An act of bravery by a grimacing kid. And a not-so-subtle message unrelated to the rest of the content of this blog post. That is all.
I was so thrilled by the nice response I got to my essay in The New York Timesa couple of weeks ago. Like the other pieces?I’ve published recently, like this one and this one, the essay was deeply personal and more than a little revealing. Besides admitting to sometimes wishing my son would move out to a nice farm in the country for a week or two, I also came clean (again) about my struggles with secondary infertility.
I noticed that when all my lovely friends and supporters?re-tweeted and re-blogged my essay, or shared it?on Facebook, they?kept referring to it?as brave. “A brave essay by my friend Susie Meserve,” one of them said, and another, “Thank you for your honesty and bravery.” Honest, I’ll cop to?always. (Honest to a fault, methinks.) But brave? At the time I posted my snarky little article?about parenting, another friend was publishing a piece about negative portrayals of women of color in television, for which, I’m sure, she received a $%^& storm of offensive comments. And of course I thought about the incredible bravery of?Jim Foley. I was hard pressed to think of myself, in an essay complaining about the boredom and existentialism of parenting, as being “brave.”
I raised this with my friend An Honest Mom, who shared the smart point that we always think of other people as brave before we accept the idea that we ourselves are. And that, for many people, what I did in those personal essays?admitting to pettiness, jealousy, parental ennui, grief, and infertility, not to mention?contending with years and years of rejection?as a writer?is just that: brave. Well, gosh. That made me feel good. After all, I am the woman who spent seven years writing a book about my own anxiety, and how when I traveled around the world with my now-husband, fear kept me from experiencing all kinds of adventures.
That I might be brave for sharing that truth about myself is almost uncomfortably ironic, and more than a little pleasing to think about.
I had been mulling this over for a few days when?I stumbled into a sweet conversation with my son L, who at five seems to have simultaneously inherited his mother’s risk-aversion and society’s ideas about what bravery really is. I was puttering around the kitchen while he drew pictures on the floor and practiced writing “letters” to me and his dad.
“Mama, did you know I’m not as brave as J?”
“You’re not?” I feigned surprise. J is an extremely intrepid friend. He’ll scale anything around.
“Nope. He’s much braver, because he climbs much better than me.”
“Well, you know,” I said in a fit of genius, “people are brave in different ways. Like, for example, I’m not very brave about climbing either, not like Daddy or J. But I’m brave because I write things that people don’t always like, and I write them anyway. And sometimes it’s hard to be a writer, because people say no to you a lot,?and it’s brave that I do it.”
He was enthralled.
“And,” I continued, “I know a way that you’re brave that J isn’t as brave.”
“I do. You do a great job at sleepovers. And J still has a really hard time with them.”
“Yeah!” he said, jumping up and down. “I’m brave at sleepovers!”
“Yup,” I said, feeling utterly content?with everything: my tenuous bravery, and L’s.
This question of bravery keeps coming up. L is more than a little obsessed with it lately. Playing “dinosaurs versus dragons,” he’s constantly asking me which team is braver, and his answers reveal a very narrow-minded idea of courage. For example, yesterday he told me that the dinosaurs were braver because they were winning. I suggested that maybe the dragons were braver for keeping on fighting even when they were losing, but no?that was the wrong answer.
I’m obviously more hip to bravery than L, but nonetheless I wonder whether my own ideas about what’s brave have been a little primitive. Like traveling with B. The entire time, I told myself that he was the brave one, because he seemed to be completely unafraid. But maybe, for pushing through my fears, for not giving up, for ultimately deciding I could have traveled forever, I was brave, too.
I don’t know. But?I nonetheless?like the idea of reframing bravery. For many years, I haven’t believed that I have been very brave at all. But I have started to wonder if maybe bravery is something different than I’ve thought.
And, an aside: NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words. Me? I’m shooting for 25,000. It may not be an act of bravery, but anyone who meets that goal, while working and parenting and preparing for the holidays, my hat is off to you.
Stay tuned for the 2014 Literary Gift Guide, coming soon!
I got a rejection from a literary magazine the other day. It was simply awful. It was awful because they’d had my essay for eight months, and because the assistant had emailed me three times to tell me that she was grateful for my patience and was passing my work on to the editors and would get back to me soon. For those not in the know, that kind of language usually means, “I have read and liked your piece, so I’m passing it on to the big guns, and I hope they agree with me that we should publish it, but of course we’re all disorganized and the meeting keeps getting postponed.” Sure, the waiting was tedious. But mostly, the rejection was awful because?well, here, read it:
So, I touched base with our assistant editors and they decided it wouldn’t be a good fit at this point for our magazine. After reading it, I tend to agree. You can take this or leave this, but I do want to encourage you to keep writing, and perhaps even put this piece away for a while, and come back to edit it after you’ve written other things. The challenge with this piece is making something that didn’t happen become just as climatic as what ends up happening. Writers that seem to know how to do that well? Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” and pretty much anything written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Thank you for your patience, and good luck on your endeavors.
Dude. I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years. And in one small paragraph I was reduced to….eighteen. Inexperienced. As if I hadn’t heard the whole “put it in a drawer and come back to it later” thing before. As if Kerouac was news to me. As if I hadn’t already “written other things.” But thank God she encouraged me to keep writing, because in that moment I did have the thought that if I can’t fool someone into thinking I have an iota of experience and talent, I probably should just
But as my new philosophy for 2014 is to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided that instead of strangling with the desire to write back that if she didn’t think the essay was any good herself, likely she should not have wasted all of our time by passing it on to the editors in the first place, I’d share that rejection here on my blog. There it is, folks. Eat your heart out.
