The Writing Life – The Rollercoaster


So, yesterday I just found out from The Editor that BITTER ANGELS has done well in its first month. Very well, in fact. I was, as you can imagine, thrilled to hear it. I was also relieved, because, well, you know, it might easily not have done well and that would have been much less good.
I also realized I was well and truly back on the rollercoaster that is a career in professional writing.
Everybody (well, almost everybody) knows that when you’re setting out to be a professional writer, you face rejection. How much rejection?
Well, I climbed aboard the ride back when the world was new, no one had heard the word “internet,” there were still jobs in Detroit, and I was typing manuscripts on my pale blue Smith Corona Selectric (which I abandoned without a backward glance for a Commodore 128 when I hit college). Back then, of course, you mailed out your manuscripts and the replies were mailed back. Little envelopes meant acceptance. Big envelopes meant rejection, because they’d sent the mss. back with a little slip of paper attached telling you what you already knew, that they weren’t buying this one. Some of them were nice, some of them were rude, most of them were forms. All of them were painful.
I got my first rejection slip at 16. It was from Young Miss magazine. I saved it, and I continued to save every slip I got after that. Then, I sold my first story to this micro-zine out of New Jersey. Immediately after that I sold another to a slightly bigger mini-zine out of Chicago.
This is it! I thought to myself. I have arrived! From now on there will be no more big envelopes!
You can guess how well that prediction turned out.
After that it was a solid year of collecting more little slips. And another. And another. Oh, there were sales here and there, but there were way more rejections than anything else.
On the tenth anniversary of that first rejection slip I threw a party. For a decoration, I took all my rejection slips and taped them together into a banner and hung it around the living room. One of my roommates measured it. It came out to 55.5 feet. I was averaging 5.5 feet of rejection per year.
Actually, I was very proud of myself. To me this was a sign I was really working at my dream.
But I should have paid attention to the way that work was going, because it was predictive. Even if you do manage to hit the top, this is a precarious business and it is full of things one cannot control. Publishers get bought up and bought out, lines suddenly change direction, technological changes turn the world over, whole economies crash. And that’s just on the big scale. On the small scale, covers can be poor quality, marketing plans can fail, a Big Name can come out with a book that absolutely swamps yours, and you can be dropped, or simply not renewed.
All of the above have happened or happening to me and to authors I know, and these are the times that not only try our souls, they are the the times that separate the adults from the kids. Because the blackest period of writer’s block is nothing compared to the call from your agent telling you you are not wanted by the people who last week were assuring you they loved you.
This is the time when you rage. You storm, you cry and you throw things. You wear out your friends’ patience wailing about the unfairness of it all.
But then you dig deep. You must. Because the only way, the only way out is to write something new and to send it out again. This is not getting back on the horse, because eventually you and that horse might come to an understanding. This is more like wrapping the bungie around your ankles and heading for the edge of the cliff once more, because you and publishing are never going to come to an understanding any more than you and the laws of physics are.
But if you understand that, if you can go in knowing that the rejection will come again as sure as the drop after that first high hill, it can be one hell of a ride.