Wednesday, March 19, 2008

 

Keeping Quiet

It is difficult to keep quiet when you have amazing news to share. But I am going to keep quiet for now. Check back and I promise to reveal my good news soon.

In the meantime, I've decided I am going to write a little bit about rejection, because I know there are many writers out there dealing with it in often brave and inventive ways. I have been thinking what I would want to say to my younger self, if given the opportunity. Time travel is one of the unrealistic opportunities I give myself in my imagination.

When I first started writing--and I mean really writing with a clear purpose, aka publication--I thought there were only two paths to take. The first was that everything would be incredibly easy for me, just like, say learning to be a decent violinist was easy, or learning to basically read music was easy, or learning to basically shoot a bow and arrow were easy. The second was that a career in writing was impossible. It was the kind of thing that happened to other people, much like winning the lottery.

I think that my viewpoint is not uncommon. Any kind of artistic career just looks so magical, it's hard to imagine it happening for yourself. Some people are very lucky and things come together for them at a young age, and they continue to succeed and have little experience with a world outside of creating art. I imagine this is very nice for them, but that it must also occasionally have its own challenges.

And then, yes, there people for whom any kind of career in the arts is impossible.

And then there is what happens to everyone else. No one wants to be like everyone else. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to avoid being like everyone else.

The first thing I ever submitted was a poem to "Poetry," then under an editor who I really liked and whose name I have conveniently forgotten. Getting published in Poetry would, of course, have been like hitting the lottery. I waited. And waited. And waited. Then I got a nice hand-written letter back in which the editor explained that he'd dithered over my work (and there was something else about some French anthology he was working on), and ultimately decided to pass. I was devastated.

In retrospect, this is not a surprising attitude when you consider my binary viewpoint of publishing. But it was the wrong attitude to take. Who the hell gets a handwritten note like that from Poetry?? Said poem was later published in Fugue.

It probably took me a year to get it together emotionally to submit anything else again, but I did. And I was rejected. And all those rejection letters felt like arrows. It was awful. Day after day after day. Ouch, ouch, ouch. And I say this even though my first acceptance came pretty quickly (in retrospect), I still felt all the "Nos" more deeply. I wasn't completely paying attention.

My records show that I started submitting to Agni some time in 2003. I got a standard rejection. I kept submitting. And somewhere along the line, I got a different looking rejection slip with some nice sribbled notes on it. It's hard to be happy about things like this, because a "No" is still a "No." I'd missed the point that I was actually getting better as a writer, and that editors were paying attention and taking time out of their own overloaded days to reach out to me. A few years ago, I had a handwritten note from Sven Birkerts which, again, was nice, but whose significance I missed. And then, last year, an essay landed in Agni. I couldn't believe it. It felt like magic.

If I look back at my records, of course I see that it wasn't magic at all. It was persistence. We always hear these stories about authors who write one story which lands in the New Yorker and which lands said writer a 3 book deal. When this doesn't happen to us, we despair. The actual process isn't a lot of fun.

But I think that the struggle is what it means to be a writer. And it is also only possible to be a writer if you are constantly working, constantly producing and constantly submitting. It really sucks! I remember reading and loving Little Women as a child. It was oh so romantic to think of poor Jo sitting in the attic, writing away. That was what I thought this life was going to be like, and to some extent, I suppose it has been. Ditto for Jo's journeys to New York where she was befriend by Professor Baher (though it took me years to get over her rejection of Laurie and his marriage to that flippant Amy) who told her to write something honest.

There are no guarantees, no promises writing can make you, except that you might be making more progress than you know and that a long view is infinitely healthier and more helpful than a short term temperamental one. Although, temperament is a lovely way to push through a pesky ending that has eluded you . . .

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