Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rejection and Learning

There was a period of time in high school when I wrote and polished a flurry of short stories, sending them in regularly to carefully researched fantasy or science fiction magazines, one after another and to one magazine after another, occasionally revising the stories as I realized they needed improvement, etc.

That is the process by which one becomes a writer, so they say, and even at sixteen I did my best to follow all editorial guidelines and prepare all materials in a professional matter as laid down by the standards of the industry.  I have to show for that period of my life a very thick file full of  "dear blank" form rejection letters, with about two out of fifty that bothered to say, in between the usual "did not hold my interest/does not meet our needs", that there was some good writing.

I had a dogged determination to continue no matter if I got enough rejection letters to paper my walls, which can be a flaw if the writing is truly not up to industry standard but is otherwise how, "they" insist, new writers eventually become established ones.  I still have that determination for this particular goal and doubt that I will ever let it go.   That same determination kept me going in my oft-blogged job search, amid a slue of rejections that I found far more punishing than writing rejections had ever seemed to me because in writing, at least, I already knew I was competing against hundreds or even thousands of other submissions that were probably just as good as mine in a world where being up to par is baseline.  In the local job search by contrast I was only competing against fifty or so other applicants for jobs that I had ample opportunity via a resume and interview to convey my suitability for, and so I found that kind of rejection much more demoralizing.

I recently dug into short story writing again, digging up what I felt was the best of those high school shorts, utterly gutting it and rewriting it in the space of a week into something that I am quite proud of, something that I can see--now that I have taken the time to learn and dissect what elements of plot and character make for a compelling story--is really much better than what I, in high school, believed was my best work.  I submitted a query for that story and got a surprisingly quick request for the full manuscript, and, inspired by that success, I pulled out another of my favorites from high school that a professional editor had critiqued and said was something she considered quite salable although not her personal taste, and sent that off too to the next on its list of top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications.

The turnaround on that form rejection was surprisingly quick.  And yes, a little stinging, since that magazine was one of the two which had rejected my high school work with the "there is some nice writing though" note.

That's the industry.  I am surprised that this rejection bothered me more, as an adult, than those piles of high school ones that I had always taken in stride.  But perhaps that is how it happens when one picks up the pieces from an endeavor one left off years ago (you know, in order to pursue a physics degree.)  Or maybe, fresh from the job search and trying to put my best face on those rejections, I just forgot how much it bothered me back then.

I have more to show for that pile of rejection letters than just the letters themselves, after all.  I have lessons in discipline and determination, and critically I have an improved understanding of what it will really take to succeed.  And that is solid, unabashed, unflinching hard work, both by putting in the hours and by being willing to critically analyze what is personal and mercilessly seek improvement.  Outside of the misleading world of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, writing is the ultimate in low-paid labor, we all want it so bad we just do it and do it and one day we'll get paid a few hundred bucks for a short story if we're lucky enough and determined enough and maybe only once we've spent that much on postage.  And that's fine, because although we'd all love to actually have a writing career, money isn't why we do it.

If I had just sat there with a notebook full of finished stories and never traded them with slush editors for two-sentence form letters, I might have never even realized what I still had to do to get to my dream, and I might never have become a better writer.

No comments:

Post a Comment