The conversation started when I said I am happy my third book is going to be published so soon after its completion rather than four years after I’d finished writing it.  Hearing this, the charmed and charming poet said, “Good grief, don’t say such horrible things.”  The charmed and charming poet was under the impression that I was jokingly articulating some sort of horrific curse upon myself.  When I explained that this had been the situation for my first two books, I’d completed each of them four years before I had the joy of seeing them in print, the charmed and charming poet stepped away from me as if I might prove somehow fatally contagious.


The charmed and charming poet had never had to endure such a lengthy wait between the completion of a manuscript and its appearance in print.  It happens for some people like that. 


Some people win the lottery, too.


A younger poet complained to me recently that she had been sending her manuscript out for 18 months and had received nothing but a couple of finalist spots. I told her the fact that she was a finalist meant she had a compelling manuscript. It was likely just a matter of time before her manuscript met the right circumstances (proper publishing house, proper readers, proper opportunities, proper day).  Then I told her that “matter of time” might be considerable. I did not tell her this to dishearten her.  I told her this because it is what I have observed to be true. For the majority of writers, the length of time between the completion of a first (and often second) manuscript and the appearance of that manuscript in print is greater than three years.


The number of writers I know who have not had their first books accepted until they were finished with their second would astound anyone who still chooses to believe they might win the lottery and have their book accepted for rapid publication immediately upon completion.  And if you think the first book is hard to place, consider the fact that second books must compete with books written by poets who have already cleared this first significant hurdle and with manuscripts by poets with considerably more books under their belt. When you hear authors who read from their new books but also large chunks from some new project, the likelihood is the book from which the author is reading is new only to you.  For the poet himself, the poems from the newly published book might be four, six, ten, twelve years old.  They are still good poems. But the poet has moved forward to new projects.  This is what we do.


I am writing this, at the tail end of AWP, after the book fair and all its razzle dazzle glad handing has drawn to a close, because I wanted to write a little bit about patience. 


We keep talking about the social anxieties that accompany our days at AWP.  Let’s be honest, though. All the talk about the anxieties AWP provokes have to take into account the level of anxiety so many writers feel about whether or not their work will be published by the publishers they desire and read by the readers they desire.    The book fair’s not just a big bookstore.  It’s a meet and greet for publishers and those who want to be published by them.  And soon.


It happens for some people that the connections made through AWP or other writers’ confabs will result in immediate publication.  Some people win the lottery, too. 


For most of us, to get the things we want takes time. This time can be frustrating and can make a goal feel impossible.  Remember, though, it happens that some people get the things they most desire by persistently staying the course.

Originally Published: April 11th, 2010

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...