Writing and Rejection

I was going through some things the other day and came across what we used to call a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). It’s something we writers used to include when we sent out our manuscripts in the days before email. First, you sent a query letter outlining your article (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply in the envelope you had enclosed. Sometimes they wanted to see your piece. More often they did not.

If the editor was interested, you sent the manuscript, in a larger envelope (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply. If the news was good, the reply would come on their own stationery and in one of their own envelopes. If it wasn’t, you got your own envelope back along with the manuscript. I don’t know what they did with the stamps. Most of the time the news was bad.

I had forgotten how long the process took. I haven’t forgotten how bad the rejection felt. It was like asking someone out on a date and being turned down. Or perhaps more accurately, it was like proposing and hearing your intended say no. Curtly. Without any real explanation. Except for that expression on her face which seemed to say, “As if!”

The experience of rejection was soul crushing. I felt embarrassed every time. I wondered if I was foolish to think that I could be published. Determined to never put myself in such a vulnerable position again, I vowed to give up writing. My resolve usually lasted for a few months. Sometimes for a whole year. Then at some point, an idea would come to me. Well, maybe this time. . . .

The envelope I found the other day was postmarked, open, and empty. It would have brought a rejection. I don’t know where I sent it or what kind of manuscript it contained. But I am sure that I sent it with great expectation, certain that the editor would want to publish my words.

I suppose there are other professions whose practitioners experience just as much rejection as writers. Movie stars, professional athletes, and people who run for president (or get elected) come to mind. But I’ve never wanted to be any of those. Not really. I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

The Writing Life

My childhood vision of the writer’s life was shaped by black and white movies of the 1940’s. The writer is something of a rogue and adventurer. He doesn’t really work except when he writes. When he does write, it is in a burst of creative inspiration or is sparked by prophetic outrage. It is all “Stop the presses!” and “Thus saith the Lord!”

As is the case with all childhood fantasies, the reality is something else. Writers are mostly introverts who stand on the sidelines and observe. The work is solitary, often tedious. There are few bursts of inspiration, though I will admit to occasional moments of prophetic fervor. Those moments are usually cut by the editor.

I started writing in college. Not very well. Not very often either. I wrote one piece a year, usually submitting it to HIS magazine. There was no such thing as email, so I had to wait a month or two for the rejection letter to come back in my self-addressed stamped envelope. It usually took me six months or more to get up the courage to try again. In those days, the writing life felt mostly like my love life in junior high school. Each attempt began with a transcendent vision of glory and ended in humiliation.

I used to worry that the editors who considered my submissions would read them with snickering ridicule and make fun of my work. I pictured the editorial team clustered around a table (it was always a circular table for some reason) pointing at my manuscript and laughing (not in a good way). A couple of decades later, when I served as a consulting editor for an evangelical magazine, I discovered that this was pretty much the case. At least, sometimes. “These people want to write for us in the worst way,” the managing editor once said. “And they usually do.”

The writing life really is a lot like junior high. There is a small handful who occupy the highest seats at the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom. Then there are the rest of us nerds huddled on the periphery trying to edge our way closer. There is not enough room for everybody. Those of us on the outside never seem to be wearing the right clothes.

When I started writing seriously and regularly, my dream was to publish an article in Eternity magazine in which I quoted Annie Dillard. Everybody was quoting her in the 1980’s. But Eternity ceased publication and Annie Dillard seems to have stopped publishing too. But I still love her work. Sometimes I pick up her books when I get stuck.

I have been writing for thirty-three years. I feel like an amateur. But I’ve learned that you can’t really trust your feelings. Especially, where writing is concerned. “The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.” Annie Dillard said that.



Now That the Book is Done…

I apologize. I have not been giving my blog the attention it deserves. But I have excuses. There are always excuses. Vacation for one thing. Vacation is that time of year that we set aside to think about the work we could be doing if we weren’t on vacation.

 I have been on vacation at a place where internet access is inconsistent. It is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it forces me to do something else. The curse is that I keep thinking about what I could be doing if I was sitting at my computer. I should go away more often.

 Then there is the book. The book was my major summer project. I just finished it last week. I’ll have more to say about the subject matter at a later date when, to use the language of my friend George, I will “flog” the book on this blog in a thinly veiled attempt at self-promotion.

 Right now I am thinking more about the experience of writing the book. This is my tenth project. My experience with each has been the same. The book begins in a flurry of excitement. The first chapter is a joy to write, so full of promise that the words tumble out of their own accord. The last chapter is also a joy but of a different sort. This is the kind of joy that I think a mother must feel just after giving birth. She is filled with relief that the task is finally done and amazed that she was able to accomplish it.

 In between the two it is mostly hard labor. Some chapters come easily, eager to make their way into the world. Others are shyer and must be coaxed out. A few are stubborn and must be subjected to a heavy hand. Now that I reflect, I realize that my analogy is wrong. It is not like giving birth to a child. More like delivering a litter of pups. After I have written the last word, I breathe a sigh of relief. This is followed by a rush of endorphins and several days of self-loathing (my dog analogy breaks down here). Don’t worry. It’s only temporary. After a few days my self-esteem will adjust itself to its normal level of insecurity. But at least the book is done. Until the editing begins…

Out of My Mind: Just Another Barbarian at the Gate

I was thinking about Annie Dillard the other day. Dillard, who is one of my favorite authors, seems to have gone underground, like Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident. On her website, which she published as a kind of defensive courtesy to scholars after someone else bought her domain name and used it to post dirty pictures, she writes: “I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books, but I used to give two public readings a year. Now I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.”

 During the 1980’s it was common for evangelical writers to quote from Dillard’s Pullitzer prize winning Pligrim at Tinker Creek. I suppose that’s why I will quote her in my next book. Since I started writing seriously in the mid 1980’s, it has always been my ambition to quote Annie Dillard. And to be quoted like her. But every decade seems to have its distinctive voice. In the 90’s it was Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota and A Cloister Walk. At the turn of the century the new voices were Anne Lamott who wrote Traveling Mercies and Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.  Their books have all been far more successful than mine. As a Christian, I know that I should be high minded about this. I try to rejoice with those who rejoice. But I always end up feeling jealous.

Still, I have not given up all hope. There is a general trajectory toward entropy in all artistic progression which suggests that my day will eventually come. Imagine a professor displaying a series of slides to an art history class. I mean real slides not PowerPoint slides. The kind we used to beam from massive humming projectors in the center of a darkened room that smelled of burnt dust. First there are grainy images from classical Greece, perfect in form and symmetry. Then the mechanical imitations of the Roman period, precise but lacking the imagination of the Greeks. This is followed by the primitive stick figure mosaics of the catacombs.

 I find this trajectory of artistic entropy encouraging. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until evangelical writers begin quoting me.