I have been in the pit of despair, climbed out, and then jumped right back in. Living in Brooklyn, NY I am surrounded by successful writers and artists- some lucky ones are even making their living off their art. I have been writing stories and poems since the age of 9 or 10 and my dream has always been to publish a book. I followed this dream through undergraduate and graduate school. I rang up quite a bit of debt getting my MFA in creative writing at New School University. I thought I’d finish my novel sell it and pay off my grad school loans with the book advance. That didn’t happen. I finished a novel that was the best a twenty-something writer could do but probably wasn’t very good and needless to say didn’t get published. I also didn’t publish my first collection of poems despite publishing a few here and there in various literary magazines. I was so disgruntled I stopped writing for a few years and just played in bands screaming my head off and being angry at the world. Those bands sadly didn’t take off either.
During all of this I started to find my way in a career of dog walking and dog training. At first it was really humbling to see artists around me publishing books and having their bands succeed while I was battling the elements picking up dog doo. In 2007 I found myself a few years out of grad school with nothing to show for it except a lot of debt and bitterness. One of my awesome undergrad poetry professors David Kirby was nominated for a National Book Award around that time. He and Barbara Hamby, my favorite poet and mentor, came up to NYC for the ceremony and I had breakfast with them. I spewed all of my garbage and disappointment at them and they kindly said “Why don’t you write about being a dog walker in Brooklyn?” Thus began the my book of poems “Dogs of Brooklyn.”
I worked on it for 2-3 years carefully crafting and editing poems. I had other friends and writers look over the work, published some poems in various literary magazines, and did some readings. When the book was “finished” (are books every really finished?), I began sending it out to all the first book contests in the back of Poets and Writers Magazine and to lots of different publishers. My then boyfriend, now husband, Dennis Riley photographed the dogs and we thought about making it a photo/poetry book. For a year and a half I spent money and time trying to get other people to publish and approve of my work. I was also writing for BOMB magazine interviewing poets on their work. In combing through the pile of books they get sent for review I definitely saw that while my book wasn’t maybe the best it also wasn’t the worst. I’m constantly amazed by some of the amazing books that get published and some of the ones I cannot believe got published. I felt like while I may not be the best poet out their I certainly am not the worst. But I also came to understand that in the hyper-intellectual world literary world poems about dogs aren’t always accepted.
I realized the people who liked my work weren’t necessarily the literary world, but regular folks who loved animals and Brooklyn. While I could sit around and be bummed that The New Yorker (who’s poetry I rarely enjoy) won’t publish my work, I realized that being yet another disgruntled artist really wasn’t productive. I come from a background of publishing my own zines in high school and being in the DIY punk rock band scene who put out their own records. I decided that even if the literary scene doesn’t believe in me, I do, so I will publish my book.
I’ve been working on it the past few months with a designer and some volunteer editors. I can’t tell you the highs and lows of this experience. There are days where I’m really excited about it and days where I’m filled with so much doubt, despair, and self-hatred I find it hard to function. I’ve received some really lovely feedback from folks in the writing community and some not so nice feedback. The format I’ve decided to publish in probably won’t support photos the best so I may have to publish it without them to keep costs down, and that is disappointing. We are still figuring it out.
There are times where I question why the hell I’m even bothering doing this. I guess overall I’m doing this as a gift to myself. I’ve worked so hard on various writing/ creative projects that haven’t seen the light of day and when you spend years working on something I guess you want something tangible to show for that. Maybe its a huge mistake, maybe I’ll never have a writing career with a faculty position at some college and have the admiration of all my peers (sounds a little like high school right?) But at least I’ll know that I tried my hardest to respect the work I’ve done and time I’ve invested.
It’s funny though in talking to my friends who have “made it” and are having success with their artistic careers they still struggle too particularly with money. It seems odd to me that they have published books and still sometimes have to juggle multiple adjunct jobs etc just to pay the rent. I’ve been really lucky that I have established a career working with dogs and I’ve always been able to pay my bills for the most part and have time to write. It may not be the most prestigious job, but particularly since I started training dogs, I get to really help people and their animals. I guess in this “race” I’m the tortoise and not the hare. I’m slowly getting okay with that.