Here early in this new year, I’m thinking of how much 2020 asked of us, not only in our day-to-day lives but in our writing lives as well.
As I’ve said in other places, some of us have struggled to write and some of us have immersed ourselves in our writing either as a way to escape the reality around us or to understand what it has to teach us about ourselves, others, and the world around us.
No matter whether we’ve been productive or not, it’s okay as long as the choices we’ve made have led us somewhere necessary to our survival.
If you haven’t written much, or if you have, don’t feel guilty. We’ve just closed the door on a year unlike any other, and now, as we move forward into 2021, we may feel in need of motivation, or at least we may need a way of thinking about what it means to us to call ourselves “writers.”
I’ve been writing for over 45 years, and there have been numerous times when I’ve been tempted to stop.
When I was a young writer, despondent because of a steady stream of rejections, I thought how nice it might be to give up the writing life for a more ordinary way of being, one in which my ego wasn’t tied to the gatekeepers who over and over told me “No,” a life where I could work a job and leave it behind when quitting time came.
Then I realized that writing wasn’t just what I did, it was who I was. If I stopped, I’d be someone else, and that someone else wouldn’t be anywhere close to the person I really was. Without writing, I’d be living the life of an imposter. I had to ask myself who I was, and the answer was I was a writer no matter if anyone wanted to publish what I wrote. So I kept on.
Another truth was I enjoyed writing, and I’ve kept enjoying it over all these years. Nothing gives me more pleasure than moving words about on a page, and I don’t need any external validation to do that. Oh, sure, it’s nice when it comes, but the simple truth is it has nothing to do with what happens for me when I’m alone in my writing room seeing what words can do to capture all that mystifies and astonishes me about this complicated world in which we live.
It’s true that for the most part the larger world doesn’t care about what we do. Accepting that fact can be freeing. You know the value of the hours you spend writing. Don’t let anyone take away the feeling that you have when you do that work.
There are times when I don’t write, and I’ve gotten better, as I get older, at forgiving myself for these down times. Sometimes we simply have to recharge. I know that no matter how long I’m away from my writing room, the life of the writer will always be with me, the work will always be waiting, the blank page will always be welcoming.
The hardest truth we writers have to accept is no one cares if we quit. Once we realize that, we can free ourselves from what constrains us—the apathy of the world, the blows to our ego, the uncertainties when it comes to our talents, the fears that we won’t be good enough, and on and on—and we can write with pleasure because it’s who we are. We can keep doing the good work that we’ve been called to do.
I’ve just gotten an email. Hope fades like a rainbow as I scan to the part where they tell me that my story isn’t a good fit for the magazine and wish me luck on finding a home. This time, they’ve included reviewer feedback. I try downloading the attachment on my iPhone as I’m away from my laptop but it’s painfully slow, so I give up.
I don’t want to read these comments, partly because I dread discovering that I’ve done something really stupid, the recollection of which I’m trying to resist, but mostly because I fear that reading these comments may crush any lingering desire I have to write.
I know, I know—all about the gazillions of rejections Stephen King or J.K. Rowling (not comparing myself to them) got. You just have to persist. Rejection is part of the game. If you aren’t getting rejected, you’re not writing. I’m not trying to be a best-selling novelist, but I would be happier if my stories had a home.
I have been writing for 14 years, and I’m humble enough to know that I still have a lot to learn.
“Rejection is part of the game. If you aren’t getting rejected, you’re not writing.”
I have read dozens of books on writing techniques and on story and the hero’s journey—all written by the Greats. I have found the golden nuggets and tried incorporating them into my writing. I have attended writing workshops where we critiqued one another’s writing.
The net result of all this training is that I came to a point where I had read so much about writing, I couldn’t write anymore. The creative juice had evaporated. I was trying to be a writer and a censor, which doesn’t work.
Walking a thin line
On the one hand, I must write and write and get better at my craft. One great inspiration for just that has been Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming a Writer. Her basic premise is that writers often make the mistake of putting the focus on learning the craft of writing long before we ever become writers—you know those people who sit down and write. I took this to heart and for several months did morning writings just about every day, and after about 100,000 words, proved to myself that I could write. And out of those daily writings, I had quite a few short stories—stories that I polished and sent out to a few literary journals only to get the same message—your story is not a good fit.
Sometimes I feel that we writers burden ourselves with too much asking for permission. I have started rethinking the route of submitting (pun intended) to literary journals. Do I need a license from them to call myself a writer? A painter paints. She puts her paintings out for display and says, “Here is my art. Take it or leave it.” People don’t typically come along and say, “You know, I think you need to make those trees a deeper green and you have way too many stars in that sky. Revise it.” And so I have asked myself why a writer can’t simply put out a work and say, “Here it is.” To answer a somewhat rhetorical question, it is because a publisher (we are not even talking, a film producer) needs to invest in your writing. Errors don’t fare well with printing presses.
It isn’t you simply buying the canvas and producing the whole thing yourself. Now if that painter wants her art hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, her works have to be accepted.
It’s the same with a literary magazine. The editors must decide out of hundreds or thousands of submissions what to print. Today we can self-publish, so maybe I’m whining over a moot point.
But more to my point, the critiques and rejections, which I feel authors face far too many of, can inhibit a writer. I once had a story rejected because the main character, who happened to be a woman, hated (and was poor at) math and science. The magazine was willing to publish the story, provided I changed the character to a male. I am a woman writing about a girl who hates math. Is this really sexually biased?
Last night I had a dream. My husband and I were living in a large house with lots of people. We had a shared central living room and all around it, up and down the stairs, our housemates had their bedrooms or sleeping quarters. One day I was walking down a hallway and a woman was getting rid of an old mattress that had been standing up against the wall for ages. The space looked so nice without the mattress that everyone started relooking at their own areas and rearranging things. We all worked on this for several days.
At one point, I walked into the space that had once been the living room and saw that it no longer looked like a room. With all this rearranging, we had destroyed the very part of the house that we loved. Everyone had worked so hard to make the changes that no one wanted to admit that we had gone too far. At one point we were having a house meeting when I stood up and adamantly declared that the previous living room had been wonderful and that we needed to put it back the way it was. Then I woke up.
I’m thankful for this timely dream because it pinpoints the problem with the constant critiquing: the story you wrote can lose its essence. When is enough, enough? When do you say, “This is it, I have created this work and I am happy with it”? When—and how—do we stop asking for permission?