I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, trying to ignore a slew of rejection, along with the expectations of well-meaning friends, and stay focused on the WIP. Sometimes it seems to me that when it comes to writing, as in no other field, there’s a bizarre assumption on the part of non-writers (and unfortunately some writers) of instant, stratospheric success.
“When’s your book going to be a movie?” “Is your book on the New York Times bestseller list?” And, my favorite, “You must be making a lot of money now.” Thank God Oprah’s not doing her show anymore, which featured her book club. Fellow authors have told me that, back in the day, the No. 1 question was, “When are you going to be on Oprah?” Cue screaming.
Think about this for a minute. When was the last time you asked a lawyer, in all seriousness, “When are you going to argue a cause before the U.S. Supreme Court?” Or the owner of small café, “When can I see you on Celebrity Chef?” Or wondered aloud to your neighborhood garage band when you expect to see their Rolling Stone cover?
I think what makes this so galling is the assumption that somehow, writing is easy, that it doesn’t take the same sweat equity as, oh, every other demanding job out there. As coach Jimmy Dugan, Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own, lectures catcher Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) when she tries to walk away from baseball: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everybody would do it.”
In a recent Washington Post piece, novelist and playwright Monica Byrne writes of cataloguing 566 submissions over six years to literary journals, MFA programs, fellowships, residencies, etc:
The data were revealing. First and foremost, of all the things I’d ever submitted to or applied for, I’d gotten only 3 percent of them. That’s a 97 percent rejection rate. That means I got 32 rejections for every acceptance. The two works for which I’m most well-known, the play “What Every Girl Should Know” and the novel “The Girl in the Road,” had each been rejected 67 times.
In the process, she writes, she’s learned that even when success is achieved,rejection is always part of the deal. And she reminds young writers that “Writing must be its own reward, even for the most talented and hardworking writers, or they’re going to have a tough time.”
Author and writing guru Steven Pressfield (to whose name I always mentally append “The Great”) addresses the issue in today’s Writing Wednesdays column on “self-reinforcement,” i.e., the courage to push on past the rough spots—the slew of rejections—to continue with the work you love.
In the movies courage is usually depicted amid explosions and fireballs and epic Technicolor landscapes.
But the artist’s courage (and that of the athlete or the entrepreneur or the recovering alcoholic) reveals itself in a far less cinematic arena—a sphere that is silent, unseen and unheard, void of romance, and in which the artist/athlete/entrepreneur is profoundly, inevitably, infallibly alone.
Can you strive here and keep believing?
Finally, in the Secret Story Lair blog (hat tip to Jim Thomsen for calling attention to the post), Tattooed Writer reminds us of the value of all of those damn rejections: They push us to be better. Looking back, I’d be mortified if some of my earlier work had made it into print. Thank God an editor sent me that form rejection that, at the time, I so resented.
In a long piece about self-publishing, Tattooed Writer reminds us that best-sellerdom is hardly the ultimate definition of success, and—near the end—makes this very important point;
This may be a new world of publishing where you can publish yourself but I put this idea forward to think about.
To make it as an author in today’s world, you must possess the same strengths as authors in the old world possessed. (emphasis in the original)
Meaning: Don’t do something that would have killed your career in the old model of publishing because it will probably kill it in the new model too.”
In her Washington Post piece, Byrne says she keeps writing even as the rejections keep coming, a practice that reminds her that “just the daily practice of sitting and writing is still the best part. And, like I found that no amount of failure would change that, I hope that no amount of success will, either.”
Which brings us back to Jimmy Dugan’s advice to Dottie: “The hard is what makes it great.”