Non-Fiction: “Excelsior”, by Joan Leotta

Staying encouraged in the face of rejection is hard, and many (including myself!) have written on ways to keep one’s spirits creative and upbeat in the face of a wall of editors who say “NO!” to our work. However, success can be tricky too. Success can cause us to sit back and relax—which is also “death” to creativity. We need to constantly challenge ourselves as artists to improve, to try new things and to reach for higher (more difficult) outlets for our work. Much of this essay appeared on Trish Hopkinson’s blog in July 2017. Her blog is one that is worth mentioning—she regularly posts places to submit and often interviews editors of poetry magazines. The interviews are great reading. Her questions expose what editors are looking for in submissions which is vital information for any writer.

Using success as a motivator

When I am fortunate enough to receive an acceptance or even win a prize, I have adopted the habit or repeating the mantra, “onward and upward.” The three words relate to a Longfellow poem and the struggle of a mountain climber. Although I don’t recall the entire Longfellow poem, “Excelsior,” I do know it deals with a young man, who in face of bad weather continues onward and upward into the Alps with a flag emblazoned with the word, “Excelsior!” The Italian Alpine society was so impressed with this 19thc poem that the young man’s banner word part of their motto.

For me, the call to keep moving onward and upward has been and is still a way to keep myself moving in my chosen field of writing. Writing is a calling which, like mountain climbing, has a lot of ups and downs. (Bad pun intended) The call to keep moving onward and upward, to improve one’s work is a positive stress, an encouragement to work.

As I noted above, writers often hear about moving onward through rejection, using rejection as building blocks to success, learning from rejection. The many aspects of overcoming rejection in a positive way include persistence, (sending the work out again), revision to make the work better, reviewing markets to select ones more suited to particular works. I agree with this approach and indeed, persistence has a hallowed place in my reserve of tools to keep myself going when I get a Dear Author letter.

However, I have come to realize that success also needs prodding from motto, Excelsior!

Yes, receiving an acceptance letter from a magazine or press is a time for joy, for celebrating. An acceptance validates that piece of work as being worthy to be read by the public at large. The danger of acceptance, however, is that we might receive this “attaboy” as a message that we have arrived, that we are in the place we need to be and now need only to keep producing work at this level. Instead, I believe we should take each acceptance as a challenge to move higher. We should not rest on the plateau. Instead, we should move onward and upward, challenging ourselves to write even better poetry, break into even more difficult markets, and try new literary forms.

I love all of the poems I have sent out—that’s why I send them out. I want to find readers who will also enjoy them, maybe even love them. However, I also love the craft of writing. So, while I allow each acceptance to validate me as a writer, I also consider it a challenge to improve myself. The mountain of writing “perfection” has no summit—it’s a moving target. We can always improve.

Fueled by the hope generated by acceptances, there are five ways I work to continually improve my writing. I have found these to bring success to me and hope they will do the same for you.

  1. Seek out journals of a “higher” level (with regard to acceptance/rejection rates and or journals that publish people you admire, but that you have not yet “cracked.” Read the poetry they have accepted. Study that poetry as you studied poems in school. What makes them work? Are they interested in poems in a particular form? Free verse with attention to meter? Edgy topics?
  2. Look at forms of poetry you have not yet tried and strive to write in those forms and find publication homes for your work. Read those forms. Over the past year, I tried Villanelle, ghazal, and haiku. I succeeded in villanelle and ghazal, but those tiny little haiku proved elusive until this year. Last fall I attended a workshop on haiku. Just this past week I read an essay on writing haiku (by a poet I admire) and it added further insights which led to a group of haiku and acceptance of one of that group by a literary magazine specializing in haiku.
  3. Challenge yourself by taking a poem you have already written and transforming it into new shapes and forms.
  4. Challenge yourself with a contest—a topic you have not thought of before and writing out.
  5. Challenge yourself with timed writings, or writing in a particular form or number of words each day. You might not get much that is worth publishing out of this, but it will lubricate the wheels of your creative engines.

Above all, avoid the temptation to regard success with complacency. Acceptances are a call to move on, climb higher, and to reach deeper into our creative selves to craft poems that come before more sets of eyes (and ears for audio poems), and touch more hearts.

Joan Leotta
Author, Story Performer
“Encouraging words through Pen and Performance”

Giulia Goes to War, Letters from Korea, A Bowl of Rice, Secrets of the Heart. Historical fiction in Legacy of Honor Series
Simply a Smile--collection of Short Stories
WHOOSH! Picture book from THEAQ You can download a mini-chapbook of Joan Leotta’s poems at
For more about Joan Leotta’s work at and Facebook:

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