This post was born out of a response to Scott P. Carroll’s blog, Thoughkryme. Check it out.
For the last year that I’ve been submitting stories for publication, I’ve looked at (the growing mountain of) rejection letters as proof positive that after a decade+ of talking BS, I’m actually doing the deal. I write something and send it out, they send it back, I send it somewhere else. Then I write something else. “So,” a wise man once wrote, “it goes.”
I’ve set high bars for disappointment (24 rejections per story before I’m allowed to fret), which has helped, and I do my best to put the various slush piles out of my mind as soon as I submit.
But I got a slew of rejections this past week, and there’s no denying, in the upwell of hope at seeing “Slice Magazine” in my inbox or an SASE in my mailbox, that I’ve been living in expectation and even, I’ll admit, a bit of fantasy.
I don’t mope about the “Unfortunately…” or “However…”, and I do take comfort that they aren’t employment rejections. I was out of work for a lot of 2009-2010 and it. is. horrible., so by comparison, what’s being rejected of mine is an indulgence.
But, it’s also what I want to be doing.
I’m in love with a good story and the truths a good story can tell – about an author, about a character, about life in general – and I write my own stories because I want to see if I can pull that off, if I can make something worth falling in love with.
At the same time, I don’t think I could write in a vacuum. I’m not that Emily Dickinsonian – part of me thinks that part of pulling it off is how many people are pulling it off the shelf.
I write what they call “literary fiction.” All that really means is that it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre – sci-fi, crime, romance, etc. There’s an ongoing and contentious debate over genre fiction vs. literary fiction, how the former is mere formulaic entertainment and the latter pretentious navel-gazing elitism, that the former gives audiences what they want and the latter is True Art that attracts audiences, and what that all means for writers and readers and literature and writing and blah blah blah. It’s all relative and not all that interesting.
It’s not as if Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway never catered to an audience. Those were different audiences, ones that appreciated a higher degree of art in their entertainment maybe than is appreciated today, but it was still just people looking for entertainment.
Anyone publishing regularly in magazines from WWI through the ’70s was making real money — by writing the kinds of stories that would sell. Fitzgerald was part of the 1% in his day, and sold single stories to the New Yorker, Harpers, etc., for the modern equivalent of $10k, $20k, even $50,000, but was always hoping to get off the hamster-story-wheel and just go write what he really wanted to write. And because Hemingway was the progenitor of the kind of modernist writing that’s still successful and held up as the sine qua non of American storytelling, we sometimes forget that it was considered at the time less “literary,” influenced as it was by his journalism and influential as it was on pulp and dime.
Be that as it may, nowadays genre audiences are the bigger audiences, and the money’s in genre fiction. Zombies, sex, and crime-fighting sell much better than do meditations on the infinite by neurotic, idiosyncratic characters.
In fact, hardly anyone writing strictly literary fiction makes a living doing it. Even Toni Morrison and Russell Banks, who’ve won awards galore and had their books turned into movies, still teach. Even Philip Roth – Philip fucking Roth – taught most of his life. And now he’s retired from everything. And thinks that within 25 years, novel reading of any kind will be “cultish.” More good news, thanks Phil.
A mentor/friend of mine is telling me all the time, “Stop writing that stuff no one reads and write a few crime novels. Then you can do whatever you want.” There is something to be said for this, of course. Cormac McCarthy started out writing his own kinds of work – Outer Dark, Child of God, Blood Meridian – that earned him much critical acclaim but a relatively small following and very little money. Then he wrote The Border Trilogy, a set of western romances that included All The Pretty Horses, and he exploded, and they put Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz in the movie, and he got even bigger, and now that he’s back to writing the macabre and weighty stuff he started out writing, it has an audience. You think those studios ever would have made and paid for No Country for Old Men or The Road without All the Pretty Horses? Even though they’re much better books? No way.
But, it takes me long enough to write the stories I’m currently writing, between working full time and living a halfway-social life, and it’s not as if there’s any kind of a guarantee that if I write Westerns I’ll get published – “Ah, Prichard! Horses At High Noon, huh? Finally! We’ve been waiting for you to come around here’s your check and meet your driver and there’s the key to your Upper West Side pied-à-terre!”
