I recently got a very nice email from a person who asked if I might write to her friend, a writer who was seeking a publisher for his fourth book, and whose previous three had been rejected. This is always a delicate thing, of course – I don’t know either person. But I found myself thinking about this idea of rejection, and wrote the following in response:
We haven't met but your friend YYY suggested I write, and perhaps give a few words of writerly wisdom.
I don't have much advice but I have a lot of commiseration. This life we have chosen is a hard one and I think it's important to keep separate two strands: there's the work itself and the reception of same. Now, it's hard to keep them separate, since the purpose of the work is to communicate something, and if, for whatever reason, no one is reading us, that makes the "communication" part moot.
But I can say that, for me, the order of operations is 1) try to do something that really pleases me, in faith that, if it pleases me, it might please someone else - and then 2) send it out to see how I've done.
The truth is, even with these high aspirations, there is always some variance between "how good I think my book is" and "what the world seems to think of it." That's where the difficulty is, I think. We did our best and the world doesn't like it enough; or, we did our best and the world seems to like it in a way we didn't intend. 🙂
Because, also, part of the process of trying to make something better is to listen open-heartedly to what the world says. Before I was able to start publishing, I was feeling a certain way toward what I was writing - feeling pretty good, working from a certain realist mindset - but the world kept yawning at what I had written. So, this "allowed" (i.e., forced) me to seek around for a different mindset out of which to write - one that ended up being more truthful to who I actually was as a person. (In short, I'd been keeping the humor out of it, as well as my growing class-awareness.)
This is the great gift that rejection affords us: it drives us down into a place of deeper and sometimes uncomfortable honesty about what we've done - about where the work came from - and might cause us to ask questions like, "Is this how I really feel?" or, "Is this voice related at all to the the person I am in my real life - the way I approach problems, make joy, entertain others?"
I guess what I'm saying is that this writing life is not just about writing and one of the gifts it gives us is a chance to better know who, at our best, we are.
So, I hope your book finds a publisher. If not, I really feel that always (even with published books) we are working, not on behalf of that book, but on behalf of the next one. In this sense, we are always, perennially, doing warm-up exercises, for that ultimate book that, we hope, we'll never quite get to.
Another thing I might like to mention, and this comes from 25+ years of teaching - we often think, when young, that good writing means “good person” and vice versa. Or, you know, good writing means the writer has the measure of life, is living fully, is fully switched on, and so forth. I always believed that as a young person.
So, from that perspective, publication can be misunderstood a sort of endorsement of one's personhood.
But, through teaching (seeing which of my students eventually go on to publish), and also from looking honestly at myself, I've learned that there are other factors at work, that have to do with 1) ambition and 2) the extent to which one’s skill
Are the “best” people who've come through our program the best-published writers? Well, gosh, who knows? (Who can really judge who the “best” people are?).
But, to ask it another way: are the people with the best “measure of life,” who are “living most fully,” who are “completely switched on” - are they the ones publishing?
Well, not necessarily. The people who are best at taking their mind-product and wrestling it into something that the culture considers "a book" - they are the best-published.
It's a small but important distinction. Sometimes it's that they have the ability to cull back what they're thinking to a manageable size. Sometimes they just have a good natural sense of story. Or they want it so badly (perhaps even too badly) that they won't take no for an answer. (That was certainly true in my case.)
I can think of several incredibly bright, positive, brilliant students who lacked these tendencies, and not to their detriment, if you see what I mean. It's a bit like sports. Are the "best people" scoring the most goals? No, the ones who are best at scoring goals are.
I think of this, especially as I get older and know that, sooner or later, my ability to make books will fade. Who will I be then? Still valid? Good God, of course, one would hope so. But my ego may feel differently. And so that's what I'm working on now. 🙂
All the best,
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This is a compilation of two separate emails, to which I’ve also made a few cuts and amendations.
Great read. Thanks!
Here we are on the cusp of another Office Hours message from George, and I'm stealing time this morning to read through the comments. Sigh .Thank you all for un-shrinkwrapping George's lovely letter to add your own experience.
One summer in the late 90's, I worked for NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group --- the environmental org. started by Ralph Nader). My job: to drive a van of college kids to various regions of upstate NY where we'd spend late afternoons/early evenings going door to door asking for money. I needed the gig for rent, but I also hoped to take advantage of the daily doses of rejection, thinking it might inoculate me --- toughen me up. Having doors slammed in your face takes the metaphor out of it, that's for sure. Still, it toughened nothing. But canvasing in Nyack, Jonathan Demme wrote a check, and Ellen Burstyn, too - --- and it came to me that in whatever ways that life says "yes" to me, I might ought to pass along that "yes" to someone "at my door." Like George, writing that beautiful letter.