The Gift of No

By Art Edwards

Writing

You’ve submitted your novel manuscript for six months, a year, two years. You’ve submitted it to ten, 50, 100 literary agents. You’ve submitted it to five, 15, 25 publishing companies. And all you’ve gotten for these efforts—when people have bothered to respond—is many clever and not-so-clever variations on “no.”

Well, all is not lost. It’s 2013, which means you can self-publish your novel. For a small fee—or even for free—you can publish an e-book or print-on-demand title and have it distributed to many of the same markets popular writers enjoy. No more do you have to rely on the publishing elite to get your work out there. You can do it yourself, and you never have to hear “no” again.

I received the rejection early yesterday morning, the last one, the one I”d been waiting on.

I finished my third novel, Badge, in late 2010, brimming with the confidence of having finally created something the traditional publishing industry might actually want. Ever since I cracked my first Vonnegut paperback when I was eighteen, I”ve fantasized about spending my life writing novels. Back then, such a dream required—and for the most part still does—getting an agent and a publisher.

My last year of college I dated a charming pixie from the august, tree-lined burgh known as Winchester, Massachusetts. She was sweet and funny and doing her damnedest to feel slightly less middle-class, if only briefly. I sported a beard, drank too much and wrote pithy little stories about eating the rich. We were determinedly hip and sophisticated, which in those days meant we had to bear our souls utterly, immediately: in the span of a few short weeks we revealed everything, from past lovers to surgery scars, favorite movies to worst deeds (she claimed to have once stolen a car, but not really: it was her friend’s dad’s car, and all she did was park it two streets over). It was actually the first night we kissed (hours before the kiss itself) that we discovered we’d both been raised ostensibly Catholic. “Oh, yeah,” I told her, “Sunday school, First Communion, all the way through Confirmation.”

“You must have been adorable in your little altar boy outfit,” she suggested.

I raised an eyebrow and said, “I was never an altar boy.”

“Of course you were,” she insisted. “You had to be.”

I shook my head. “Nope. Definitely not. I’m sure I’d remember something like that.”

She pursed her lips but was too polite to be incredulous. Sometime after one in the morning when she finally leaned in and said, “C’mere, you,” I suspect she still held in her mind the sweet, saintly image of long-ago me bashfully performing my duties at the priest’s side. Which was fine with me, I was picturing her naked.

A month later I took her home to meet the parents. We had a fine time basking in the warm glow of my childhood hovel, swapping stories about the old days for the girl’s entertainment. After dinner, my mother pulled out the photo album. I sat across the room, indulging the ooh’s and aah’s, the unchecked laughter at me in my purple bell-bottoms (why is that funny? it’s not like I bought them for myself, I was five). Then came the moment when the girl grew suddenly silent and serious. Her eyes narrowed before she looked up at me and said, “I thought you told me you were never an altar boy.”

“Beg pardon?” I asked.

She turned the album my way, and sure enough, there I stood, eyes appropriately downcast, hands folded in front of me, and dressed in the traditional white surplice over an ankle-length black cassock.

“That appears to be me,” I assented.

“Of course you were an altar boy,” my mother chirped. She turned to the girl, “He’s probably repressed the memory because he hated it so much.”

Sure, Mom. That was probably it.

The sex abuse cases that rocked the Catholic foundations were still vague whispers at that point, certainly in our quiet jerkwater. It was 1990, and we had no reason to expect we were witnessing anything more than the sad but limited dismantling of what had been a long-standing bad joke about priests and little boys. The girl thought it was odd that I didn’t remember, but I doubt she suspected anything sinister had happened. Of course, generally speaking, we all know better now, and I’d be both surprised and disappointed if in the years hence that girl hasn’t at least once recounted to a friend that she dated a guy in college who was . . . “Well,” she would say, “the thing is, he doesn’t remember being an altar boy!” And we all know what that means.

