Relative to many writers, I can claim to be moderately successful at my craft. I have had five books published since 1997; numerous articles of mine have run in major newspapers and magazines. I have made thousands of dollars in advances and royalties. I have a literary agent. One of my titles has appeared in a foreign language (Japanese) and I can boast an international readership. My words have been widely reviewed and quoted, and I have been profiled as a writer on broadcast programs in Canada, the US, and Britain. My Facebook fan page and this blog have drawn scores of followers from around the world. I may not be J.K. Rowling or Malcolm Gladwell, but compared to the entire writing community of strugglers, aspirants, and dreamers, I have reached an enviable position.
So why is it still so frustrating?
Largely it’s because I still put up with the same discouragements faced by unpublished poets and cold-calling freelancers. Endless wait times. Curt rejections. Form responses, or no responses at all. “Sorry, not right for us.” “Doesn’t meet our needs.” “No.” For all my authorial credentials, each manuscript or query of mine puts me back at Square One: I haven’t become so popular that editors clamor for anything I come up with, and I’m not so famous that my flimsiest idea is guaranteed an audience. Most of my submissions go straight to the slush pile. I’ve been doing this for decades – my first sale was a short horror story in 1987 – but in many ways I remain a beginner.
Then there’s the Web. Getting past the gatekeepers seems increasingly pointless in an era when more and more musicians, filmmakers, and, yes, writers are bypassing the gatekeepers altogether. Who needs the approval of a publisher when you can blog? Why go through the trouble of submitting to an unseen editorial panel when you can upload your epic novel online? There are now simpler and cheaper ways to get my words out into the world than ever before, so why do I continue to channel them through a creaking system of middlemen, most of them indifferent to my career? Am I striving to maintain my professionalism in a dying profession?
I’ve tried to come up with answers to all this – perhaps you have too. In the first place, I’ve concluded that writing is simply what I do best. There’s no point in dropping this vocation to take up law, medicine, or plumbing. I’ve been building things with sentences since I was a child forty years ago; it’s how my mind naturally functions. Some people have a facility with numbers, others with fabrics, others with machines. My facility is with words, and it’s gotten me attention, respect, and even some money. It’s too late to give it up just because the attention goes away, the respect isn’t always there, and the money won’t buy the groceries this month.
The second reason to keep going came to me when I was looking through my file of rejection slips. Every writer has amassed these; it’s said that the young Scott Fitzgerald papered his walls with them. As I glanced over all the turn-downs and dashed hopes, I saw how many of them came from people who meant nothing to me anymore. Here’s a letter from Bill Nobody at Now Defunct magazine. A brushoff from Andrea Unknown at Long-Forgotten Press. The Obscure Agency’s form refusal. I’ve kept my reviews, too, even the nasty one from Sarah Whoever at Who Cares, the snide cracks by Gary Neverheardof at deadsite.com, and the vicious broadside that ran in Out Of Print After Six Issues. It turns out that many of the walls I was banging my head against eventually collapsed, and some of them were pretty dilapidated already. As a writer I’ve been inspired by big names whose genius I can’t hope to approximate. I’ve also been motivated by hacks and toadies whose standards have lost whatever relevance they might once have had.
There are regular bromides cited for writers going through a slump. “It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up.” “Believe in yourself.” “A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits.” Those can be hard to take when you’ve got your twentieth rejection in a row, when your third follow-up doesn’t get any more of an answer than the first two, or when some distant editor fires off a two-second thumbs-down after you’ve spent six months entertaining a flicker of optimism. Underneath the cliches, though, are the truths that however stuck on the ladder you think you are, you’ve gone too far to start at the bottom of another one, and the publishing business may appear to be an exclusive club of credits and personal titles, but it’s actually an impersonal field that is about material, not the individuals who create or evaluate it. As writers, we are doing something we find rewarding regardless of our day-to-day fortunes with it, and most of the people we think we’re up against are really no more secure in their jobs than we are in ours.
Is it worth it? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Instead of asking if my professional achievements have compensated for all the disappointments I’ve faced, I should think about whether the emotional gratification of writing as an art merits the perennial exasperation of writing as a job. In my case, I’d have to say yes, it still does.