Besides, it’s not as if it’s so easy to just go write a Western. Like Mark Axelrod told the agent who thirty years ago slapped a Bond book on the table as an example of what Mark should be writing,
“If I could write Fleming, I wouldn’t need you.”
What it comes down to is waiting, pure and simple. And working while you wait, of course, but most important for me is having the patience to wait while I’m working. I take issue with Malcolm Gladwell’s reductionism, but I think the 10,000-hours-to-master-something rule has its utility. For a guy like me, whom intrinsic literary genius obviously evades, it’s a reminder that the only path to better is practice – a whole hell of a lot of practice.
Luckily, I know that
grueling, incessant work = success
I know it’s not always strictly true, but as a distance swimmer, you internalize this concept to a profound degree. Swim practice wasn’t “fun,” and neither is the act of writing – the part where you “sit at your typewriter and bleed.” But those long, hard, pre-dawn and post-dusk hours when others are in bed or laughing or relaxing, and you’re do something harder than they are, whether it’s in the pool or wherever within you that your artistic crucible resides — those hours do something to you, and for you. They’re a process, and it’s process that makes us who we are. Being a distance swimmer was about 0.05% the handful of miles I swam in meets throughout the year, and 99.95% the endless miles I swam in practice.
Same with writing – pages published comprise only a minuscule part of the work that went into making them – not only the story or book itself, but the “trunk manuscripts,” too, as Beckett called them, the horrible scribblings that should stay in at the bottom of a trunk forever.
That Beckett was ever bad is easy to forget when all you want is to be good and to be good now. But impatience breeds either freneticism or procrastination – neither of which contributes to anything positive – and staying on top of that requires work.
Thus the mantra:
I will never make a living writing.
It may sound pessimistic, but really it’s about humility instead of egoism, about realism instead of fantasy, about not putting the money-and-accolades-cart before the workhorse, about knowing my role instead of assuming I’m entitled to things that I don’t deserve (like that Alexander Maksik novel).
What’s that? Is there a Buddhist tie-in for all this, you ask?
Why, yes there is.
“Abandon any hope of fruition” is a lojong slogan, one of the Seven Points of Training the Mind. About it, Trungpa say:
…you should give up any possibilities of becoming the greatest person in the world…
…otherwise, you could become an egomaniac.
In other words, it is too early for you to collect disciples.
That is, no one’s going to read my stuff, let alone love it, until it’s worth reading and loving. And I should forget the fantasy that I’ve already earned an audience by thinking of a story, and remember that it’s some unpaid intern reader slogging through the slush pile that’s determining my fate.
The tie-in to real life – your life – anyone-who’s-not-a-writer’s life – is that this holds true for everything.
If it’s a passion, just go do the shit out of it. Practice finding out what it can make of you, not how it can make you look. Don’t tell me about how good you are at your job, or how much money you made last year, or who’s looking at your stuff, or what kind of car you drive (you know don’t care about that action), or how great your kid is, or what place you got in your triathlon. Nobody cares! Just do your thing, and do it well, and when it comes up of its own accord, what people will care about is what it’s done for you and what it’s made of you.
Because if you’re constantly talking about something, then you’re always in the fruition – the realization of a project, the fulfillment of a plan, the end of something. I get it – there’s so much pressure in our society to be accomplished, to have succeeded, to have success. To get and live in the payoff. But who really wants to be in the end of anything? What are you doing then, besides just sitting around?
Abandoning all hope of getting anything out of what you’re doing keeps you in the doing and out of the end.
But wait – if you’re always conscious of having to consciously abandon hope in order to achieve that hope, then are you really abandoning it? Is there some guy in the sky with a clipboard waiting for you to officially abandon hope so he can tick your Has Abandoned Hope check box and get the Fates to start weaving up your accomplishments?
Of course not. It’s not causal. It’s just a tactic, one part of the strategy to
get yourself out of the way.
Practicing humility along the way – a side-effect of telling yourself you’ll never amount to anything – helps develop gratitude when (if) something does happen instead of that sense of entitlement or getting what was coming to you.
Anyway, I’m wrapping this up.
Be a badass.