Wednesdays on Writing: Expectations

December 8th, 2010

I wrote my first poem when I was nine years old. I still think it’s pretty good. Daddy thought it was genius. Without telling me, he  sent it in to the Newfoundland Herald, our weekly tv guide/entertainment magazine, and they published it. The minute I saw it, the hook was set. I’ve been trying to get my words in print ever since.

I wrote poetry in spurts through adolescence and my early twenties. By then, my position as “the writer” among my family, friends, teachers, and classmates was firmly established, and expectations were high. When I was about eighteen, I had about a dozen poems I thought were good enough to show my father. He thought they were genius. Since he was a respected poet himself, and a professor of literature, I took his word for it. I typed them all up, wrote a cover letter, and submitted them to a national contest run by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While I was waiting for their phone call, I rehearsed my answers to the numerous media interviews that would soon follow, imagined the venues for my live performances, and thought about possible titles for my first published collection.

A few weeks later, I got a form rejection letter in the mail. I hadn’t even made the first cut.

My expectations were so preposterous, it makes for a funny story now, but I was sincerely astonished and crushed. I would have quit then and there, except that writing was (and is) a compulsion that overrides both ego and common sense.

In my twenties, I had a several poems published in small regional literary journals, and then a national anthology. No arts reporters or heads of publishing houses came beating on my door, but I was very pleased and proud. So of course, I set my sights on The New Yorker. They sent me a form rejection letter. The bastards. I stopped writing for months.

Do you see a pattern here? I injured myself so many times with unreasonable expectations, I’m amazed I’m even still in this game. I see other novice writers do it to themselves all the time. They hurl themselves at a big magazine, a famous agent, a major book publisher, and get hurt when they discover they can’t just walk up to that high bar and vault themselves over it. They have talent, or a good idea, but they don’t have the writing muscles yet, because they haven’t put in the practice. Or they haven’t built a platform or portfolio that can spring them from one level of achievement to the next. A really good idea isn’t enough. Talent isn’t enough. Even real genius isn’t enough. It’s so much more complex than that.

It’s good to dream big. Preposterously so. It takes hubris and faith and a touch of insanity to persist in this field, and persistence is the greatest asset a writer can have. Ignore the odds. It has to happen for somebody. Why not you?

But take care not to cripple yourself. Dream of seeing your byline in the supermarket glossies, and pitch to your local and regional periodicals. Write the next chapter of the great American novel and take an online writing workshop. Get started on that bestselling cookbook and start a food blog. Hang on to hope. Abandon expectations. Let small steps take you to the big leap.


On Wednesdays, I share field notes from the writing life. Sometimes it will be about creativity, or wordcraft, or attitude. Sometimes I’ll be letting you know what’s happening with my book and other words of mine that have found (or are seeking) a place in the world. If you have any related questions you’d like answered on a future Wednesday, or a topic to offer for discussion, leave a comment here, or email me.

No Responses to “Wednesdays on Writing: Expectations”

  1. Geoff Meeker says:

    What year was that first poem published, Kyran? Okay, I’ll rephrase… Was it between 1981 and 1987? If so, I would have been the editor who selected the poem. (I will not go into detail, however, about the rigorous jurying process involved in the selection of poems.)

  2. KyranP says:

    that would be so crazy cool, Geoff, but it was 1978-79!

  3. marilee pittman says:

    abandon all hope…just do it because you can…

  4. rowena says:

    I didn’t hit the goal of being a precocious literary darling… but I’m 40 and still writing.
    When I was in college creative writing, there was this old saw going on that of 30 of us all typing away in a room, ten years from then, half would have given up, and after 20 years, the rest would have given up, but for one would still be madly typing away, and one would be swigging out of a bottle.

    I’m the one still madly typing away.

    (oh, and Brad Falchuk, the creator of Glee. Damn I’m jealous.)

  5. Alicia says:

    I think you’re awesome and way cooler than New Yorker poems which are overly dramatic or something. We used to read them outloud for giggles when I lived in a volunteer house in my early 20’s. I’m pretty sure you’re too good for them.

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