Jeremy Tolbert: Drag or Ash

Does anyone remember that scene in “All the President’s Men,” where the camera pans out from atop the Library of Congress away from Woodward and Bernstein, played fantastically by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman?  Or the other scene where they're driving through the streets of D.C. and the camera pans out to reveal the entire city made up of loneliness, emptiness, and a needle in a haystack?

That is what I have found to be the case within the literary profession, whether it be in journalism, poetry, and publishing. There are days where I am, in a span of only hours, jumping for joy and then fetidly crying into my pillow. Only because I received another rejection letter from both well and lesser known publications after assuming I had written a Pulitzer prize winning piece, (hey, my mother told me so) from the deepest depths of my love, sweat and tears. Yes, it’s true, I am dropping the mic and saying what all struggling and surviving creative minds have known for years: this profession is a stubborn, fickle bitch.

For the past twelve years I have tried to break through with my words and I’ve learned that having a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality is normal. That is what writing does to you. But I love it and would never want to be or do anything else. The art of writing, or being creative for the most part, is perfectly built for the loner, the crazy one who is in love with the night and who enjoys being alone in their own mind. Therefore, I’m glad I fit into this space unlike the octagon shaped box everywhere else in the world. With my words, I focus on my solitude. And the shadows of the night while I type, I let the blackened shapes pan against my body as if I were being smothered and suffocated. I write words that hoard everything that have kept me from madness, I take chances and spill my blood; body and soul believing what I’ve written will somehow reach and perhaps help another by way of them picking up a copy of a magazine or a printed, bound manuscript. Yet, that blood runs dry each time I see released works by celebrities who fit the bill on ghost writers; paying another to describe their own lifespan while there are pale, skin and boned artists with tracks and tread on their fingers, hands, arms and knees from years of toiling in the dirt in the hopes of having their lifeline continue.

Look, I’m not naive. I understand that celebrities and personalities are big business. For most true authors, like songwriters without headsets, the percentage of who have the opportunity to be seen and write and perform their art full time for a major publishing house is nearly zero. Yet, that is why I believe self-publishing and the expansion of small presses are so important. Instead of leaving us out in the cold, pining for charcoal, twine and wire, the ability to publish on our own or grab hold onto an independent, builds us a home where one can showcase words with pen and paper that would not otherwise be seen. The stigma of putting out your own work or working with a small, indie press has gone by the wayside as it has helped in ways that cannot be fully explained without opening the insides of a starving artist. I am a prime example. For all of the years I have put in trying to encapsulate what I feel I cannot say out loud into words on paper, I find myself still an amateur in a profession where there are so few professionals. Yet, knowing that there are other avenues for artists to produce, not only work but award winning work, makes the Jekyll and Hyde feelings that overcome us at every turn all worthwhile, even if we receive a yes or a no when submitting our words. In my case, the rejection slip has become a normal sight because at times what I write goes against the norm. I produce work that is dark, that is raw and that sometimes is trouble. That is all I know. Hell, Charles Bukowski, my muse, my mentor, who is looked upon as a cult figure in the literary world for the way he photographed life with simple lines, once quipped when asked in an interview, “I’ve gotten into trouble with a lot of shit. On the other hand, trouble sells books. But, bottom line, when I write, it’s for me. (He draws a deep drag off his cigarette.) It’s like this. The ‘drag’ is for me, the ash is for the tray…that’s publication.”

That is what I feel publication has become the older I become. Plus, as I feel my bones age, so too has my knowledge about what really matters in writing. Whether or not it takes me a year or two or until my dying breath to reach the mountaintop, I have become comfortable in knowing my words will always be for me since, as Bukowski again wrote in his first published poem, Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip, “Here I had only been writing two years. Two short years. It took Hemingway ten years. And Sherwood Anderson, he was forty before he was published. I guess I would have to give up drinking and women of ill-fame, though. “And this was before he decided he was not ready to write and took a ten year hiatus to drink.

Bukowski has a point though that I believe many artists, including myself, have struggled with in regards to finding a house or a magazine to publish their work. Bukowski felt that if he had continued to write at that moment in time he would have produced some shrill shit that would only have lifted up the establishment’s ego but make his own thoughts be questioned. Instead, he decided to go his own way and was determined to succeed on his own terms.  Therefore, I’ve asked myself many times: how do I send work to established magazines, journals and houses without the pressure of distilling my words and my voice in the pursuit of being published and gaining readership? It is a question that I believe so many others, not just myself, keep trying to answer. Since the ultimate goal is, as Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”


I doubt that there is any absolution except to say in all of my years of striving to become a professional writer, I have found it easier to write for yourself and find a voice that suits you whether or not you find a home or not. The scale that weighs how many rejection and acceptance letters one receives does not determine your literary worth. Ultimately, that needle in a haystack belief you have becomes a lot wider when you understand that most artists in any medium are all just trying to catch butterflies made up of different colors.


Jeremy M. Tolbert is a poet and writer from Seattle, WA. He has written for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer online, The Original Van Gogh’s Ear, Paradox and Wanderlust Anthologies and also a contributing writer for online magazines, Having a Whiskey Coke With You and Paradox. He has penned the poetry collections, Scribblings from a Beer-Stained Napkin, Talking with the Devil about Love, both out now by University Bookstore Press. His upcoming collection, I'm Catching Butterflies, will be released in 2017 by RAD Press Publishing.

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