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 jalapeño in the black-eyed peas.