|Breughel's "Icarus" - it's hard to even find his legs here, disappearing into the ocean|
When your creative work is repeatedly rejected, it begins to feel definitive. You've submitted your novel for the hundredth time - your painting, your audition piece, your CD, whatever it might be - and 'they' have turned you down. Again. It must mean they are right. You are a failure.
When this happened to me three times in a week, my mind began to reel. I found myself mulling over WH Auden's - Musee des Beaux Arts. "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters, how well they understood its human position..." Later in the poem, Auden writes, "In Brueghel's Icarus for instance how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster...."
I feel like Icarus, flying with wax wings. I got so close to the sun that I forgot the danger of falling. Then I splashed. I heard my own forsaken cry - and for ME it has been an important failure.
And this is what's painful. The fact that for others it may not seem an important failure. They turn quite leisurely from it. A friend of mine was rejected this week by an agent who read her chapters with interest but in the end "didn't feel passionately enough about the writing or the story..." You can hear in that phrase what Auden articulates in his poem: That this agent "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."
We don't turn from our own disasters calmly. It's awful to understand the minor splash of our own failures and the very minor impact they make on the world around us. It's such a loss of dignity. The fact that you've become just another failed writer or actor or musician in the world. It's also the I told you so, often unspoken, we imagine from those who didn't try. I told you that failure was far more likely than success. I too could have tried like you did. But I knew better. I was wiser. And I have somewhere to get to.
But yet we got so close - we began to soar on the wings of hope. Right before the meltdown, we began to think that this time we might make it. Then when we didn't, it seemed that nothing could be more ordinary than our own fated artistic careers.
Especially when considering other struggles people endure. The loss of limb in random acts of violence - like the Boston bombing. I was humbled when I saw a news clip about a particularly courageous victim yesterday, as I struggled with self pity and rejection.
Except this latest artistic effort of mine, so many times rejected, has been for me the most important. It took a lot of guts to write, never mind time. Oh, the hours and hours I've spent writing and rewriting the damn thing. And it's not by any means my first taste of failure and rejection. I've been doing this for years. Learning to fly. Yes, Icarus knew how to fly! No small feat. That's why he strapped on his wax wings and heading off the cliff edge. Getting better at it. Getting higher.
Some rejections are particularly soul crushing. It might happen with age and the accumulation of other believers - who get on board with your project. But then a failure means more unrewarded hope - for those other believers as well as for you. You sense that you are running out of chances.
It should be comforting to think of those who've come on board with your projects. The many who have tried to see your work through. Your family. Your friends. Your beloved beta readers, not to mention the nurturing teachers in MFA programs and literary agents who have gone to bat for you - putting time and energies behind your efforts. Only to be told that although your book is beautifully written, with characters who linger in the mind and will not be soon forgotten -(yes I have heard these things, and so have you - words you most want to hear as a writer, about the quality of your work)...
...only to be told that the market is so tough right now. That they don't know how they'd break it out. That they are very sorry.
I've been told that rejecting my novel was heartbreaking. That even a story as well told as mine, my kind of books known as midlist, and I quote, "are exactly the ones that have become homeless since publishers began to cut their lists a few years ago." This rejection went on to say: "I cannot say how sorry I am or how glad I would feel to read anything you write in the future."
Yes, you can be encouraged while also feeling pathetic and embarrassing.
Because you find that your hopes are irrelevant. In fact, 'good writing' is irrelevant to a publisher. You'd be better off writing a bodice ripper. I'm reminded of John Cleese in the film Clockwise: "It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope."
Hope keeps us going forward into battle - keeps us trying. The audacity of hope is the great American Dream, after all. Believe enough, click your heels together, and you can make your dreams come true.
It takes a lot of work to dream. And dreams are only ephemera. You put a lot of yourself behind that ephemera. You poured in years of effort. And while you are busy the goal posts can move.
But wait, my friends! What is the disaster in this case? I don't think it's always your work. As I said, Icarus could fly, and he must have flown very well to get so close to the sun. That wasn't his problem. The problem was his vehicle. In my case, it's a publishing industry which no longer nurtures or encourages books like mine. They want heavy hitters. And if you aren't obvious best seller material, or don't have an established track record of sales, you might only sell 10,000 copies. This happened to another friend of mine. And 10,000 sales, to her publisher, represented a net loss.
Let's walk away from that kind of standard. Let's call it disaster. And turn, with dignity, quite naturally away.
It's at this point in my reasoning that I return with gratitude - and not in the Pollyanna sense- but really consider - my fellow travelers along this difficult and seemingly fruitless journey. Those who read books like the ones I write.
Also, the fact that I still find books to read and am swept away by them - the fact that reading good books brings me such exquisite joy, shows that there are readers out there like me and the people who write such books are also my readers. It's when I read a bad book that depression kicks in, and makes me feel there's no point in going forward if that is the standard. But when I read a good book I remember why I write. It's because this magic still exists.
Icarus needed a better more substantial pair of wings. He already knew how to fly. But wax won't keep you up. Spending your most serious efforts working at your art is a noble and worthy enterprise. What is needed is a solid publishing vehicle to hand us back our dignity.
#rejections #icarus #wh auden #writing life