I grew up on stories of writers rowing tirelessly against the stream of rejection. Romantically, they died before being published, received no more than a pittance for works later deemed “classics,” or died trying to write a second novel after a glorious first. I relished the kind of story in which the writer tries and tries, papering a small bathroom with rejection letters fromThe Atlantic and The New Yorker, and on the day when she is taking her last quarter to buy an orange and a loaf of bread she discovers a letter in her mailbox telling her that her manuscript has been accepted. It never occurred to me that it would be easy, this publication thing, but I always had a secret pilot light of hubris that made me think that I was special and possibly immune to Business As Usual. Although I am usually self-critical to the point where I can barely leave the house for fear of exposure as a fraud, I have allowed myself florid fantasies of publication, critical acclaim, book tours and (gulp) a bespectacled and literary sort of fame.
For years there was a standoff: I thought maybe I could write something good enough but I was pretty sure I couldn’t write anything good enough. I wrote all the time – papers about John Donne and Watteau, then papers about asbestos litigation and moot court briefs, and finally real briefs. My need to put words in some elegant and persuasive order was satisfied throughout those years, and I mostly forgot about writing for myself, to say something important to me in the hopes that it might set fire to another soul. Quite honestly, writing about asbestos litigation has that kind of effect.
In the past year, I have come back to writing for myself, and my writing has caught the eye of people willing to pay me for words. Not my words, mind you; I have spun their ideas from straw into gold, following directives as to length, tone, and level of complexity. Occasionally I write something and submit it for publication. Always I have the fantasies again about being Discovered, vindicated, feted and worshipped. Always, I get the rejection letter and accept it with a chastened gulp of acceptance. I would not, after all, want to join a club that would have me as a member.
Recently I wrote a piece I really loved. It was a story I held back, even when I was at my lowest ebb and felt a desperate need to push “publish” on Open Salon and dull my pain with the crack that is approval. I polished it, put it away, went at it again and sent it to friends who are astute readers and writers in their own right. I accepted their criticism, made some changes, and sent the piece out, aiming as high as Icarus with his fatal, waxy wings. As I waited for a response, I sometimes let myself imagine an acceptance. Immediately afterwards I reminded myself that publishing is brutal these days, that everyone and his uncle thinks they can write, and that most bestsellers are written by Sarah Palin’s ghostwriters rather than by Michael Chabons. And I’m no Michael Chabon, on my best day.
One week and one day later, it appeared in my inbox. “Dear Ann Nichols, Thank you for your recent submission. Unfortunately…” It wasn’t going to happen, this time, my dues were not yet paid, my wings were reduced to drips of hot wax by the heat of the sun. I sulked, briefly, and then resolved to get back on the horse that bit me. I was not yet a candidate for some new Algonquin Round Table, but maybe I could shop it around to magazines. Every story about a struggling writer has at its heart a real person who wanted not to become an inspirational story, but to become a published author. Every one of them had that bright flame of pride and hope, and every one of them suffered when it sputtered in the darkness of rejection.
I will try again, this very day. I can’t paper my bathroom with rejection letters, because they now come electronically (although I suppose I could print them out). Perhaps, on the day when the paychecks come late due to some bank error, and I leave the house with my last ten dollars to buy a gallon of organic milk and a box of Kleenex with lotion, my phone will buzz and there it will be: “Dear Ann Nichols, Thank you for your recent submission. We would like to include it in…”.