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You’d think that after twenty years of writing, revising, and submitting, these responses of thankful apology, these kind-hearted notes of rejection, would be easier to take. But they hurt, every time.
Writing teachers and how-to books tell you the same thing, that you are supposed to write for yourself. That you will never truly achieve literary nirvana until you free yourself of external validations. Which is true, but it’s a truth like communism: great on paper, terrible in actual execution. Because for most writers, the endgame isn’t the completed manuscript. There’s one more hurdle to leap, and usually it’s not pretty.
In order for us to share what we’ve created with the reading public, we have to offer ourselves to the few people who are willing to read and print our work: editors of journals, magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses. With the advent of self-publishing and blogging, writers no longer have to run through this literary gauntlet, but in order to get street cred (and who doesn’t want street cred?), you have to do it the old-fashioned way.
In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing.” Easy to say for a guy who completed his first novel in just six months, and who shipped off his handwritten manuscript to a magazine for a contest without bothering to make a copy. “So it seems I didn’t much care if it wasn’t selected and vanished forever,” he says.
Murakami isn’t boasting here, he’s just telling the truth, and maybe that’s what hurts more than anything. He’s one of these lucky people born with talent, so much talent that he hardly has to try. In Paul Auster’s memoir Hand to Mouth, he refers to a mystery novel he published under a pseudonym, something he churned out even faster than Murakami’s first, in a mere three months. Or how about Stephen King, who blazed through The Running Man in a single week? In racing terms, these are the people who finish their 5Ks under 15 minutes and have so much energy left over that they run the course all over again. These are your winners.
And then there’s me. I’m what racers call a mid-packer, somebody firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack. It took eleven years to get my first novel published this past April, which you’d think would wash away the feelings of inadequacy I’ve built up over the years. How wrong I was. Was it because I received a bunch of scathing reviews, the ones where the reviewer wishes he could travel back in time to murder me as a baby so he’d never have to read my novel? No, because I didn’t receive a single bad review, but apparently you can still lose in this game, because I didn’t receive enough reviews, with only one major newspaper choosing my book. Good reviews don’t automatically sell books, but the media attention certainly doesn’t hurt. Besides, it’s an honor to have work critiqued by a professional. And as much as I hate to admit it, I feel like what I’ve written matters a little more if somebody takes his or her time to analyze it and discuss it. Simply put, it is a sign of acceptance, and for someone who has subsisted on a steady diet of rejections, it’s a blessing.
I never thought my world would change with the publication of my novel. I didn’t expect Oprah to call me up or Ang Lee to option it for a Hollywood makeover. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a tiny, insane voice embedded in the deep crevices of my shameful brain that did whisper the possibility of all of that and then some. An in-depth interview with Charlie Rose; chatting it up with Meredith Vieira on the Today Show; President Obama holding up a copy in the Rose Garden for all to see. I really despise that voice, because it is the epitome of everything a writer, an artist, isn’t supposed to be, a materialistic, fame-sucking vampire. I wish I could be a pious, Zen master of an author who only cares about his words on the page, but I can’t.
Maybe it’s because I know my own limits. Because I know I’ll never be able to write with the quicksilver beauty of Kevin Brockmeier or pump out a bestseller like The Lost Symbol because Dan Brown, too, has gifts I don’t have. And yet here I am, turning on the laptop this morning like every morning, opening up my Word file and stare at the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard.
Many days I wonder why I struggle to write this second novel, trying my best (which we all know won’t be good enough) to get that next word out so I can finish this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter, this book. Often it feels like failure: the word is wrong; the scene is misplaced; the dialogue rings false. Delete, retype, repeat. I know this makes me a writer. And for better or for worse, there’s always one more story to tell.