Rejection, Pep Talks Involving Oil, and My Biggest Fan(s).

I spent yesterday starting a piece called “Everest,” about my constantly evolving relationship with my daughter’s dad, until around 4pm, when I got an email from the one publisher who requested my full pregnancy memoir manuscript, back in December ’11. I submitted it in mid-January, after coming up with an ending, and I’d checked in with the publisher twice over the past five months, since I was initially told to expect feedback in 6-8 weeks.

Now, here it was. Right in my inbox on a Sunday afternoon, a holiday. I knew it wasn’t good news, and I was right. They don’t want it.

I could stop here–and I almost did.

I hate rejection. I’m not one of those slick-backed people who roll criticism off themselves like water and never let it make them question their worth, ability, or purpose. I’m the opposite of that; I absorb every rejection–whether personal or professional, merited or baseless–and try to figure out how to become unimpeachable and beyond reproach. It’s what kept me from submitting to more than 20 agents and small presses in this initial run, and what kept me waiting on this last company’s decision before deciding whether the manuscript is viable at all.

Since everyone else said no or said nothing, it would come down to them. They seemed interested. After the first follow-up, they said they were very carefully considering it. I believe they did.

But I also knew they’d likely pass. I wrote the manuscript the way I write blog entries: stylistically, flowery, purple. And there isn’t much of a market for that in the category of memoir (or in general, I guess, unless you’re exceptional at it and use it sparingly).

In the end, the feedback suggested as much, that if I were willing to be less gauzy and second-person-y and provide a substantial amount more concrete detail, they’d give it a second look*. They said I’m a good writer (“very, very good” is the verbatim quote and thank God for it), but the diaristic nature of the book (which is, they said, in some ways, its strength) ultimately leaves the reader adrift. And worse: the work is too inwardly focused, too inside my head and not conscious enough of the reader.

Craft talk confession: this is my mortal flaw as a writer. Being too inside-my-own-head. I write in ways that make sense to me, not with an eye toward the reader, nor with much attention to time or space. I write what feels urgent and necessary and I’ll stop here before I veer further into that embarrassing self-assessing space that works to reinforce this point.

Anyway, I decided after reading the rejection, that I’d table the memoir (and memoir altogether). It’s the second one I’ve written, both were rejected, and for two reasons, I was partially relieved each time: 1. I was writing about very raw experiences with people impossibly close to me; publishing my ideas about them would damage too many relationships. And 2. Dozens of rejections must mean the work clearly wasn’t as good as I thought it was** and I could spare myself further rejection by moving on right now.

I am not a self-confident person. Most people can sense this about me right off. But I’m also used to achieving my goals with relative ease–except with this one I want most: to make my career as a literary writer (blogging/online writing, awesome as it sometimes is, isn’t quite the same***).

Couple the fact that I’m not used to needing tenacity with my compulsive uncertainty, and you have your reasons why I don’t already have a book or two published.

I was all too eager to go on to my novel-in-progress (because surely, this is the most commercially salable material I’ve ever written and all those other failed projects were just target practice, right?), after a brief existential depression, that is.

And then I read the rejection letter to my daughter’s dad last night. And I kid you not: he gave me the best. pep talk. EVER. It was all the more impressive because, if you’ve been following the excerpts I’ve written about him here in the past two years, you know that the memoir doesn’t flatter him.

Here’s where I should also point out that I am only brave when I’m writing. Afterward, a kind of cowardice kicks in. It’s one thing to blog or to publish. It’s quite another to open your door and field the complaints of a whole torch-bearing village, regarding the things that you’ve written. It doesn’t matter if your account is true; it’s still embarrassing for them and by extension, hurtful.

So though I told him repeatedly that I was writing this book, I never offered to let him read it, and he never asked. It was just another elephant, another bridge we’d cross when we got there. But occasionally, he’d let on that, during our months-long estrangement, he’d read things–things I didn’t know he’d read–so he had an idea of what to expect.

In short, he told me that, even though we’re in an amicable place now, that doesn’t invalidate what happened. “And if that pain can yield you a paycheck…”

He insisted it didn’t make sense to shelf it, because that rejection letter was filled with suggestions for making the manuscript more accessible.

