Success Story with James Maynard
James Maynard writes the sonnet series And Now, A Sonnet from his home in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of two chapbooks, many works-in-progress, two children, and a thriving vegetable garden. Follow him on Twitter—@jkirkmaynard—and check out his poetry on Substack.
The years following my turn at the graduate-level workshop are, I think, a common experience. I left my writing program with the capital M master's degree, a shiny manuscript folded into my luggage, some accolades. I published poems, polished that manuscript through rejections, worked for small dollars as a copywriter, bookseller, book reviewer. I was unable—and uninterested, it turned out—in landing a teaching job. Years went by.
Soon I began to write into a void.
It was partly turning toward web development, a skill that feels like writing, and beginning a family, that created this void. By the time my second son was born, I was brewing the coffee at 4:30 every morning to write until about 6:30, when the “real” day would begin. With just that sliver of time each day to focus, my writing soon began to suffer. I would rewrite a poem into oblivion, begin a manuscript, begin a long-form piece, go back to that old manuscript—now soggy with time. I didn’t submit many new pieces and the pieces I submitted took months to be rejected.
There was no audience, no readership. As the void opened, it became more difficult to rise up early to write. I found myself sitting down with only fifteen minutes a day to review what I had written, a horror to anyone who has spent their lives expressing themselves through a keyboard. Every writer knows the loneliness of writing, but inside that loneliness there is the hope that what you write will be read. In my case, that hope was not being kindled.
I had the idea to begin a sonnet series on Substack in the shower. Substack was a site I was already interested in, because I enjoyed my internet content filtered through newsletters, so I had an account and was debating how to work with it. My first impulse had been toward exposition, but I was quickly annoyed at the hubris. When I thought about the sonnet—a form that has an expositional structure, but so confined that image and sound has to fill in the space ahead of thesis—I saw a way to move my poetry back into a space of readership. It would begin with my friends and family, then outward into the context of the internet.
The only question was whether I could sustain the rigor of writing a sonnet a week, and, hopefully, a good sonnet. I tested myself out for about five weeks, boiled the project into a manifesto, and began my first post in March of 2021.
There are many doors to open when searching for success in writing. My success was finding the doorway out of the void my life’s choices had made for me, and into perhaps the most productive year of writing I have had—ever.
A deadline hanging over my work pushed me to be up before my alarm clock, day after day, since the project began; and the narrow focus in which I write has helped me think about what it is I’m writing about, and what I’m writing toward. I have discovered something that I must have missed during graduate school: how to write with a conviction in art. In the whirligig of potential the Workshop summons like a spell, it’s easy to forget that your art has to stand on its merit, and that merit requires conviction: that what you’re writing is worth reading.
Writing into a void, you lose that conviction (or maybe you write into it because you’ve never had it in the first place). I’ve written myself out of the void onto a new platform where I can see the themes developing in my writing, and, leaning into those themes, I see a long road of productive writing ahead of me, a growing subscriber base, a new manuscript forming for a book.
It’s looking to be a very exciting new year.