I am so discouraged with my writing right now that I’ve been wondering if writing isn’t a form of aversion therapy.
Sorry if this all sounds a bit dark. But I have recently become aware that I misunderstood the submission guidelines of a publication to which I submitted an essay. A publication I have read for years, and hold in high esteem. An essay that I thought was a good match for it, thoughtful, different, and well-written.
Sure, I got the word count right, to whom and how to submit the essay, and the tone and type of essay the market was seeking.
What I missed was picking up the implied message in the submission guidelines as to how the publication was going to inform me of its decision about whether to use the essay. How, as in, you will NOT hear back from us, unless we decide to use your work. In other words, I thought that the submission guidelines stated that I would hear back within two weeks.
How did I miss the meaning of this? What in the world is wrong with me?
It seems that my denseness in this area must come from one of two sources.
First, because electronic devices allow quick and easy responses to inquiries of all types, I assume–naively–that if I submit work electronically, I will hear a response, yea or nay.
This just ain’t gonna be.
A way to explain this paradox is to keep in mind that the ease of electronic communication, while making responding easier, has dramatically increased demands that we be responsive in the first place, and that most of us–professionally and personally–are beyond our capacities to be reliably responsive.
But more to the point, I think my confusion on these matters arises from how my experience of writing, and being a writer, keeps changing. Is it possible that as my writing becomes more complex, I’m simply maxing out, reaching my point of incompetence, a sort of an artistic Peter Principle at work?
After all, when we begin writing, the task is all about exploration, learning, having the courage (or blindness) to think we can do this. We often feel like a child again, creative, at play, risk-taking.
Then, come the long months, years–yes, decades–of developing skill, craft, and artistry. We become craftspeople, even–dare I say it–artists.
Eventually, often sooner than is advised, we want to submit our work. We decide, consciously or not, that we are not journal writing; we want to share our writing, we want to be read. We join–or rejoin–workshops and classes. We email our friends interminably, write letters to the editor, blog, try out new genres. And we, scared but determined, begin to submit our work. We do this hastily, without doing our homework first, and we also do it with patience and care.
But however we go about it, we submit our work, and we become communicators, spokespersons, public in a way that might shock us about our work, our thoughts, feelings, and passions.
Published or not, our identity changes.
And along with this altered identity, something new is demanded of us, and that is that we must–if we are to be read at all–market ourselves and our writing–our product. We must become businesspersons.
What a long way from those early days of playful immersion in creative work! And what a different set of skills is required to make this transition successfully.
Running through this stage, silently present in all stages of writing, is rejection. Rejection, or the threat of it, sits on our shoulder, overlooking our first ambitions, each inspiration, snickering at our earliest attempts to put together a thoughtful line, an insightful paragraph. It slithers about our ankles at every class and workshop, hissing audibly. It hovers behind every blog post, email, or letter, making us question every keystroke.
But here in the world of submissions, rejection is crowned. It becomes our daily companion, someone we grow to know intimately, every scent, wrinkle, and belch, challenging us to wrestle, taking us to the mat, warding off our every feint and blow, and always, always winning.
We learn that we can’t win the battle with rejection. We can’t banish it, can’t avoid it, can’t ignore it, it never loses its ability to sting, and deeply. We can only accept it, and by accepting it, tame it, contain it, make peace with it.
We can only learn from it, and by learning from it, become, if just briefly, Buddha writer.
And that is why we write. We write not to be published, not in the long haul, not in the end. Not to win ‘recognition’, not even to be read, as lovely as all these things might be.
We write to learn. About ourselves, another, a place or time, about our craft itself, and, yes, about rejection. We can’t ‘max out’ with our writing or our artistry, can’t fulfill the Peter Principle.
We can only give up, and in that way fail.
Writing is aversion therapy, I suppose, in the same way that living is. It is so damn painful that the only answer, as philosopher George Santayana famously said, is to, between birth and death–or, creation and rejection--enjoy the interval.
― George Santayana
(Written June ’09)