And I got to thinking about rejection.
I have a folder in a file cabinet labeled “Rejections,” and I pulled it out this morning and sifted through it. There are 282 rejections in the folder, which predates electronic submissions and thus represents a small fraction of those I have actually received in my lifetime (now I keep track on an Excel spreadsheet). In that folder I found form slips; form slips with a human signature or a brief quip; and longer, typed, personal letters telling me how close I had gotten. There are rejections from lit mags, from literary contests, from writing fellowships, and from famous magazines that actually gave me the time of day before telling me I just didn’t quite cut it. There were rejections that it was very hard to see again?like the one from 2004 telling me I’d been a runner-up in a prestigious book contest but that ultimately, the judge had chosen the other poet over me. And of course, The Fulbright committee telling me that even though I’d made it to the last stage of the process, they couldn’t fund my year studying poetry in England.
And there were quite a few little gems.
This one, from a famous literary agent, cracked me up not because she said no?I’d expected as much?but because of the dangling participle in the third line:
“While interesting, Ms. X did not have enough enthusiasm to take on your book.”
I’m bummed Ms. X is not enthusiastic about my memoir, but I’m sure glad to learn that she’s interesting.
And I loved this one, so chatty, so kind, about an essay I’d written (and forgotten about entirely!) on the poet Louise Bogan:
And then there was this one, from a tiny literary mag I am quite sure does not exist anymore. I felt sad that the man’s wife was “gravely ill,” but I thought the gesture of returning my stamp entirely human and kind:
Thank you, editor. You can see I used the stamp. Probably to send out more poems.
This trip down rejection memory lane has brought home a couple of things for me. The most surprising was the wistfulness I felt, not about having been rejected so many times, but for the period in my life when I felt so optimistic as to send out hundreds of poems every year. For a time when editors wrote sweet notes about moving offices and sick wives. It reminded me that my poetry seemed to get close a lot?many of the rejections are kind, handwritten ones?and it makes me wonder if I gave it up too soon. On the other hand, it reminds me why I did: poetry, with all its rejection, and a readership the size of a rejection slip, was beginning to feel like a dead end.
And I thought about how much better it is to know than to not know. One thing that folder gives me is?I hate this word, but?closure. Nowadays you’re as likely to hear anything at all as you are to hear that you’re being published (which is to say, not likely at all). The radio silence is the worst.
Of course I ruminated on the part that rejection plays in my work and in all writers’ work. In order to get published, you have to send out, and usually, you get rejected. It’s depressing, it’s demoralizing, it’s sometimes soul-crushing, but at the end of the day, it’s also the only way. Some days, I have better luck remaining dispassionate.
And, of course, I thought about the rejection slip as metaphor for life: how many things we fail at, every day. How many times each of us is told no?by a boss, a boyfriend, a crush, an editor, a publisher, a friend, a bureaucrat, a teacher, a student, a kid, a parent, a loan officer, a landlord, a blood test.
I’ll close with one last rejection, that I read and remembered fondly. It’s from a poet who’s pretty well known, who worked for a journal that was also pretty well known, and I recall approaching him at a reading a few months after I got this note. He remembered me, and I thought how cool he was. Though his journal didn’t take my poems, it helped me to hear that at least he thought I was writing “very sweet, very good lyric poems” that he happened to like.
Well, at last check my story is fifth in Medium’s Fiction Contest. To be read by an agent, and judged, and possibly win $2,012, it needs to be in the top three.
I’d say I’m disappointed, and I am–it’s doubtful I can jump two places in two days–but honestly, this is the story of my writing life (no pun intended!). My poetry manuscript was a finalist in two or three contests, but never got published. I’ve gotten great rejection notes from top places. I’ve had so many near misses I’ve come to expect my writing career to be like this.
Actually, it occurs to me, this is probably the story of most writers. Unless you’re just kissed by fairy dust, most of us struggle and come close and have disappointments and failures and some of them are because we aren’t, yet, good enough and some are because we’re unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just plain not ready.
I hold onto this theory, because if I didn’t I might get very, very discouraged.
So! One last plea, readers: if you haven’t read it yet, please do. And if you feel inclined to share it, even better. Maybe with your help, I’ll be in the right place at the right time on this one.
A colleague told me she belongs to a monthly drinking-and-submitting group. Someone hosts and serves up a bunch of booze; all the writers in attendance spend the evening submitting their work to magazines.
I thought that sounded ingenious. It’s so hard to find the time not only to write and revise, but to try to get your work out there. Why not get drunk and mail?
This fall, as part of a series of small resolutions, I decided that every Thursday would be a sending-out day. I figured, you know, my numbers have actually not been too bad. Over the years I’ve had some publishing successes without too onerously exerting myself. Sure, I have a giant folder of rejections somewhere and a much smaller folder of acceptances, but I also only sent my chapbook to four or five places before it got picked up, and in 2011 the only poem I sent out got published. So I figured, if I increased my yearly submissions to 52 (one per week), maybe I’d hit a ten percent success rate.
Well, to date I’m at zero percent, but it’s early days yet. I’d also be lying if I said I actually send out every Thursday. What I tend to do is pile up the weeks and then send, say, three submissions in one week. Researching places to submit, preparing files, deciding what work is ready–it all takes a lot of time. And of course, by sending out so much work, you not only open yourself to success but to the inevitable rejections (52 of them? Let’s hope not).
Do you have a system for sending out work, readers?
I'm working from the premise that motherhood is not just all diapers, tantrums, and setting limits. It's interesting. Okay, sometimes.