Over the next twenty years I took a perverse pleasure, whenever the opportunity presented itself, in telling people I don’t remember being an altar boy. You can’t always direct the conclusions to which people will jump, but this happens to be one of the topics with which you easily can. “Oh my god, really?” Me (grinning): Weird, right? “Yeah, um . . . Oh my god!”

I’ve only been trumped in my fun once, and I should’ve known better. I was sitting at the bar with my best pal Peaches, an inveterate smartass and steadfast match to my wit, especially after I’d faced him one evening while he was chatting up a young woman and turned to me for confirmation when he announced to her, “Well, I’m not completely full of shit,” to which I replied, “No, but it wouldn’t take much to top you off.” Yeah, I had it coming. So there I sat, telling my little joke for perhaps the two-hundredth time, when Peaches pulled out his smart-ish phone and asked, “What was your priest’s name?” I thought nothing of it, rattled off the name, and went back to my amusement. A few minutes later he handed me his phone and said, “Read ’em and weep, altar boy.”

And there it was, a real story in a real newspaper, Father X implicated in Catholic sex abuse scandal, multiple confirmed incidents.

He was a regular Jack the Diddler.

“Where’s your messiah now, funny guy?” Peaches asked.

What could I do? We got drunk and had many laughs, mostly at my expense.

But I thought a lot about Father X after that. He was a bald, obese, painfully myopic old priest: he had to use a staggeringly thick magnifying glass to read scripture. That’s about all I remember about him, except a vague recollection of his Elmer-Fudd voice. I can, however, say with absolute certainty he never touched me, not even appropriately. I don’t think he ever even looked at me. Believe me when I say, I don’t repress anything. I can tell you what I had for breakfast my first day of kindergarten: half a grapefruit, for some unimaginable reason (hell of a time to try out a new food on me, Mom). I can tell you the last time I peed the bed: I was nine and tried to blame it on the cat (volume gave me away). Nothing has ever hurt so badly or shamed me so deeply that I’ve dug a hole in my psyche and buried it there. That ain’t me.

Which leads to what I think is a rather obvious question, given what we know: why not me? I mean, I was cute. I had a near-perfect little boy body, thin and lean and mostly hairless. The pipe-cleaners hanging from my shoulder sockets made it abundantly clear I wasn’t strong enough to fight back. I wasn’t the incessant talker I am now, so I’m sure I didn’t give the impression that I’d tattle. So what was wrong with me? Why didn’t you pick me, Father X?

I believe in the value of reflection, particularly in light of new information. I don’t wish to pin everything on Father X, but give the devil his due. Here I sit, a man in his early forties who has experienced a long and satisfying sex life with some truly delightful women. I don’t scratch shallow troughs in my skin with a knife, don’t wake up crying in the middle of the night, don’t hate my body (although I kind of should). I’m a lot of this and a whole lot of that, but goddamn if I’m not pretty fucking normal. Rejection, whatever form it takes, always comes with some cost.

Perhaps I should just get over it, but I confess, it has been on my mind constantly, so much so that during a recent trip through the family photo album with another excellent girl, something caught my eye and inspired what I consider to be a damned solid theory. Stretched out side by side in my narrow bed, we flipped slowly through the 1970s. There I was again as an altar boy, there in my fuzzy footie pajamas, there in my purple bell-bottoms, and a page later, a picture I had neither seen nor thought about in decades (because it was my sister’s birthday party and thus I wasn’t the focal point): there I stood in a pair of Lee jeans, back-to this time, and immediately the words I’ve heard a thousand or so times in my adult life from the mouths of friends and loved ones rang out in my head like the bells of Notre Dame: “Pull up your pants.” At this mild admonishment I invariably shrug and halfheartedly hitch, meantime explaining somewhat apologetically that I have no ass (it’s true, I have none). It wasn’t until the moment I saw myself from behind in that random Polaroid from more than thirty-five years ago that it finally hit me: I have never had an ass. And clarity washed over me like a rape shower.

I understand you now, Father X, and I forgive you your failure to trespass against me.

