Years ago, when I was trying to find an agent for the book I now fondly and unironically refer to as “the-piece-of-crap novel,” I kept every rejection letter I received. This was back when most agents still preferred to get queries via snail mail. I dedicated an entire dresser drawer to housing these letters, most of which were form responses. For the few agents who received queries and sent rejections via email, I printed out the correspondences and added them to the drawer. Those letters were hauled back and forth across the country, and when I moved up to Portland two years ago, I left them at my parents’. As I was packing, my mother saw the drawer of envelopes and asked what they were. I told her, and she said, “Why did you keep them?” I said, “So when I snap and build a lair in which to plot my hostile takeover of the literary world, I’ll have something to cover the walls with.” Duh.
In truth, I don’t know why I kept those letters. Maybe because that ill-advised publication attempt was my first foray into the literary world, and I wanted tangible evidence that I was trying, however unsuccessfully. Maybe because I was a straight-A student, and anything short of physical proof of rejection/failure wasn’t going to seem real to me. Maybe because I’m a masochist, and I liked to know I had a pile of documents at the ready, should I need to feel bad about myself for something. Or maybe I’m just a pack rat. I really don’t know.
It’s been five years since I tried to assault the world with the piece-of-crap novel, and I’m again on the hunt for an agent, but for a different novel, one that I will hopefully not be referring to, five years from now, as “the other piece of crap novel.” I’ve received my share of rejections for this book, too, and with the exception of a few, I’ve thrown out every one. Those I’ve kept were from agents who actually read the book, as opposed to the first ten pages or just my query letter, as is the general custom. I’ve retained those letters because, it stands to reason, they might have something to teach me, or at least more than the ones that go, “Dear Author, thank you for submitting your query. However, I don’t think I’m the right agent for this project. Best of luck with your writing. Fa la la la la, la la, la la.” The “fa la la” refrain is my addition, but I think it’s a good one. Personally, I’d appreciate these things being a bit more festive.
But back to the topic at hand–I used to hoard rejection letters the way some old ladies pilfer Sweet’n Low packets from restaurants. Now I toss them out like the balled-up gum wrappers that breed by the dozens in the bottom of my purse. So what happened? For one thing, during these past five years, I’ve submitted stories to a hefty number of literary journals, so the rejection letter has become more than a common occurrence in my inbox. In order to keep from losing it on a bi-weekly basis–or actually building that lair and planning that hostile takeover–I had to teach myself to be unfazed by rejection. I had to get to the point where, when I got a letter from a journal that didn’t want my story, I just said, “All right,” deleted the email, and sent the story to someone else. It’s self-preservation. Ask any writer who regularly sends out her work–you will not survive if you shed tears over every rejection. For one thing, all that crying will make you severely dehydrated.
When I started querying agents again, that nonchalant reaction to rejection more or less transferred. Well, I suppose more “less” than “more,” since having a two-hundred-something page book turned down is a bit more of a *whump* to the chest that a twenty-something page story. But still. I’ve tried to remain stoic. The only time the rejection really, truly gets to me is when it’s a full manuscript rejection–the letters I’ve kept. But recently, I’ve started wondering why I keep even these. Suppose they’ll teach me something. Well, all these rejections sing the same tune: “great writing, great concept, great characters, but I just didn’t love it.” As I’ve said before, I can no more make someone love my book than I can will someone into loving me.
But more to the point, how is that assessment helpful? You didn’t love it. Well, why? I mean, I get it. Sometimes a book just doesn’t do it for you, but in most cases, there’s a reason. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find it. I’m a book reviewer. I know what I’m talking about here. Or if you don’t want to take the time to tell me why, exactly, you didn’t love my book, just go for the other side of the honesty coin, and tell me it won’t make you any money. I will think less of you, dear agent, but I will also respect you a bit more for at least having the cajones to give it to me straight.
However, when all you tell me is that you just didn’t love my book, this is what happens: first, I cry. Second, I call someone and cry to him. Third, I cry some more, either alone, to someone else, or to that poor first soul who made the mistake of picking up the phone again. Fourth, I start to wonder if anyone will ever love my book, if it isn’t actually as good as I could make it, if there isn’t some huge underlying flaw I didn’t catch on my seventeenth revision, or if I have, God forbid, spent the past year querying agents for the-other-piece-of-crap novel.
Yes, it’s been almost a year, and realizing that the other day, I decided to read this book that I haven’t looked at in as much time–just in case any or all of the scenarios from reaction number four were true. I dove into reading expecting, well, anything–major oversights, oddly placed commas and em dashes from one of my weird punctuation phases, characters who didn’t seem real, lives that seemed trivial. I finished reading this afternoon, and with the exception of a few wayward commas and dashes, I found none of those things. Is this the best book anyone’s written in the twenty-first century? No. Is it going to change the world? Probably not. But it’s the book it is, and it’s the best I could make it. After a year, I’d started wondering whether or not that was truly the case. It is.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a chapter called, “How Do You Know When You’re Done?” And in it, she likens finishing a final draft to putting an octopus to bed: “You finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn off the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free. This will probably happen while you are sitting at your desk, kneading your face, feeling burned out and rubberized. Then, even though all the sucking disks on that one tentacle are puckering open and closed, and the slit-shaped pupils of the octopus are looking derisively at you, as if it might suck you to death just because it’s bored, and even though you know that your manuscript is not perfect and you’d hoped for so much more, but if you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now–well? I think this means that you are done.”
This book is not the-other-piece-of-crap novel. It’s my octopus. The jammies are on, the lights are off, the music box is playing “Fur Elise,” and even though a few of those purple tentacles are still wafting around, I have to shut the door. I’ve been referring to my new novel as “the beast,” and I think the large animal image is a good one for big creative projects. They’re ungainly. They get in the way, take your time from other things, become cranky when you don’t spend enough time with them, and probably no one but you and those closest to you are ever going to love them like you do. But that’s okay. If the octopus is meant to see the world, the right agent will know that and will help you usher it onto the stage–but not in the cruel freak show way. Tastefully, like a ballet debuting at Lincoln Center. Until then, you just have to stay confident in your eight-legged purple monster, and maybe do yourself a favor and get rid of those rejection letters that aren’t really helping you. Or buy some wallpaper paste, and use them to start decorating the lair.