Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



February 2008

"You mean you want failure? Yes…[because] No failures…are in vain, as these tell us what direction to explore and develop."


Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision, Harcourt Brace Publishers.

Leaps, Flights, Tumbles in 2007

Dear Reader,

The lens for 41 Judy's Journals has been my creative process, with its ups and downs, ins and outs. Journal #42 will be a look back at last year's events. It will be more than a report of individual projects and the leaps taken while working on them. As Don Murray implied in the opening quotation, it's the tumbles that instruct. Flight can be measured in its downward direction, as well as upward.

To get a bead on 2007, I first turned to my appointment diary, where I keep a log of "Professional Notes" on the last page. Month by month, I list pertinent activities, information and hopeful notes about proposals, workshops and all manner of activities that make up my "artist/writer" identity.

Some years have seemed slow and uneventful, but I managed to fill the whole page. My interpretation is that I work hard at placing my poetry and art in the public eye. I exhibit my paintings in solo and group shows. My writing and artwork get published. I take classes with amazing poets (in July, Martha Rhodes at The Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA). I sell my work. I get good publicity. A glance at November shows that I had paintings in three different exhibits. Were there proposals last year that did not get accepted? Of course, but at least I sent them out. Don Murray said, "They (publishers, exhibition coordinators and gallery owners) won't come knocking at YOUR door. You have to send your work out. It's part of your job."

To continue my look back at 2007, I turned to my handwritten journal. I keep travel notes, impressions made at lectures, ruminations on projects. Pages are devoted to whining, to processing the heaviest doses of failure, and to writing my way to solutions. Here are two "tumbles" and what came from them:

BRUSH WITH WORDS. My poetry manuscript was out there in a big way last year. After preparing for and attending the Colrain Manuscript Conference in fall 2006, I carefully chose competitions advertised in Poets and Writers and American Poetry Review. I say carefully because each entry cost $20-$25 plus postage. I also entered poetry contests, looking for recognition and publication of individual poems. By the end of the year, the post office clerks were giving me that "You, again?" look.

What did I learn? - The months dragged by, and I learned that I did not win 14 of the 16 manuscript competitions. Two have not yet posted their winners, but I already have the failure part down pretty well. This concentrated dose of rejection has taken more than my usual fifteen minutes of venting (March 2005).

My all-out assault in 2007 on poetry publication netted one poem selected as a finalist in a contest. I have had better years. Happy as I was on that day, it was a difficult and expensive lesson to learn. However, I know from experience that I need to take a deep breath and continue to send the manuscript to publishers. Poet Suzanne Cleary, who was one of my instructors at The Frost Place, pointed out that "it only takes one editor, after all! - who will say, 'We must publish this! We must!'".

RECIPROCITY: PAINTINGS AND POEMS. Since receiving a Worcester Cultural Commission/Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in 2003 for this project, ten publishers have rejected my manuscript. I opened my self-addressed stamped envelopes to read form letters: "We no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts" or thoughtfully composed ones:

  • "I know little about poetry, and your painting is appealing, but this is not the sort of book I can do or sell";

  • "The paintings you included are beautiful even without high-tech imaging. Combining poetry and artwork certainly heightens the response to both at once. Unfortunately, our poetry list is very small and we receive many more proposals than we can handle";

  • "The book does not fit well with titles we have already accepted.";

  • "Your manuscript is not what we're looking for right now"; "We enjoyed reading it, but we're afraid we'll have to pass";

  • "We do not publish much poetry, but keep us in mind for future projects"; "You're obviously a very talented person, and that comes through clearly in your work. Unfortunately…"

My manuscript did not seem to fit any niche or market large enough to make a profit.

What did I learn? Sometimes fate intervenes. Just when I was about to give up, in September I attended a lecture and exhibit at Amherst College about artists' books (November 2006). I walked away having decided that this non-traditional method of publication finally was THE way to transform RECIPROCITY. My decision was to hand produce one hundred copies of a sleeker version of my original manuscript.

Doors opened: Michael Kasper, curator of the exhibit, gave me permission to use his definition of artists' books on my back cover; I experimented and decided upon materials I would use. I designed the cover and used part of my fellowship funds to have it printed. On November 2nd , I held the artist's proof of Reciprocity: An Artist's Book.

I set up an ambitious production schedule. I took pain relievers for my shoulder, which ached from hand-feeding each image and poem into the printer. I learned to revise my production schedule to put joy back into the process. I designed the web page advertising the limited edition. There is still work to be done, especially with respect to marketing the book. As of this writing, I have sold 15 copies; my final satisfaction will come when I sell #100/100.

One last thought: Composing Judy's Journal this month has taught me once again to never underestimate the value of using writing to learn about the creative process. Journals and diaries yield so much in terms of hindsight (What made me think that was so important three months ago?) and more significantly, problem solving (I tried this solution, and it worked/didn't work! Why?). Journals continue to be the backbone of my creativity.

As painful as your creative failures may have been, what have you learned? Contact me at