Share Your Work Even If You're Scared Shitless
Caitlynn Cummings stands atop a high pile of accomplishments: she’s the managing editor of filling Station (an experimental literary magazine based in Calgary, Alta.), the coordinator for the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, and the published author of several short fiction pieces and poems in various literary magazines. It’s a long list for someone who, only a few years ago, wasn’t sure what she was going to do with her double major in English and Classics.
Cummings was in her penultimate semester when she chose to take a couple creative writing courses to broaden her degree. She found it “exciting to participate in a community” of authors, with whom she could chat about her writing. She took fiction and poetry classes that broadened her perspective about writing, with profs asking things like, “What is your tactile sense of this word?” Through these courses, Cummings says, “I realized that writing could combine all of my interests into a single career trajectory.” Literature, travel, women’s studies, classics, and art history could all coalesce into a single medium.
With her BA, Cummings flew off to Scotland, her ancestral homeland, to study creative writing at the University of Edinburgh. There, she earned a Master of Science in Creative Writing (every taught postgraduate degree given by the university’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences is dubbed MSc rather than MA). After graduating, Cummings had plans to return to Canada and live in one of its literary hot spots—Toronto or Vancouver. However, her partner had an amazing job offer in Calgary, so she moved with him there, hoping to find a modest writing group to participate in, if anything. What she found instead was a booming literary scene: readings, festivals, slams, book launches, micropresses, and publishing houses. Though novelists and playwrights also abound in Calgary, the number of poets pounding the pavement never ceases to amaze Cummings, who admits she has been “peer-pressured” into writing more poetry, due to the seemingly never-ending opportunities for writers in that genre.
She also found the experimental literary magazine filling Station, which was looking for a new managing editor. So with no hope of winning the position, Cummings applied—and you know what happened. “Apply to things even if you don’t think you’re qualified,” Cummings advises. “You probably are. I never thought I’d get the coolest jobs that I did.” Cummings’ philosophy also earned her a job with the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program. In her position as coordinator, Cummings brings two writers to the University of Calgary each year, one as the writer-in-residence and the other as a distinguished visiting writer. Her job gave her the chance to meet and have dinner with Margaret Atwood—an admitted highlight of her job—when the Canadian literary icon visited in February.
On top of applying to every cool opportunity that comes up, Cummings believes that writers need to get their work out there. One of the easiest and most direct ways to do that is to read your pieces in public, “even if you’re scared shitless.” Performing your work will increase your profile in the community, gain you valued colleagues, and let you know what is and isn’t working in your piece. “Plus, you never know who’s in the audience. I got my first publication after an editor heard me read my poetry in a dingy pub in Edinburgh.”
Though Cummings’ resume is already quite long, she has more projects that she wants to accomplish. She’s been re-working her dissertation—a novella set in Scotland in the 1850s that follows the epic journey of a gravestone carver who searches for his origins using the Norwegian runes on his baby rattle—and she plans on expanding it into a full-length novel. Cummings also wrote a play about an Alberta trucker who picks up hitchhikers, which was supported by Calgary 2012, and work-shopped recently at Evergreen Theatre.
And between all that, Cummings continues to submit her writing to literary magazines. It’s important to polish your work and send it off, she says. “Don’t accumulate 300 stories—the good ones should be under consideration somewhere constantly.” She admits that most young writers lack confidence, but it is imperative to develop a thick skin: “Put your rejection letters on the fridge and be proud of them.”
— Matthew Stepanic
Read Caitlynn Cummings’ latest short story in New Writing Scotland 31: Black Middens; check out her latest poem in the April 2013 issue of Alberta Views. If you’re curious to learn more about filling Station, visit fillingstation.ca, where you can subscribe and submit your experimental work to the magazine.