Keeping The Flame Lit
originally published in Women Writers, Women’s Book June 4, 2015
Writing is hard work. We all know that, right? We take an idea, move it along, push it this way, that way, leave it alone, return to it, and sometimes scratch it altogether. Once we’ve got something substantial, we tear it all apart and put it back together again. We offer our pages to the world, going from one gate-keeper to another, the agent, the editor, the publisher, the reviewer, the potential book-buyer. It’s exhausting! And often disappointing. I know writers who give up, stow the keyboard, pack up the pens and paper, and devote their time to other things far more likely to bring rewards.
Writing, then, is a matter of handling that disappointment and frustration. You need to keep a positive attitude in the face of mounting despair. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years, of which I try to remind myself regular.
Keep your writing self separate from your sending self. I discovered this back in the days when all I wrote were short stories, one after another, and put them in envelopes, one after another. They came back as fast as I sent them, sometimes four or five rejections in one day. I found that once the story was done, then I stopped being an artist for a moment and became a businesswoman. Which journal would be a good match? What kind of stories do they typically publish? Have I had any kind words from their editor in the past about previous submissions? I had a detailed spreadsheet where everything was laid out – date sent, where sent, date response received. Focusing on the mechanics of mailing stories and ticking off boxes certainly eased the aggravation of getting turned down over and over.
Put yourself in their shoes. Easier said than done, I admit. I used to think of editors as powerful people who wanted to be kind to their submitters, but who occasionally enjoyed being cruel and arbitrary. Years later, when I became the Fiction Editor for the online literary magazine, Eclectica, I took a seat on the other side of the desk, as it were. Here were tons of submissions I had to read through. Most were bad, some truly awful, a handful decent, a few truly brilliant. Most writing is bad writing – something I heard said and was reluctant to believe. When you read a lot of bad work you get jaded, believe me. Some days you might miss some of the subtle qualities that make a manuscript shine because you’re so tired and under pressure to through the queue. And most editors, like most writers, do what they do for free and because they’re committed to art of writing.
Remember why you started writing in the first place. It never hurts to review the basics, especially with rejection staring you in the face again, and the prospect that your words might not see the light of a painful possibility. Aside from the pleasant prospect of fame and fortune, I bet you first picked up a pen for different reasons. If you‘re like me, you fell in love with language and wanted to see where that took you. Stories felt like magic – both a perfect escape and means of discovery. You had a story to tell, or you wanted to tell someone else’s story, someone with no voice of her own. You wanted to change someone mind about something, remind them of the complexity of the human condition, teach them the value of redemption. If you examine your motivation in writing, and stay in the realm of art, politics, and social welfare, you’re far better armed to withstand the misery of another door slammed in your face.
Remember all the others out there. While there may not be a huge number of really gifted writers, there a great many aspiring ones. And they’re competing with you every day for the attention of anyone who can help get them published. You don’t need to be discouraged by the numbers, you just have to understand that this is part of being a writer, knowing that your competition exists, but also being able to look at it as objectively as possible. If you pay close attention to the feedback you receive, and really work hard, chances are excellent that in time your voice and your words are going to rise to the top of the stack, instead being perpetually stuck on the bottom.
It all comes down to keeping the faith and believing in yourself and your artistic mission. Ask yourself what your life would be like if you weren’t writing. Where would your creative energies go? Where would your personal satisfaction come from? I realized a long time ago that there’s nothing I can do but go on with the work, in as optimistic a frame of mind as possible. So far, so good. After thirty years, I haven’t burned out yet!