categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
I had a critical father, a man who, as I described recently in a post called Kid of the Year, would reply when I got a 98 on a test with: “What happened to the other two points?” I developed a self-deprecating sense of humor in large part as a defense against his sarcastic attacks. I hated nothing more than criticism and rejection.
So of course I dedicated myself to a career that would guarantee a lifetime of criticism and rejection.
Leaving Dr. Freud aside, I think it was a great decision. It has toughened me up enough so that I can occasionally laugh outright—ha!—at rejection. Occasionally. Of course it still stings, but I know that that sting is part of my writing life, my overall writing ecosystem. I was at a writing conference a few years ago when a young writer said he didn’t want to go to a particular party because it would be full of people from a journal that had rejected him. An older, well-respected writer overheard this and said: “If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone at the whole conference.”
So, for most of us, rejection—and frequent rejection—is the reality. But what do we do with this fact? This past spring term I taught a class called “The Writing Life” and many of the established writers who came to speak to the class spoke of their relationship with rejection. Clyde Edgerton described papering his wall with the hundreds of rejections he got while starting out in his thirties. In contrast, I remember working on a novel for four years during my twenties, sending it out to five big publishing houses, and sinking into depression when I got the inevitable rejections. To my credit I didn’t quit writing, but I did quit sending stuff out for a long while. It took the example of a writer friend in Colorado, Mark Spitzer, to open my eyes to a new way of seeing. Mark’s attack on the literary world was high speed and somewhat wacky: at the time I watched him in action he was living in the basement of the mountain house where I was staying and he was constantly writing novels and stories and poems. Just as constantly, it seemed, he sent out his work. With an orange felt tip pen he would crank out letters to literary journals and publishers as fast as he could, scrawling self-addressed envelopes in the same orange, and sending out his stories and poems in the same sort of creative torrent in which he wrote. I was awed. His room–which featured a fishing pole with a line that reached from his bed to the light switch so that he could turn it off from his moldy mattress–filled up with rejections but also, joyously, with the occasional acceptance. He was my opposite and though I would never quite embrace his all-out style and would never buy an orange felt tip pen, he made me see that my own inaction was a kind of cowardice. He showed me the value, above all else, of taking action.
The key, of course, is to battle one’s own perfectionism, and knowing that perfectionism always borders close to (self) protectionism. Just as we develop our own writing voices, we develop our own styles of dealing with the publishing world. It doesn’t matter if these styles are perfect or proper, as long as they, like my friend Mark’s, are effective and have the end result of getting your work out of your room and into the world.
Though I am not particularly proud of it, one way that I respond to being told my work is unwanted is by getting angry, rejecting my rejections. A student in the class I mentioned above has a sign that says “Fuck ‘Em” over her desk and as far as I’m concerned that gets it about right, though I prefer the less pithy “I’ll show the bastards.” Anger, your therapist will tell you, is not healthy. Well maybe not, if I just sits there welling up or festering inside you. But one wonderful quality of anger is that it creates energy and energy is the whole game. What if, instead of curling into a fetal position after getting a hurtful rejection, you waved your fist and sent another story out? And while you’re doing that feel free to get melodramatic about it. Remember Beethoven had a note on his desk that said “I will take fate by the throat.”
So what do we do with this energy, angry or not? One thing we can do it write. Better, sharper stories than before. We look rejection coldly in the eye and say, “No, that’s not true,” or sometimes “Yes, maybe that’s a little true….I’ve got to get better at that.” We write regularly, daily, with a calm fury. We show the bastards. And we send our stuff–better now and stronger and cleaner and more polished–back out in the world, knowing that we will get knocked down again and again but also that, while the rejectors still may be able to shake our confidence, they do not have the power to destroy us. And why is that? Because the bastards always forget one small thing:
We can not be stopped.