Every Friday, the Hendersons go to Chinese school. Some of my homework:

Mandarin is something I really suck at and I’m not afraid to admit it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings to know I will probably suck at it forever. Same with taking pictures. They’re always blurry because when I press the button, I inevitably jar the whole camera. I suck. Oh well.

The books I write are another matter entirely. The slightest sense of failure in my writing absolutely devastates me.

Behind every painting and manuscript and song is a person. I think that’s what I want to talk about today. Art is not a product; it’s a relationship the artist is offering you. I think one reason why artists bond so fiercely with each other is because connecting with both an artist and their art calls for immeasurable intimacy, vulnerability, and risk. And I think that’s why rejection in this business…an editor with a dismissive “I think I’ll pass on this”…can be so very debilitating.

Maybe, for me anyway, self-doubt is a survival instinct. I want so badly to protect myself from rejection that I attack my work before I even think to send it out.

*

A year ago, maybe two now, I had a really lovely lunch with an editor at a big time publishing house who loved my novel and recited lines from it over and over without looking at a cheat sheet. I felt like a rock star. She was already seeing sequels and asked me to indulge her by writing an extra chapter featuring her favorite character.

Time went by, she couldn’t push the book through the committee, and that was the end of our contact. Whatever had made her run across town in her pajamas to print out the second half of my book was not enough to seal a thing. And in the end, you’re just there with your rejection slip and no book. Just like before. Wondering why you keep writing.

After that, I wrote a second book, a memoir, but was afraid to show it to my agent. I still liked it and wasn’t ready to be crushed. So I blogged about it instead. An editor at an absolutely huge magazine contacted me that day and asked me to email her the entire manuscript. She called me the next day saying she just finished it and loved it, especially the ending scene where Mr. Henderson is peeing and eating an ice cream cone at the same time. “We’d like to excerpt it! I want to blurb it! Who’s publishing the book?” she asked. “Well, nobody is,” I said. And that was enough to kill the conversation and the whole idea of running excerpts.

Now, with two books on my hard drive, I contemplate starting a third and just can’t do it. Why? Because it feels stupid. Because each person knows how much rejection they can take, and I’ve reached my limit.

Instead, I decided to start LitPark, a little corner for writers and artists that didn’t suck the life out of them. I get notes sometimes from people saying they think I’m nice, and I appreciate those notes, but to be honest, LitPark is my f-you to the publishing business. It’s my way of saying, “Enough already! There’s more of us than you so treat us with some respect!”

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SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

30 responses to “Pummeling Ourselves”

  1. LitPark says:

    Glad you’re here, Amanda. (If you have any new stories in Brevity, link them here!)

  2. Renee Thompson says:

    I can relate, Susan. My entire career has been three steps forward, two steps back, but as I’ve gotten older, the sting of rejection isn’t nearly as painful. I’ve wondered a lot about this, wondering why it’s so. And while I don’t have a specific answer, I can say that I’ve been better about allowing joys other than writing alone to fulfill me — traveling; spending more time with my daughters’ dogs; growing lavender. Small stuff, but it’s truly made the rejection easier, and the benefit is that I’ve got more to write about. Yes, writing is my life, but studying Chinese could be a glorious part of it too. Guess what I’m saying is, I’ve learned to enjoy the ride — I’ve acclimated — and it no longer makes me car sick to navigate the turns.

    • LitPark says:

      So well said about dogs and lavender. Wasn’t it amazing, when we were at Squaw Valley listening to all our heroes talk about the business, and how they had all the same insecurities? How many of them thought they’d never make it, how many had thrown away several novels before striking it rich? My agent reminded me about a year ago to remember to enjoy the process of writing, and that helped, too. Not to write as a chore, and not to write out of fear and desperation of pleasing someone, but just to get lost in the characters and the words and their world.

  3. The funny thing about F-You is that while we get pushed to say it – we also keep writing (maybe it just starts with a written F -You and goes from there) in the end the act of writing again and again and again is the biggest F-You of all…..
    So glad you kept writing, Susan!

  4. LitPark says:

    Yeah, you no you’re a writer when you keep going against all outside logic!

  5. LitPark says:

    Um, that would be “know.”

  6. If your living room is currently anything like my living room with the Steelers game on ( my husband is CRAZY for them ever since living in Pittsburgh in the seventies)… you are forgiven any and all grammatical errors! 😉

  7. LitPark says:

    The Stillers game isn’t being shown in NY so I have the radio broadcast via the internet… have to hold them off for 36 more seconds, and then other lucky things have to happen to slip into that wildcard slot.

  8. LitPark says:

    Robin, ask your husband, but I think if both Jets and Ravens LOSE, Stillers are in.

  9. Yes, you are right – everything will have to align perfectly for the Steelers to still make it into the playoffs… puleezeee… he’s absolutely crazy at this point – especially since the season was such a HUGE disappointment with Troy P gone so much…

  10. LitPark says:

    Oh, and KC has to win, too.

