I won’t see a movie if I find out the hero dies at the end. I don’t gamble… not even on lottery tickets… because I’m a terrible loser. I’ve never been on a roller coaster…or camped outside overnight. Scarcely the profile of a person choosing a profession where guts and tenacity count more than talent.
Being a writer means accepting that 99.9% of the people judging your work will reject it as not good enough. It’s like regularly facing the written equivalent of being told you’re too fat for the part.
I was unfortunate enough to have the first thing I ever submitted, published, an opinion piece in the New York Times. If instead that day twenty-five years ago I got one of the dozens of curt form letters that filled my mailbox in the years to come, I might not have continued writing. But that byline forever altered my life. After a glimpse of seeing myself as a person who writes, I left my job and began work on a young adult novel.
Writers get rejected, I muttered all that year…and the next… as I waited to hear what the editors whose names I pulled out of Writer’s Market, thought of my book. While I hoped, I started sending out queries, book proposals, essays and article ideas, remaking myself into a freelance writer.
Boxers get hit. Skaters fall down. Lawyers lose cases. And writers get rejected. It’s part of the job description.
I figured anyone who taught in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, who lost 30 pounds, and who is still friends with all three of her ex sister-in-laws, can survive having her words spurned 26 times in 23 months.
I plastered my office with quotes from those who had been there… “If it’s approval you want, don’t be a writer.” Fay Weldon. “It’s impossible to sell animal stories in the USA,” a rejection letter for George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” Gloria Steinem.
I found that while the writing never got easier, handling all the thumbs down did. It must be like those poor people who cold call for a living. By 10 am and the first dozen no’s, you can’t possibly take it so personally. I thought of things that happened in my life that were more devastating than opening the latest rejection. Lingering over memories of knocking down a blind woman as I hurried to the ladies room, just as she stepped down from the podium after a keynote address, or having a young man at a party tell me how much I reminded him of Roseanne Barr (her, pre makeover, me looking my best) or finding out at my husband’s college reunion that his old girlfriend is a champion body builder, I was able to put some stranger’s dim view of my words into perspective.
Against the odds, my 27th blind date with fate turned out to be a winner. The phone call that changed me from supplicant to respected author lasted two minutes. Never before or since have I felt such an exquisite sensation. I accepted Harcourt Brace’s offer without seeing a contract. When I couldn’t get my husband on the phone, I drove the five miles to his office. My most vivid memory of that Friday afternoon was thinking as I sped along, that I was experiencing what I could only describe as “a heightened state of euphoria brought on by being too happy,” a condition not conducive to understanding stop signs, traffic lights or speed limits. For that reason I advise that you refrain from getting behind the wheel for at least two hours after hearing that your first book is accepted for publication.
Flash forward twenty years. Once again I am 23 rejections and 15 years into the quest of getting a middle grade book published. My writer friends and I discuss how our rejected pieces aren’t failures… our unwritten pieces are. How being rejected is a necessary step in the pursuit of success, like callouses for an athlete… they show we’re trying. Barbara Kingsolver said you should consider, when a piece is returned, that “you addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.” And yay, last month, I found the right address.
What would I be doing today if I believed Mrs. Feinbloom’s red pen in fifth grade as she slashed all my sentences that began with “but,” telling me that rules were rules for a reason? How would I be spending my days if I gave up after being told 16 times my book wasn’t worthy of being published? Twenty four times? Where would I be if I ignored those who warned that a editor’s spouse’s sour mood or a lousy head cold or a mother-in-law’s three week stay could be as responsible for ruining my chances as the words I chose? As a lover of happy endings, I glad I will never find out.
Marcia Byalik’s new book can be purchased here: Whose Eyes Are These?