The Acrobat’s Success List

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I had an upsetting experience yesterday. I went to a financial planner with my dear husband, and, as we sat down, he began explaining how precarious our existence is since I have quit my job to be “a writer.” I don’t think he actually put “air quotes” around the words a writer, but he pronounced them as though he might be saying, to join the circus. Over and over he emphasized that I was bringing in “zero income.”

This is, in fact, completely true.

And it does freak me out, too, on occasion. But this morning, remembering how the financial planner began making helpful suggestions (perhaps I could work as a substitute teacher–they make good money!), I am feeling very, very freaked out.

What if my retirement account totals continue plummeting because of current global financial status?

What if, like my mother, I end up needing long-term care? What if my husband needs long-term care?

What if I never sell a novel…no awards…no best-sellers…no movie deals? What if there is never another poetry book? What if I never publish another word?

Somewhere in the midst of all this angst, however, I touched bottom. And I wasn’t on a trapeze, after all. I was more like a swimmer finding the bottom of the pool. I planted my feet, bent my knees, and pushed up, back into oxygen. I gulped in a big, fresh breath. I realized that what I was really doing was procrastinating–not working–and a sure way to never again do any work or experience any success.

As I breathed, I began to remember my strategies for getting work done. One of the strategies is to work for 15 minutes. This, in my opinion, is a little like thinking you are out over your head, then putting your feet down in an unfamiliar pool, only to realize that it’s not that deep. You can stand up! No problem! So I started on my 15 minutes, which turned into 45 minutes before I went into the house to fix myself some breakfast.

Another strategy I remembered, while eating breakfast, comes from a get-organized book I once read: notice the places where what you do is already organized. I am something of a slob and I let clutter accumulate. But where my make-up and hair stuff go in the bathroom? Totally organized. So it is possible for me to be organized. It is not a genetic flaw, pre-determined and impossible to surmount.

So, yes, it is precarious, but here’s my success list (you do not have to read this) around my work, just to remind myself:

  • I have two published books of poems, The Coyotes and My Mom and Sparrow. Three if you count my Carla-published chapbook, Be Careful. 
  • For five years I wrote one-bad-poem a day (you can see my essay about the experience here). And got many of them published, btw. (Some even made money!)
  • From July 27 to August 30 this year I wrote 31 new poems and sent them out as postcards.
  • I facillitate a Writing Lab now going on its sixth year of existence.
  • I have a BA in English, an MFA in Creative Writing, and a Ph.D. in American Literature. I taught American Literature, composition, and creative writing for 25 years!
  • Last week I submitted a short story to Glimmer Train, breaking a long send-out dry spell.
  • I have won three poetry awards (or four?), and I have had five poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
  • I have had about 100 poems published in journals, including Blackbird and Calyx and Floating Bridge (Pontoon) and The Sun and Escape into Life.
  • I came in second in both the mainstream-novel and short-story categories in the 2014 PNWA Literary Contest.
  • I have drafted four novels and one is more-or-less finished–I’ve submitted it to two places and will submit it to as many as need be. I will finish the other novels, too.
  • Yesterday morning I took out my poetry submission notebook (for the first time in several years) and began getting ready to do a September send-out (the intention is to submit four or five poems each day of the month to a different journal).

In her book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See has this to say:

“Protect yourself. Be careful whom you tell. Because the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer.”

When my dear husband outed me as a writer, I felt something like shame, and something like heartache. It was as if I didn’t want this woman in her office that was all about money to know my secret, my dirty little secret. But it isn’t dirty and it isn’t little and it isn’t a secret.

  • Oh, yeah. And I’ve been blogging since 2009 about my writing life! See? Not a secret! (

It’s going to be okay, Bethany. You can breathe now.

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