You, sir, were an ass-man.

Lucky me.

Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in authors asking for a critique of the stories I’ve rejected from my anthologies. Most of them ask politely, and I send back the shortest reply I can explaining that I have a rule against giving any sort of critique. This latest round of requests made me wonder if perhaps I was being too harsh, but then I realized that there are very good reasons for me to refuse. Here are the top three:

“You have to collect one hundred ‘no’s for a single ‘yes’”

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”

Dear Writer

By Melissa Febos

Letters

Dear Writer,

We are sorry, but your work does not suit our editorial needs at this time. We sincerely enjoyed reading your proposal—yours is a compelling story, and just exquisitely written!—but the subject matter simply does not accord with our identity. We do not have the resources to figure out how to market a dominatrix memoir that falls above a 5th grade reading level. Perhaps ironically, we also suspect that this story has already been written.

Writer, we thank you for sending us this essay. You are a master of the finely wrought description, but have you ever heard of a plot? Perhaps we referred to it in our last letter as a “thru-line”? In any event, your story conspicuously lacks one. As a consolation gift, we will send you our next four issues, so that you can admire the prowess of our accepted writers’ thru-lines. Happy reading!

Writer, we regret to inform you that your writing suffers from a disconcerting superfluity of intimacy. In the parlance of our times, TMI, writer! Too Much Information. Our readers do not want read about your bodily excretions. They do not want the unsavory details of your most private humiliations. Readers want to feel like they are reading secrets, but they do not actually want to read about your secrets, writer.

Writer, we have done our best to remain polite, but you aren’t you listening. Perhaps our letters are too small. Please consider how many trees we are saving by rejecting your work on a less than a Post-it! Writer, we are trying. Can’t you try harder to assume a more familiar shape? You are making our heads hurt with all this brainy, dirty material. Sex should be sexy. Sex should be serious and sexy, or serious and not sexy at all, that is, serious and sad, and possibly so tragic that you never want to have sex again. Sex can also be funny, but it should only be funny and easy, and it can never be funny and gross and sad and smart. You should know this. You are a writer. Stop trying so hard to be honest. Nobody wants sex to be honest. You are making them uncomfortable. You are making our inboxes more crowded. You do not smell like money. You are making us lose our hard-ons.

Writer, we thank you for your submission. And your self-addressed, stamped envelope. Please rest assured that it’s not you, it’s us.

Love,

The Editors

The R Word

By Sung J. Woo

Writing

We’re sorry to inform you…there were many strong entries…we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.

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.


Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.

Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.

I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.

A few weeks ago I started a literary publication called SPAM Publishing.

Now I have to deal with submissions and the impossible challenge of deciding what to publish.

How do I get myself into these things?

From time to time, I have been known to work as a temp in Investment Banks when my financial situation lingers in the 25-watts-or-less range.

It’s mind-numbing work. Answering phones, scheduling (and rescheduling) meetings and defending a coked-up frat boy’s right to expense his SoHo House membership, succulent dinners at The Gramercy Tavern and executive limos to his Murray Hill penthouse, a mere ten blocks north of the office.

But the pay is great, there’s little-to-no responsibility involved and if you can find humor in the daily patronizing condescension that is heartily served by the aforementioned punk-ass bankers (usually several years your junior) then it’s a decent short-term gig.

Several times a day I would get e-mails that start like this:

To: ML-IBD-Worldwide-All
Fr: Candice Compliance
Re: Relationship Inquiry

The e-mails go on to give a brief bio of the people and their company history and then a contact number to call,

if you have had or currently have a relationship with Randolph Smarmyton or James Picklebum or one of the other senior partners at Super WASP-y Venture Capitalist Group, Inc.

Now being the kind of person I am, it would take everything in my power not to hit the “Reply All” button and begin a long-winded description something akin to:

Candice,

Oh. My. God. I DID have a relationship with James Picklebum and I have to tell you, girl… total nightmare.

