When I went to graduate school for a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I had zero aspirations about being published. I’d gone to graduate school for writing because I used so much writing as self-discovery in my curriculum as a history and leadership teacher. I wanted to be a better teacher and used writing as my primary tool to empower my students to own their own voices. I thought getting an MFA would expose me to even more tools to use with my students. At graduate school, we all needed to produce a book length work. My book was a collection of linked poetry and nonfiction essays entitled Giving Up Beauty and it was an exploration of my body image, beauty perception, and ethnic identity as I came of age in the American South. At graduation, my final advisor came up to me and said, “I noticed that you never went to any publishing workshops.” He was right; those workshops were option and I hadn’t attended any of them. “Yeah, I’m not planning on publishing.” That comment began a long conversation about how publishing just wasn’t me. Finally, he asked, “would you have felt better at 16 if you had just read any of the stuff you just spent the last two years writing?” I imagine I looked a bit like a deer in headlights with that question because, truth be told, I probably would have less alone at 16 if I had come across the voice of a young Latina in the literature I was reading. In fact, I had found the voices of African-Americans at that age and clung to their stories. A few years later, I would design a major in African American studies and Urban Education issues as an undergrad. “I challenge you,” my advisor told me, “to think of your classroom differently. It doesn’t just have to be the room where you teach. It can be the book that you write that lands in others’ hands. And just one book can reach more kids than you can in a decade. Send things out for one year. If nothing happens or you don’t find it rewarding, you can give it up.” We made a deal, and I started figuring out what I could send out.
Soon, the first poem I sent out won first place (and a check!) in a poetry contest. I did readings and people responded. Other poems and essays placed in other contests or were picked up in literary magazines. One great place to learn about writing contests is the Creative Writers Opportunities List-Serve . One of the places that I had an essay picked up was the anthology Waking Up American, published by Seal Press. I had had a few other things picked up in book anthologies by then and was impressed with Seal’s editing and packaging. I researched them and decided to send a query letter, introducting myself formally and pitching an idea from a book. Those conversations led to Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina.
Every writer has an interesting journey to first publication. In my journey, I learned that it helps to spend time developing my craft and then plugging away with submission as those submissions led me to the perfect contact for what I wanted to do next. Authors’ stories of publication and the writing/ publication business are fascinating and insightful. A few places where I still go to learn more about the business are Allison Winn Scotch’s blog, Writer Unboxed, The Renegade Writer, and Freelance Success.