Our conversation contained all kinds of extended metaphors (On conforming to genre expectations–which I don’t: “The industry is a machine that needs to be oiled. You just have a different grade of oil, and no one knows your brand yet. For now, you’ve got to change your formula.”) and plaudits (“I’m your biggest fan. Well, maybe your mom. And Story. We’re your biggest fans.”****)

Suddenly, this Father’s Day skyrocketed from bearable to awesome.

I know I’ve written a lot, but here’s an excerpt from the Everest piece I abandoned, once we got the rejection note:

I promised you the climb, without pomp, with no parade, without paper. I just looked up and saw above me an impossible height and, toward its apex, the specter of you beyond mist, in thinner air. You, insurmountable, a boy fully grown but under-parented, a man without map, baring nothing: a pinnacle. And as sure as the snow caps, the scant breath, the cliffs, I made vows.

I will tether myself to your side, will pull up or scale across or camp in your clefts, will hold fast to the immovable ridges that round you. I will bundle myself against your bite and warm myself with small victories.

These were unconsidered oaths, incalculable and foolish.

I may finish it later.

* More concrete detail would make it a different kind of project, one about which I’m less enthused. I wanted it to read like a kind of fable, not like a series of unfortunate straightforward incidents.

** A writer I follow on Twitter has told me repeatedly how few twenty rejections are. She had a friend who submitted a project to fifty or sixty agents before one said yes. It’s the kind of story you need to hear, but it also makes you queasy and moves you to paper-bag breaths.

*** As much as I love this blog and as much as writing for other sites has affording me a scantly larger audience, it’s the literary writing that will make me a contender for full-time college teaching positions, which is part of my endgame.

**** I’d add my dad to that list. He asks to read everything I write. And then he does.

5 responses to “Rejection, Pep Talks Involving Oil, and My Biggest Fan(s).”

  1. I am always in my own head. I believe I’d indicated as much on my Twitter profile. It’s what makes me a good writer. Not so much a good actor. But a good writer, yes. I think you have to be. So stay there. It’s a good place.

    As for the publisher that passed, pooey on them. Their loss. Your writing is extraordinary and surely I am not the only person who’s realized that. It only takes one…one agent, one publisher, one editor… to set you on your course. And I believe it’s only a matter of time, Stacia. This is what I tell myself, in any event. Kathryn Stockett (I hate to use her as an example, but I must) received somewhere between 45 and 60 rejections before a literary agent took her on. They then sold The Help within three weeks and the rest is literary history. Regardless of what you think of the book, here were all these arbiters of craft who shot her down, and we know who’s getting the last laugh now, don’t we? It only takes one.

    Hang in there. You are brilliant. It will happen.

  2. As usual, Stacia, I totally get where you’re coming from.
    Rejection is very hard, particularly when you are baring your soul, as you do often and beautifully. I’ve felt in the past that rejections of my work – either in the form of essay or memoir — were like personal attacks, even though they weren’t. But the work is so personal that a rejection of it feels like a rejection of me as a writer, even though they are, in the world, totally separate things.
    Several years ago, an agent who approached me when I worked at a newspaper in SF wrote me a single spaced, two-page rejection letter for the memoir that I would table and stop working on for three years. It was amazing and constructive and intense. But I also felt like I wasn’t really a writer because of this one person’s attentive assessment, which, in retrospect, was a ton of power to give one person.
    Ray Bradbury used to paper a room with his rejection letters. I have a bunch of them filed away behind old tax returns and hip hop clips from the 90s now. What matters is that we write the books we are meant to write, which is what I intend to do, regardless of what the literary marketplace thinks. I encourage you to keep writing the way that you do, and maybe augment the writing you love with writing that is more commercial. Just please don’t let what a few people think keep you from telling the stories you need to tell. A delay is not a denial. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. Without that first really intense rejection, I would not have been prepared for the many dismissive others. I also would have stopped trying to write the book, which, in its fifth incarnation, is now flowing easily and effortlessly, in part because I have promised myself not to think at all about “what the market wants” while I get the story out.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, J. And congratulations on all the progress you’ve made with your memoir (which I’m sure is fabulous). 🙂

      I really do appreciate detailed rejections; they’re rare and we aren’t entitled to them, so it’s always nice to get them. They still sting, especially if the feedback will essentially undo the theme/aim/style of the book. But better those than those curt, “Um, no. Not our style. Not our thing. Don’t think that’s something we want to try to sell. Pass. Not feelin’ you.” rejections. lol

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