December 31, 2015

Refreshing Your Journals in the New Year

Like most folks, I have my handful of New Year's Day traditions. I simmer up black-eyed peas with greens for luck. We make a batch of Bloody Marys. I update my address book, write cards, and maybe have a few friends come by. 

I also look around my one-bedroom apartment, in which my writing desk has to double as our dining table, and think, How can I clear out to create space for the new year?

If you're a writer, journal subscriptions are probably part of your world. We buy them to show our support for the editorial aesthetic, or because of an exceptionally fine bit of AWP swag, or because subscribing was built into a context fee. I get a half-dozen literary journals at any time, with slight variations from year to year--Gettysburg Review and Gulf Coast one year, AGNI and Georgia Review the next--plus comp and contributor copies. That's a whole lotta paper that comes marching into my mailbox. 

When to read them all? 

The truth is, most of my favorite journals are too bulky to grab for a Metro ride or stick in a carry-on bag. At the end of a long day, I'm more likely to reach for Real Simple, Washingtonian, or one of the other glossy mags that live on our coffee table. Sunday mornings are reserved for the New York Times. I have two books to read for teaching to students, another on the horizon for book club. I say to myself I want to save that issue for when I can give it the time it deserves. 

So, the stack grows higher. And higher. Eventually, the prospect of reading transmogrifies from "anticipatory pleasure" to "looming guilt trip."

A few years back, I decided enough was enough. Here's my strategy: 

-On or about New Year's Day, I round up all the unread journals in my house from the year before. There's usually at least six, and as many as ten. 

-I give myself permission to leaf through, to skim, rather than reading everything. But when I find something I particularly love--an essay, poem, or short story--I flag it. The goal is to find one piece per issue, two max. Then I use the Contributor's Notes to find an email address for each of the authors. Sometimes this isn't possible, but there is usually an academic or other professional affiliation mentioned. 

-The note! This is the best part. I keep it short and sweet, because I don't really know anything about this person (and vice versa). But I take the time to say I loved your piece, and maybe here's why. I say If you come to DC to read, please let me know. I say, particularly if it isn't someone with a book out yet, Please keep writing. 

Sometimes I never hear back. Sometimes it is exactly what that person needed to hear. Sometimes quick notes turn into real, substantive correspondences. 

The bonus: I can give myself permission to scootch these journals out the door, because I have honored the work. Which makes room for a new year of journals. 

There's much meditation, at this time of year, on how we spend our time. I see a lot of people swearing off the internet, or turning email auto-replies on. But my online silences of the year past (some involuntary, some intentioned, some accidental) have only strengthened my sense of being a writer who thrives on engagement. Thanks for keeping an eye on this space. A flurry of end-of-year emails is just one small way I can give back to a community that offers me so much in return. 

One other thing: Don't forget the jalapeƱo in the black-eyed peas. 


Nancy White said...

I often tear out just the poems I want to savor...which makes the throwing away a little less painful. Sometimes I take the fiction and slice it into strips (while binge-watching something less-than-highbrow) and make toss it all in a big bowl (fluff, fluff, fluff go ten short stories from different journals) and let my students each grab a handful to arrange into poems. Or decoupage lines onto blown eggs for easter... anything so that I don't have to think that I just nuked that precious pile without giving it its full due! Thanks for your great post and permission to move forward.

Unknown said...

Why not take them to a women's shelter or prison or a youth shelter?

Unknown said...

Why not take them to a women's shelter or prison or a youth shelter?

ingrid said...

I love the idea of writing to the authors! And another couple of ideas . 1)take them to readings, and give them away to audience members. (I once saw Joe Bruchac toss them, one by one, into the crowd; people loved it.) Myself, I round them up and take them to one of our retirement/assisted living communities that attracts a high number of reader-types: octogenarians (and older) who once led active professional lives at the university, for example, or in medicine or law or business. It's a good bet the mags actually get read.

Steve Rogers said...

I just finished going through a stack of journals clipping what I want to save to read when I find the time. A reading file takes far less space that a stack of journals. So I feel your pain. Enjoy the soup and the Bloody Marys.

Sandra said...

I totally agree about donating the literary journals if you can--I like to take mine to American U, where there is a shelf of sample journals available for MFA students. But like others, I often clip out pages to scan to PDF, if they are potentially useful for teaching. (I love the Gulf Coast roundtables for this, in particular.) If you've cut them up too much, then recycling may be the better answer.

Happy New Year, everyone, and thanks for chiming in~

Cheers, SB

Diane Holcomb said...

Great idea! I'll apply your method to the teetering stack of writing magazines in my garage. And books? Sheesh. I have a whole storage shed just for the books I have yet to read.

Oh, the relief of skimming the magazines, at least.

If I knew you and lived close by, I'd take the literary journals off your hands. I could add them to my teetering stack of magazines.

Kasy Long said...

Thank you for the advice! This was a great idea! I have many writing magazines and journals, and I never know what to do with them. I would much rather just tear out the pages I want to keep than to keep the entire magazine. I never thought about the strategy you use, but I may try that sometime. Thank you!

Strange Party said...
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