The Rattle of Rejection

I wonder if I will ever be the kind of person who doesn’t spend a minute feeling the pain of rejection. I mean, did the big boy writers (Mailer, King, Bellow) ever fall in a heap about rejection? Or did they take to the punching bag, the whiskey, the waitress–their own version of pain management–and thrash it out?

All of us experience rejection. All of us. Blue to white collar. Laborer to manager. Kids to adults. Male to Female. Rejection is not race, class, sex or job sensitive. It is an equal opportunity employer.

The question is how do we deal with rejection when it seeks to employ (read: preoccupy us) us full time?

Personally, I pick up the phone. No, I don’t ask the recipients of those phone calls to whisper sweet nothings in my ear or plump up the stabbed pillows of my ego. What usually happens is we reweave the tear in the fabric of my otherwise pretty sweet life by connecting, telling each other stories, laughing, even shedding a few tears. These calls reestablish balance.

Let me explain that balance thing. It’s important.

For me, as a writer, I invest everything in my stories. Craft. Emotion. Time. Thought. Vision. I bring all of me to the table when I write. Even ego. In fact, I let ego come to the table because I want my stories to be the best. I am invested. When the manuscripts go out into the world, they are a part of me. I believe in them. I am cheering them on. (Let me just say, they do not go straight from my keyboard to the wide world. There’s  a screen of critiquing partners who do not let these stories go willy nilly into the universe all puffed up full of ego and no substance.)

When a story gets rejected, it is as if a beloved is rejected. It rattles me. The rattling takes place down in cellar of my soul. (Cue sound effect: footsteps rising endlessly on hollow stairs, stomping out the words: YOU’RE. NO. GOOD. just as endlessly.)

I pick up the phone. I drown out the sounds coming from the cellar with the living and breathing voices of friends. We talk about our kids, our families, our misadventures in the grocery store. With them, I recalibrate. I put the rejection in perspective. It is just one tiny part of a really good life.

Then I remember why I feel the rattle of rejection: I feel it because writing, writing really good stories that mean something to whoever reads them, is very, very important to me. At the very bottom of it all, is the wish, the desire, the wanting to be the very best writer I can possibly be. Rejection rattles that wish but it doesn’t remove it. In fact, rejection reminds us of that wanting, that goal, that direction. Rejection, in a perverse way, reminds us of what we want.

Once I remember that, I go back to work.

As my friend, Kimberley (above) reminded me on the phone today: Success goes to the person who got up one last time.

Austin City Limits Music Festival & Writing

Austin is a tough town.

If I were a musician, I would puke with excitement and fear if I were hired to play to the Austin City Limits Music Festival.  Musicians are given an hour to capture an audience’s attention, imagination and hips. If the band doesn’t fill the bill, the audience wanders. After all, there are six other stages and six other bands awaiting the attention, imagination and hips of this fickle audience.

But are we so fickle?

ACL organizers ask these bands because they are good enough to transport us beyond the $160 dollars we paid for the wristband, beyond the 67 acres of beer laden grass, beyond the  the mundane rituals of our lives.

Don’t we ask the same thing of our readers?

When we write the first lines of our picture books or the first chapters of our novels, we want to transport our readers, place them in the world of our stories; make them believe in our characters. If we don’t do that, our readers drift. They go to the kitchen and make a cheese sandwich. They leave the world of our stories.

But oh when it works!

There, in the middle of Austin City Limits on Friday night, Vampire Weekend hit every note, set every riff on fire, drew 65,000 people to its stage. It was magic.

Their performance was the kind of first sentence and first chapter we dream to write.

The Anatomy of Baseball; The Anatomy of Story

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered featured an intriguing story about baseball yesterday. In it, Robert Siegel talks to Wall Street Journal reporter David Biderman about his analysis of how many minutes of action there is in a typical broadcast of a Major League Baseball game.

Guess how many minutes of action?

Fourteen.

Really. Fourteen minutes in that long (sometimes paint drying long) game. Biderman’s measurement was from the moment when the pitcher raises his leg and  throws the ball to the moment when the umpire calls the play. Biderman clicked a stopwatch on and off stringing those seconds together to add up to fourteen minutes, on average, per game.

Everything else in the game from the manager walking slowly to the mound so his relief pitcher could warm up longer to the catcher walking out to the mound to chat with the pitcher and screw with the batter is drama. The action serves the richness of the world that is baseball.

This NPR feature makes me thing about writing of course. If we wrote down the action moments in our stories, how many pages would it take up? By action, I mean, the inciting incident, the climax to the resolution. Would it even take up a page? Maybe it would only require a paragraph. Or a sentence. Every thing else is texture, setting, character description. The action serves the richness of the world that is story.

Guess how much action the rough and tumble game of football has?

Eleven minutes.

Positively spare compared to baseball.

A Writer’s Prayer; A Writer’s Lie


Lord, let me be brave, and let me, while I craft my tales, be wise:
let me say true things in a voice that is true,
and, with the truth in mind, let me write lies.

That wonderful bit of poetry is from Neil Gaiman. These are the last three lines in his poem, A Writer’s Prayer.  I focused on this last bit because of the way he holds the writer’s lot in his hand. How we must be brave and, even when we are quaking, we must be wise. We must tell our stories true even (and especially) when we are writing lies.

Lies.

So many craft books tell us: “Know your character.” So true. Here is one my favorite ways to get to know my character. I figure out what lie they are telling themselves. Put another way: What is the thing they don’t want to know the truth about?

I think when our protagonist wants something (oh how, they must want, want, want something), they often do so out of the belief that getting what they want will fix everything. It won’t. That’s a lie they tell themselves. Think about how India Opal wants her mama in Because of Winn Dixie. Think about how she has to face the truth that her mama won’t be back. Think about how the lie works on her heart until she can see the truth.

I think if a writer knows their character’s deepest lie, they will find what drives the character, what builds the arc of the story and, ultimately, what will make the reader turn the pages.

Thanks to Bethany Hegedus for inspiring me with Gaiman’s A Writer’s Prayer. You can hear the entire poem here.

Vision is ahead of execution

I am fretting.

About what? You ask.

About this gosh darn middle grade novel I am writing. You see, I have never written a novel before. A whole 24,000 plus word novel. I am fretting because I’ve never done it before. And because I’ve never done it before, I am thinking I will fail because I have never done it before.

You see? Fretting.

Once again David Bayles and Ted Orland’s marvelous little book Art & Fear comes to the rescue. And this bit of wisdom in particular:

“Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is our contact with reality and uncertainty is a virtue.”

Think about that: “Vision is ahead of execution.” That means the idea, the character, the thought, whatever brings us to the paper or blank screen probably won’t be perfect on the first go round. Does that mean we quit? No. It means we write. We take authority for our vision, however fledgling, however new, and begin.

“Knowledge of our materials is our contact with reality.” As writers, our materials are the books. This means reading. This means reading like a writer. This means reading and, as Eudora Welty says “writing consciously with the subconscious voices of the writers who came before us.”

“Uncertainty is a virtue.” We are explorers. This means we will always be slightly off balance. This means we will write from a place of discovery.

As explorers on the edge of something new, the experience is apt to be a wee bit fretful.

Fear not. This is normal.