My head and heart are full. There are so many things I’ve been intending to write about, so many crises and causes and ideas that demand attention. Yet I find my attention suddenly refocused, stripped down to a single point.
Today I received another rejection from a literary agent on a requested submission. This isn’t the end of any world by any means–and yet it’s what I can’t shake loose. Maybe this is because the other things–the bigger things–are so very big. The refugee crisis. The schoolgirls still missing from Chibok. Racism. Misogyny. Animal abuse. Environmental degradation. Suffering of all kinds.
In this vast sea of suffering, my rejection is only a tiny piece of flotsam. I think I’m seizing on it because of its smallness–because this one thing, sharp-edged and eviscerating as it is, is in the end only a small one. I’ll get over it. I always do. The big things–well, there’s no getting over them.
So I focus on this. A single email. A complimentary one in some ways. To even receive a request for a partial manuscript is a big deal in my world, a cause for happy-dancing and whoops that startle my kids and critters from their beds.
But every rejection is one more in a string of them, and they are exponential. With each one, my confidence flags a little more. My sense of purpose flickers. Each one feels like a door closing. I have six more submissions out, and then–for the foreseeable future–this novel, this story that I’ve labored over for years, will be consigned to a deep dark drawer. It will have company there.
The business of being a writer is fraught with contradictions. A sense of egotism is necessary in order to send your darlings out into the void, and yet most of the writers I know, and know of, struggle constantly with a sense of “not enough”-ness. We revel in words, delighting in their music and magic and meaning, while at the same time grappling with the unshakable suspicion that we’re frauds, that the Grownup Police will appear on our doorsteps one day and cart us all away. We love what we do, and it torments us. Most of us will spend our lives preparing for careers that will never blossom, “job offers” that will never come despite our outpouring of time, energy, intellect, and other resources. There are no guarantees of anything in this life, of course. But when you’re trying to make writing a career, the lack of certainty is even more stark.
There is a reason that the bitter, curmudgeonly writer has become a stock character. Bitterness would be easy. Many choose it. A quick glance at tweets by agents on any given day may reveal a slew of outcries against the sort of behavior agents are subjected to–insults, cajoling, bribes, outright threats. One agent I follow tweeted not long ago that a disgruntled writer, upon receiving a rejection, had angrily written back regarding the wrath of God. Agenting isn’t easy. Agents face rejection, too; after all, it’s their job to sell manuscripts to publishers, and not all manuscripts sell.
When an agented manuscript fails to sell to a publisher, the best thing a writer can do is keep writing. This is true for those of us seeking agents, as well. Bitterness accomplishes nothing. Neither does grief, I suppose, yet I can’t help but feel a pang with each rejection that arrives. The internet is full of lists of great writers who were rejected before publication, and while such lists offer a temporary balm, they have little real healing power. Everyone’s publication story is different. J. K. Rowling’s rejections have no bearing upon my own. Author Maggie Stiefvater says wisely (and hopefully) that writers should think of each rejection not as a “no,” but as a “not yet.”
But “not yet” is still difficult territory. It holds no certainty. There is no map through this wilderness, but there are dragons.
There is no certainty in being an unpublished writer. There is no guarantee that the craft you’ve spent your life honing will lead to publication–which is for most of us not so much about money or publicity as it is about the pure, simple fact that people want jobs that fulfill them, and writing is what brings us fulfillment. But we’re not “normal,” whatever that means, because very few people enter into a profession knowing that only 1% of applicants in their field will ever be hired. The odds against publishing a book are staggering. They’re overwhelming.
So why do we do this? Why do I do this? It’s something I ask myself again and again. Why don’t I just go out and get a full-time job doing anything, a job that will rescue my family from a shoestring budget, from uncertainty, from the afternoons like this one when mommy is moping around the house moaning her tired existential musings on the futility of art?
My poor kids. Sometimes I hope they’ll grow up to become artists. Sometimes I pray desperately that they won’t.
Why would anyone do this?
In the end, we all have our own answers. I’m still working out mine. But I think that it comes down to this–I can’t not write. And to do anything else for forty or more hours a week–to become something I am not for the sake of a paycheck–would feel not only deeply inauthentic, but like an outright lie. I write because writing is how I make sense of the world. I write because stories are powerful, and sometimes they are our best and only weapon against the voids that press in upon us from all sides.
I realize that in this, there is a large amount of privilege. I have a husband who makes a paycheck. He inspires me to forge onward because he’s doing what he loves. I’m fortunate to have a spouse to whom my fulfillment is at least as important as his own. I’m fortunate not to have to write through the exploding of bombs, through the fog of starvation, through constant fear for my children’s safety. Though there are people who would silence me for being a woman, they are in the minority. My books, should they be published, are unlikely to be censored.
And so I come back to the larger tragedies I’m still struggling to face. A planet ravaged by fire and flood. The bodies of infants washing up on Europe’s shores. A leadership more interested in conflict than community. A media that delights in the almost pornographic depiction of all these things–in its power to sow discord and reap fear.
I realize, in the end, that this, too, is why I write. It is through communication, after all, that we will map our way to a better world. It is in naming demons that they are cast out, and in naming dragons that they are overcome. Right now, in this moment, the only way I know of to do this is one book, one query letter, one word at a time.