/workshop didn’t catch this and I wasted time typing it up, but then I move on.

On average, about half of the poems I type up end up in the “Poem Limbo” file. This where poems are regulated when they’ve been typed but are going no further. This file is called “limbo” because these poems are between realms. They aren’t dead but they aren’t necessarily living either. Over the years, this file has grown to immense proportions. There is one Word document that is about 150 pages of “limbo poems.” There are about 4-6 documents in this file on my laptop that are similar size.

This means that of the 10 poems I originally wrote, only 5 were actually typed up for revision. Of these 5 poems, about half of them will be cast into limbo. Since half of 5 is 2.5, let’s say that I’ve been easier on myself than usual, and let’s round up to 3. I’m now down to 3 poems.

Physical Revision

If poem makes it through the digital revision process, I’ll then print it out and put it in a folder for pen-on-paper revision. Keep in mind that only 3 out of 10 poems make it to this stage in the process. As a result, only 33.3% of my poems are actually printed out for revision.

This is probably the longest portion of my writing cycle.During the revision process I’ll work on a poem for a few weeks, few months or even a few years.

Just because a poem makes to this point and receives quite a bit of attention doesn’t mean it’s safe. I’ve hammered away on poems for years only to determine that it’s not working and the poem will never reach it’s potential. Of course, it’s never the poem’s fault, it’s my own. On average, about 1 in 3 poems are discarded during this period.

As I’m revising, I’ll ditch another 1 out of 3 poems, or 30% of these poems are whittled away into limbo. This means that 2 in 10 poems come out as “finished” products that the world may actually see or read.

Let’s review the stats:

  • Of the 10 original poems, only 5 will be typed up leaving me with 50%.
  • Of these 5 poems, only 3 will make it through the digital revision process leaving me with only 33%
  • Of these 3 poems, only 2 poems will make it through the revision process leaving me with 20%
  • As a result, only 20% of what I actually write is put out into the world, or 2 in 10 poems

To look at these stats a little differently,

  • For every poem that actually makes it into a journal or a book, there are 4 other poems that didn’t make it through the process.
  • This means that when I put out a book that is about 60 pages in length, I’ve actually written approximately 240 pages.
  • And of these 60 pages of poems, I’ll still feel like 100% of them are not completed even after they’ve been published.

These statistics aren’t exact. I’m a poet, give me a break. The point here is that this stuff doesn’t come easy for me, and for most other poets. If you’re one of those poets that everything you write is golden, good for you. This means that you’re probably extremely prolific and most of your writing isn’t very good. Don’t mean to be harsh, but it’s true.

In summary, the odds are against me. Sure, I could be less stringent and less critical, but then I wouldn’t be continually setting higher standards for myself and my writing. Hopefully, my internal editor won’t get any harder to please because if that’s the case, the stats are gonna get worse, and I’ll eventually finish only about 1 poem a year.

Right now, slow and steady wins the race. Except there is no race. I’m only competing against myself. This means that I’ll always win. And I’ll always lose.