Spending an entire summer writing poetry did wonders for me as a writer, not because my poetry was good. In fact, it was juvenile and awful. I'd write poems about the birdsong I'd hear in the morning and how it made me feel. It was the sort of bad, navel-gazing juvenalia that every writer has written at one time or another -- and hopes gets destroyed in a fire.
The reason that summer was valuable was because it was my first encounter with the never-ending struggle every writer faces when trying to write something readable. I had to learn discipline. It helped to have the Juniper Prize as a goal, silly as my ambition was. I began developing an ear for words, actually listening to the sounds they made on the page as I typed away. Even today, as a business writer explaining changes in the new healthcare law or how companies can reduce their tax burdens, I write with my ear as much as my brain. This is a good thing, to be musical and conscious of the sounds that words make on the page.
I also had to learn how to tell a story, for a poem is nothing if not a compressed story. Best of all, I learned to read in order to inspire my writing. I read voraciously that summer, sitting on the 8th floor of the library in the stacks of the poetry and literature floor. I'd spend a week with e.e. cummings, enjoying his humor, his tenderness, and that wild way he has with language.
Emily Dickinson would become a favorite, especially since I'd bicycle past her Amherst house each morning and wonder how she'd once been in her room writing her meditative poems and listening to the birdsong outside, as I was doing the same a century later. I read Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" over and over, not to mention my favorite poem then and now, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
In the middle of August that summer, I finished my fiftieth poem and proudly put all the finished pages into a manila envelope with my $20 entry fee which I sent to the Juniper Prize Committee. Did I feel like a "real" poet then, a "real" writer? Of course I did, and I'm embarrassed now at how silly that conceit was from a pimply 19-year-old undergraduate. But every writer goes through that "young poet" phase, and I certainly checked off that box.
A few weeks later my manila envelope came back along with a one-page letter from the Juniper Committee. I remember reading the letter with initial excitement which quickly turned to deflation: "Thank you for submitting your poems, however we have decided they are not yet ready to win the Juniper Prize." I was stunned. Had they made some epic mistake? Had they failed to recognize my precocious genius or overlooked me because I was younger than other entrants?
I thought for a minute and then walked out to the parking lot in front of my apartment building. There was a large dumpster there. I put the letter back in the manila envelope with my 50 poems, my only copies, and hurled the package into the dumpster, then turned and walked away. As literary gestures from 19-year-olds go, this was a fairly dramatic one.
I was done with writing, I thought then. I had failed as a poet, and I spent the next week brooding and confused about my "wasted" summer and the idiocy of the Juniper Committee. Needless to say, I somehow found the strength to carry on. Looking back, that was one of the best summers of my life, including "losing" the Juniper Prize. The writing life is nothing if not difficult, and dealing with failure is the most basic tool every writer needs. To paraphrase the great Irish writer Samuel Beckett, "fail, but fail better each time." Beckett, a pessimistic dude, also once wrote: "I can't go on; I'll go on." That's how I felt then, but I moved on and kept writing after all.
Dear reader, tell me about your early (or more recent) writing "failures" and what you learned from them? Use the comment box below . . .