At first, he was really sweet. Paid for everything, held open doors, sent flowers; my faith in chivalrous behavior was restored! We made plans for weekend ski trips, compared notes about reasonable numbers of offspring and started looking through the New York Times Real Estate section over our Sunday morning bagels and schmear; I loved Park Slope, he was keen on Brooklyn Heights. It was the kind of argument you dream about!

And then, without warning, it all changed! Turned out, he was a “Future-Talker.” After only our first open house, he vaporized. Suddenly he was working late every night. He had these all these ‘Client meetings’ and ‘restructuring sessions’ and since we were saving for the new house, couldn’t I just chip in just once in a while – what was he, made of money??? Four-time-a-week overnights turned into weekly phone calls turned into emails turned into text messages.

When he dumped me, he didn’t even give me the courtesy of a fucking phone call! Just ‘ping’-ed me from his Blackberry during the company Christmas party:

“No sparx left. U wr fun tho. Gd lck. xo –j”

Me! A “text-ex”!

So thanks for asking, Candice. If I can save just one woman out there from the horrors of pursuing a relationship with James Picklebum, then I’ll know that the agony I endured was worth it!

I would crack myself up thinking about how the Compliance Department would respond to something like that.

* * * * *

All joking aside, there are some seriously vitriolic websites out there devoted to this kind of thing. There’s rateyourboyfriend.com where you can actually assign a numerical value to your boytoy. You can vent your frustrations at HeDidWhat.com or join the message boards at stupidboyfriend.com. You can play Relationship Revenge, or consult the folks at Make Him Pay for fresh ideas to spew your venom.  All designed to make you feel better about not giving out the Rejection Hotline disguised as your real number to the ungrateful schmuck in the first place.

On the brighter side of this mossy-tinged copper penny, there is a heart-warming, only mildly-frightening site: greatboyfriends.com where you can herald your best-friend (or ex) and recommend them to other people on the prowl.  One of those “he is perfect… just not for me” kinds of things, which personally, I think is noble, but lame.  If he’s not good enough for you, why on earth would he be good enough for me??

Nowadays, I defy any single woman to bypass the pre-requisite internet search as part of the ‘Do-I-Want-To-Date-Him?’ contemplation ceremony.

Better safe than sorry, right?

Meh.

* * * * *

In May of 2001, I got a call from a friend of mine to help him out. Would I be interested in stage managing two operas in rep on a tour to Taiwan? It was a tiny production company and the fee was crap, but the airplane tickets, hotel and food would be paid for and the rehearsals would be in New York, minutes away from my apartment.

It took me about three seconds to bleat out “YES!”

When we got back to the States three weeks later; exhausted, drained and vowing NEVER to go through an ordeal as horrible as the one we had just endured; with possibly the most inexperienced and ridiculously incompetent producer on the scene, another friend asked:

“Did you ‘Google’ her before you accepted the job?”

“Google?” (remember, this was early 2001) “What the hell is that?”

She dashed for my computer and flipped open the screen.

In 4.83 seconds, page after page reported an embarrassing number of cases in appellate court from the New York chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802, after countless offences had been made by said producer against said union members.

We could have saved ourselves weeks of torment, despair and sleepless nights if we had just performed a simple 4.83-second “Relationship Inquiry.”

If I had done that though, I would never have seen the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Theatre, met a brilliant artistic collaborator, eaten a 100-year old egg (disgusting, btw) or gotten a tattoo of the first phrase I mastered in Chinese: “Children to the stage, please”.

* * * * *

You know, if we performed due diligence before we did every little thing, think about how much fun we would miss out on.

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder a lot. “Why?” is almost always a futile question, with one answer contradicting another, if any knowable possibilities exist. And in this case, I’m not sure they do exist. I used to wonder about the “Why?” of my own failed ambition. Then I realized where publication had gone and how it could only descend into an even worse abyss. “I was addicted to cocaine” must be the first line of a thousand memoirs.