Failure To Keep Faith With Yourself

The writers who make this mistake must number in the millions.

A typical case goes like this: The young writer starts out fired by ambition and a sense of mission and purpose. Every young writer feels that he or she has a great untapped talent bursting to get out, and that with a little effort that talent is sure to be recognized. So let's call our typical young writer Heidi Smith.

So what happens to Heidi, who at twenty is fired up by her ambition and sense of mission and purpose?

Okay, first she writes a little short story and submits it to a literary magazine. Gets a printed rejection. Tries a few others. More printed rejections: Sorry, but not quite right for us.— The Editors.

She writes a couple more short stories. Gets rejected again. Heidi can't figure it out. She knows she's got talent. She feels her fire. She's worked hard on these stories. How come the rejections?

To find out the answer, she decides to take a short-story writing course. She writes a few more stories, gets some encouragement from her instructor and fellow students. Finds out what she was doing "wrong." Not enough character development. So in goes some more character development. Too much introspection. Cut the introspection. Sort of like fiddling with a cake recipe until it comes out right. Sweeten it up. More sugar. More shortening. A couple more eggs and it'll be just right.

Soon Heidi has a pile of short stories in various stages of development. Her creative writing teacher is high on one or two. They make the rounds of the lit mags. The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Swanee Review. More rejection.

But then something happens that's practically a miracle. Instead of the regular printed rejection form signed "The Editors," Heidi begins to get a personal note scribbled on the rejection form: Try us again.

Encouraged, she cranks out a few more stories. Reads some more creative-writing books. Takes some more classes. Polishes the stories until they gleam. Starts submitting again. More rejections. The young writer is now through college. Maybe twenty-four, twenty-five years old. Been writing for four or five years and has not gotten a single thing published, except for perhaps a small poem about Christmas in a local paper. Heidi has been supporting herself with shlock jobs. Clerking at the 7-Eleven. She begins to think, How can I ever make a living at this when I can't even make a single sale?

Then her creative writing instructor points out how tough the short-story market is to crack. Why not try a novel?

Well, okay, why not?

The next two years are spent writing her novel, Dreamtime. She polishes and hones every word. Okay, it comes time to sell it. Heidi (by this time no longer a young writer) tries to get an agent. Ooooooooo, not so easy. Queries and sample chapters are sent out; more rejections come back. Some of them say nice things. We like your style. Nice characterizations.

After six months or a year of trying, an agent finally says he'll take Dreamtime on. In the meantime, Heidi has made a single sale to a not-too-bad literary magazine, so things are indeed looking up. And another story came in sixth in a contest. Sixth out of three hundred entries. The trouble is, the "sale" is paid in copies of the magazine and the contest only gives a certificate. Heidi has still not made a dime in her profession after seven years of working hard at it.

Dreamtime starts to make the rounds. Arbor House, Athe-neum, Atlantic Monthly Press, Bantam Books. Some of the editors send along kind notes. Great setting. Loved your use of language. One or two even write detailed suggestions for revision. Clear up some confusion in the dream sequences. Make the mother more sympathetic. Put the engagement scene earlier in the book.

By this time Heidi is damn tired of clerking at 7-Eleven and driving a fifteen-year-old car. So she says to herself, I'd better get some training so I can get a real job and support my writing habit. Become a dental hygienist. Or maybe get a teaching job. Something that'll sustain me until I can get a novel published.

So a year is spent getting a teaching credential. And then not much writing gets done the first year of teaching because it's tough starting a new job. And she has a boyfriend now and they've been talking about getting married and, well, Heidi would like to be married ...

So the once-young writer gets married and has a job and hasn't written anything in two years, and so the hell with it until maybe next summer. And then next summer there's a trip to take, there are books to be read, summer school to go to to sharpen one's teaching skills. There's a baby on the way.

So maybe next year, she tells herself. Maybe next year she'll get down to it. And soon Heidi is thinking of herself as someone who will someday be a writer. Maybe when she retires. She has, without really knowing it, broken faith with herself.

Once faith is broken, the writer is unlikely to go back to writing, ever.

Heidi was following the common path of most writers who eventually succeed. First the rejections, then the learning of craft, then more rejections, then personalized rejections, then small sales, and then the big one that makes you an overnight success. It's a long road for most writers, and many quit just as they complete the building of their launching pad, but before their rocket is launched.

There's another kind of losing faith, a very serious kind. It's often committed by the writer who can't quite find his way to the top of the mountain, a writer who has met with some success, but feels he or she hasn't yet made it. Maybe the writer has sold a few paperback originals. Or even a hardback that maybe got good reviews but only mediocre sales. If only there was some way to reach inside, this writer thinks, and pull out a little more talent, a little more something ...

With each novel, as the writer finds himself not on the best seller list, he feels more and more frustrated. To relieve the terrible feeling of frustration, the writer might drink. Take a little speed. Cocaine. LSD.

Under the spell of the drug, the writer feels a sudden burst of optimism; the cloud of frustration dissipates. The writer believes he sees clearly for the first time in his life and plunges full speed ahead toward a new horizon.

Which, of course, is like a lemming heading for the sea.

Booze and drugs may be nice recreation, but the moment the writer looks to them for inspiration, he is lost. The writer loses faith with his own creativity and makes a deadly mistake, one that might finish him not only as a writer but as a human being.

So if drugs aren't the answer, what is the answer to discouragement?

Discouragement is generally a result of envying those who are more successful, or get more critical acclaim, or don't ever get rejected.

I have not gotten rich writing. Not yet, anyway, though I'm working on it. I'm not starving, but I'm not driving a Rolls either. I often have to turn to my Visa card for help between royalty checks. I've not found the mother lode in publishing, but I have had other rewards.

Frequently I go to a local college campus to do research in its fine library. The college is located on a high hill where on a clear day you can see most of the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see the freeways and the freight yards and the skyscrapers in San Francisco, and planes landing and taking off at three busy airports. You get a strong feeling of the hubbub of modern life, people hustling from place to place in pursuit of—what?

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