*Today’s guest post comes via LaTanya McQueen, a first-year PhD student at the University of Missouri. Her most recent publications include stories in Nimrod, Fourteen Hills, The North American Review, Potomac Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts.*
In one of the earliest workshops I ever took, one of the students asked our professor for advice on finding the inspiration to keep writing despite life’s difficulties. My professor’s response was to tell her as well as the rest of the class to do something else. He advised us all to stop writing. “If you can find anything else to pursue in life, do that instead. You’ll be much happier. However, if after all of that, you still find yourself coming back to writing, then maybe you should consider it as a path.”
I understood why he told us that. We are often told how hard it is to write—the rejections we’ll face,the problems we’ll encounter. However, it’s one thing to hear the words but it becomes something completely different when you experience it. Getting a rejection can be a devastating experience, especially when you’ve feel that you’ve done the work, whether that involves completing a MFA program or finishing a book, poem, or short story. Better to just avoid the whole ordeal altogether, my professor advised. Find your happiness elsewhere, if you can.
Some time later I came across the 2008 issue of Poets and Writers. In it, there’s an interview with the author Andrew Porter where he talked about a burglary that happened shortly after finishing his story collection. His computer was stolen and all of his work was lost. All of his stories completely gone. It took him ten years to start over, culminating in his debut story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize.
I was in my MFA program when I read this story. I ripped it out of the magazine, folded it up, and have kept it with me ever since.
I’ve never collected rejections. Common writing advice I’ve come across suggests that I should. The example of papering one’s wall with rejections is often given. The impulse to keep them makes sense. The positive remarks can be helpful and encouraging. Rejections can also be a rewarding reminder of the process it sometimes takes to write and publish a piece.
Instead of rejections though, I collect stories like the one with Andrew Porter. They are what I read in my moments of anguish. t keeps me going to know that someone else has been there. We may believe we struggle alone, but the truth is we’re all out there—each of us combating similar problems, harboring the same fears, however much most days we try to suppress it.
I am fascinated by those writers who continue writing despite the constant rejection. I think of Myfanwy Collins who wrote three novels before finally publishing Echolocation this past year with Engine Books. I think of Jac Jemc, who for years blogged about her rejections on her website. The writer Jacob Appel is another example. Chances are, if you’ve ever worked for a journal or even been published in a journal, you’ve come across his name. He’s published hundreds of stories and it’s only until recently that he finally had some success with publishing a book. His story collection, Scouting for the Reaper won the Black Lawrence Press contest and is forthcoming.
I wrote to Appel once asking about his publishing experiences and he wrote back and told me he had accumulated more than ten thousand various submissions. Try to consider that for a moment—not even a hundred or a thousand, but ten thousand. Think of all the folded pieces of paper. Think of the span of time it would take. Think of the amount of revisions. Think of all those new beginnings.
Yet, despite the constant no’s and the months trickling to years, somehow still believing in what you’re doing enough to keep going, to look at the story once more and try to make it better. To submit one more time in the hope that maybe this time you did it right.
I am fascinated by the struggle. I’m intrigued by those who make the decision to quit their jobs and pursue writing. Ben Fountain is one. It took him eighteen years after quitting his job as a lawyer to write and publish Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, a collection that ended up winning the PEN/Hemingway Award. As an aside, here’s a pretty remarkable interview he did with Ecotone that’s in their Spring 2010 issue.)
If you look for them, you can find these stories everywhere. Stories of writers who wrote despite whatever obstacles, who believed in what they were doing enough to keep going. There is something incredibly reassuring in hearing each one.
My same professor has a poem taped to the front of his door from W. S. Merwin. To my knowledge, it’s still there. The ending of it goes:
“I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write”
This is a question I’ve thought about over the years. It is, I think, something we all struggle with, whether we’re writers with published books or have only the fledgeling desire to begin putting words on the page. These are things I think about as I sit in an empty room staring at a story I’ve worked on for months or years. These are things I think about each day when I again recommit myself to writing, of saying to myself that yes this important, yes this is worth the time, and the sacrifice, and the patience.
Do I have it in me to continue?
Is what I’m doing worth it?
Am I or will I ever be good enough?
The truth is I’ll never know, not definitely, not for sure, but I am full of hope.