Maybe I didn’t get held enough as a child because every rejection my writing receives generates depths of unpleasant emotion for me: anger; embarrassment; shame. I become bereft in an entirely childish way. It starts with a pain in my chest and the gnawing sense that I am a fool, a fool to think all that time at desk with computer means anything to anyone but me.
Funny then that I should choose a writer’s life.
After all, as a young woman I briefly flirted with a life in the theater before thinking better of it; I couldn’t stand the rejection, I reasoned. In college, I helped with student films and became acquainted with the kind of actor who would stand under a hot sun for most of a day, submitting to an inexperienced director’s vision, a vision often dependent on cultural stereotypes, emotional cliches, and embarrassingly wooden dialogue.
Later still, in my position at a small non-profit film company specializing in AIDS prevention videos, I’d seen first hand the desperation of the open casting call––a line of young people winding out the door and down the hall. Each had big actor dreams, and waited patiently, trying to gain a small part in a low-budget production with nominal distribution. My heart broke for them. The director had basically already decided to cast members of a theater troupe he already knew well.
The poor actor: he needs others to practice his craft––lines to memorize, actors with whom he can perform, an audience, a stage. Thankfully, a writer can write with only herself, paper, and pen.
Even so, at some point, I found my writing felt unfinished if its only readers were my mother and a few friends. I wanted an audience and hoped my work would join in conversation with that of writers such as George Saunders, Lydia Davis, and others who take big risks and play small games with language and story.
So I sought publication, experienced a new form of vulnerability, and faced “NO!” Well, more like, “No thank you,” and sometimes even a gentle note of encouragement. Even on my best days, the nos sting.
Nevertheless, I keep submitting and sometimes, thankfully, a “YES” arrives.
Both experiences have taught me the following:
- New work must be created even as old work is being submitted.
- Re-submit rejected pieces to different publications as soon as possible.
- Submit many pieces at once, so many you can’t possibly track them and therefore, aren’t pining away for that giant thing and find sleep is no longer possible nor remembering to eat.
- Don’t fanaticize about what it would mean to win. (i.e. Don’t consider the logistics of moving across country if you were, for example, to earn the big fellowship. Don’t plan what you world wear the night of the dinner they’d surely hold in your honor. Don’t spend imaginary prize money on imaginary trips to the West Coast of Africa, Buenos Aries, or Laramie, Wyoming, which you last visited as a child, and which you suspect will soon show up in your fiction. Nor should you allow yourself to get giddy thinking about what publication in such-and-such journal would mean for your career and how Lydia and George might greet you at the lectern just before your big reading begins.)
- Instead keep writing! Even when you feel you have lost all hope––write.
- Talk to other writers about how they experience rejection. Encourage them to go into great detail. Notice their facial expressions and the gestures they make with their hands.
- When publication does occur (and it’s bound to, if you keep submitting) celebrate.
- Celebrate and notice how little publication changes your life. Apparently, you are still the same person waiting for things, pining, trying to let go of your fantasies, and avoiding your writing desk.
- Nevertheless, whatever glee you feel upon publication, ride that feeling into the creation of new work.
- Keep writing!
Roberto Bolaño’s fiction makes this terrible dilemma––the search for audience––seem equally pathetic and heroic. He created a recurring character, a man who shows up in different guises throughout his work—the minor poet, the failed writer, the artist others don’t see. Whenever I come across these men, my body trembles. Bolaño’s talking about me, says the feeling, someone who writes, and struggles to write, even though no one waits for my words. The words come (or don’t come) and it’s nothing to no one but me.
But sometimes, strangely, recognition of such “failures” brings comfort. I am in community with other artists, writers, much like myself. Together we face obscurity. After all, the likelihood that any writer will be celebrated or remembered for any length of time is so slim as to be non-existent.
What’s it to Shakespeare that we read him today? Who can say that 10,000 years into the future, humanity, should it exist, will even remember his name? If a great writer like Shakespeare could create in the face of such total obscurity, why then can’t I?