I’m often asked: How do you do it? How do you keep writing after the rejections?
Of course, only my writer friends ask me this question. My regular friends are unaware of my inner struggles. And I would say that most people don’t realize the struggle a writer faces day after day unless these people are in the arts as well.
(I base this premise on the lack of reviews for books by authors who have yet to hit the bestseller list. Too few reviews. And I think if readers understood what a review means to a struggling artist — even a negative one because we learn from them — they would take the time to leave a comment.)
A Lesson to Learn
Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at thirty-one, even though he was a professor at Dominican College in New Orleans and much loved by his students who marveled at his wit.
Why would such a talented young man take his own life?
He submitted his manuscript to publisher Simon & Schuster. It reached editor Robert Gottlieb. And though Gottlieb considered Toole talented, he thought his comic novel was pointless.
Toole revised his novel several times, but Gottlieb remained unsatisfied. And the author shelved his novel after literary figure, Hodding Carter Jr., rejected it as well.
“Suffering from depression and feelings of persecution, Toole left home on a journey around the country. He stopped in Biloxi, Mississippi, to end his life by running a garden hose in from the exhaust of his car to the cabin.”
Only after his death and through the tenacity of his mother, Thelma Toole, did Louisiana State University publish his award-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces — eleven years after his suicide.
In 1981, a year later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Who among us has not experienced a bit of paranoia after that first, second, third, or hundredth rejection email? Or THE worse, no email at all?
The thing that helped me to get over that paranoia of rejection (POR) — besides Earl Grey and Golden Oreos — was to decide what I considered success.
I asked myself:
- Does my success mean money?
- Am I successful if I achieve fame?
- Will this make me happy?
- Will money and fame motivate me to continue to write?
After much lip-biting and fondling of my revolver, I decided. One. ONE. The almighty power of one. If I had one reader, one someone, not family, or friend, who bought my book, read it and liked it — that would be my definition of my success.
(ProbeNote: The .357 revolver reference — Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. A retired detective plays with his dad’s gun every night until the killer lures him back to an old case. Excellent read.)
So all the dark, lonely years I labored over my novellas and YA novel wondering if someone would ever read them, I harbored the thought of one. Just one.
Not that in the beginning I didn’t have lofty notions of success. I often envisioned my appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show after the debut of my YA novel. Every night I taped JK and watched him in the mornings before I began writing.
I came up with clever answers for all of his questions. But being the reclusive introvert that I am, I realized my appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show wouldn’t result in my success or happiness. Others would see it as success, but it would not be a success for the individual who I am.
One. One is my success.
What is your definition of your success?
- Jack London’s nearly six hundred rejections are on display at his California estate.
- During Melville’s lifetime, Moby Dick failed to sell its needed 3,000 copies.
- Fitzgerald earned $33.00 in royalties the last year before his death.
Appearing on a talk show?
- Faulkner, in 1936, underwent electro-shock therapy and anti-alcohol injections at the Wright Sanatorium in Mississippi.
- Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s mistress, said of her famous lover: “He was a vicious drunk, one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Should we measure success in terms of fame and fortune?
In the book Write. Publish. Repeat., the authors Sean M. Platt and Johnny B. Truant offer the following advice to writers:
To the gamblers: You’re not going to have that one-in-a-million hit, so stop hoping for it and keep writing.
To the skeptics: You don’t need to have that one-in-a-million hit … because you can keep writing.
I sum up my advice to aspiring writers with two tidbits that helped me out of my darkest hours.
- Decide upon a realistic definition of your success.
- Stay drunk on writing.
If your definition turns out to be only money and fame, then my advice is to quit writing now. Because you are no longer writing for the love of it or for yourself, but for some material something that will probably not bring you the desired happiness or fulfillment you seek.
Hey, that’s my advice. And I’m nobody but a struggling writer doing what she loves most. Emily Dickinson says it best.
What is your definition of success. I love hearing from you.