    Okay: If Chiefs, Raiders, and Bengals win, we’re in. Ugly season, I know. But I’m happier winning ugly than losing!

    • Phat B says:

      My favorite part of Baseketball is the anchors discussing the possibilities for making the postseason:

      Dan Patrick: With the first nine months of the Baseketball postseason out of the way, the playoff picture is starting to emerge.

      Kenny Mayne: So, with last night’s victory over Boston, next week the Milwaukee Beers must beat Indianapolis in order to advance to Charlotte. That’s in an effort to reduce their magic number to three.

      Dan Patrick: Right, and then the Beers can advance to the National Eastern Division North to play Tampa.

      Kenny Mayne: So, if the Beers beat Detroit and Denver beats Atlanta in the American Southwestern Division East Northern, then Milwaukee goes to the Denslow Cup, unless Baltimore can upset Buffalo and Charlotte ties Toronto, then Oakland would play LA and Pittsburgh in a blind choice round robin. And if no clear winner emerges from all of this, a two-man sack race will be held on consecutive Sundays until a champion can be crowned.

  11. LOVE this. Put it on twitter and my FB page. People who are not writers don’t seem to realize how tough it is, how we keep working, working, working, anyway.

    x Caroline

  12. Brad Listi says:

    The weird thing, I think, is that it actually takes a great deal of confidence to keep working even though you’re getting pummeled. That’s one of the oddities of the enterprise.

    Anyone who’s gotten endless rejections over a long period of time, and still they keep writing? They’re either really confident, way deep down, or else they’re mentally ill.

    Or both.

    Most rational people would quit. They’d say to hell with it and try something else.

    • LitPark says:

      Yeah, it’s the weird yin and yang of writers – the low self-esteem plus the almost delusional belief to keep at it. Although I’m not sure if it’s confidence (maybe it is) or if it’s a desperate need to communicate something and be heard.

  13. Angela Tung says:

    thanks so much for writing this. last year i decided to “empower” myself by putting my memoir online. what did i care if agents didn’t want it (or didn’t even take the time to read my query)? as long as people were reading it.

    but i just got rejected by a magazine – and i still care! ah well.

    • LitPark says:

      Ah, the sign of a true writer. Rejection can’t kill the desire to tell your story! A friend of mine once told me to consider a rejection as the wrong people being swept out of my path. It helped to keep me from curling up into a ball.

  14. Marni Grossman says:

    This is the thing: they tell you that, in order to be a writer, you have to be able to take (lots and lots) of rejection. But aren’t writers typically thin-skinned types? The sort of people for whom one more goddamn rejection seems like much too much?

    I know I am.

    I got tired of pitching and feeling like shit. Decided to nap instead.

    • LitPark says:

      Ha! Yes, I know. And aren’t writers generally phobic about speaking in public? What’s with these readings and book tours? It’s like someone’s confused us with car salesmen.

  15. Great post, Susan…and amen. I was so discouraged earlier this year, there were many days when I wondered if I should just get a job. But then I realized it has nothing to do with how I handle rejection (not well) or being disciplined, or persevering or substituting other pleasures for the joy of sitting my butt in front of the computer every day. It comes down to compulsion. I simply don’t know how to stop writing. I suspect that’s the case with most of us. Our blessing and our curse.

  16. Sue, so glad you never gave up, just kept reinventing the playing field and gave so many other writers so much on your own journey towards a book deal. BTW, also just love that you are such a go-getter that your whole family is studying Mandarin while meanwhile I have 2 kids from China and I don’t study it at all, and one of them studies it at school and pronounces it “hard and boring” and we all totally blow it off and lie around the house watching Survivor on Tivo. Go, Hendersons!

    • LitPark says:

      Gina, thank you for the book, it looks wonderful!

      Funny thing about the Mandarin because it does say a lot about our family but probably not what you’d think. We didn’t set out to learn a language at all. One day, a friend of one of my kids invited our family to his Chinese school. It was about 200 kids, and fewer than 10 of them were not Chinese. They had two hours of language class and an hour where you could choose kung fu, yo-yo, calligraphy, or traditional Chinese painting. We went one time and then just kind of stayed. I’m a huge, huge believer in saying yes to the seemingly random, off-course things that come at you in life. Because nothing thrills me more than having a life I couldn’t have dreamed or invented on my own!

  17. kate says:

    Susan, thank you for this. My friend Amanda sent it my way, and I’m so glad she did!

    I’ve been there with rejection. Some days it’s easier to take than others. But there are those days I feel like giving up the whole damn thing. And then hope bubbles up, and I keep writing and revising.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your writing.

    Kate

    • LitPark says:

      If every time you quit, you find the stories keep bubbling up and you have the urge to tinker with sentences on something you gave up on, you know you’re a writer. It’s kind of like being a heroin junkie, I guess.

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