There it was, sitting in boldface type: an unopened email bearing the name of the first contest I had entered since my decision to start writing again. One click would be the difference between victory and defeat, publication and anonymity.
The first line was so impersonal that it reeked of failure: “Hello 2013 Ian MacMillan Award Submitter.” It might as well have read: “Greetings, Loser.” Every subsequent line had the feigned cheeriness of a polite acquaintance attempting to inform you of a terrible body odor problem. “We are thrilled to have received your submission (but not so thrilled to have read it)….Unfortunately, your submission has not been chosen as an award finalist or for publication (because it was just that bad–we won’t even publish it for free). We look forward to hearing from you in the future (or not; it doesn’t really matter to us either way).” If the actual email wasn’t quite this cruel, it still read this way as I swept up the broken shards of my confidence.
Perhaps the most excruciating aspect of the submission process is the wait. The rejection might have stung a tad less if it wasn’t accompanied by months of silence and anxiety. By the time you have mentally convinced yourself that your writing is worthless, the confirmation of this arrives in a glib, generic form letter, or worse, eternal silence. And yes, there are all those stories of famous writers who received stacks of rejection letters before hitting it big; and yes, there are the comforting platitudes you can use to soothe your wounded ego. But the bottom line remains unchanged: there was something about your work…that didn’t work. At least not for that reader, which opens the door to the insidious whisper of self doubt. If not this reader, then maybe not for ANY reader.
American culture encourages us to dream big and cling to visions of a better, happier version of tomorrow (often at the expense of contentment today). I’m not sure I’m cut out for such relentless optimism. Perhaps this the reason my current favorite band is from Britain: Keane. Their debut album was called “Hopes and Fears,” not “Hopes and Dreams,” and every subsequent album has had its share of dream crushing realism and sadness. The song that resonates with me strongly today is “Better than This” which features a delusional, regret-filled narrator who believes his life could have been so much better. Near the end, there’s a brief reality check: “could have been something but you’re too late…and you weren’t invited anyway.” Most of the lyrics to their songs are quite depressing, and yet, they are strangely comforting at the same time. They offer the one thing all humans require: the knowledge that you are not alone. That was the idea behind the Scoreboard page on the blog…a kind of record of failure to let other writers know that there’s someone else out there getting rejected just as often as they are.
I’m willing to accept that I may never be able to make a living off my fiction. There’s that clichéd saying that you should work at a job that you would do for free, which is a nice concept with frightening implications. Well, here’s the compromise. I’d write the stories for free, so if they end up utterly unpublishable, I’ll post them on the blog for free too. Also, the great thing about living in the age of the Internet is that I can always self-publish my novel on Amazon and buy it for my own Kindle, giving me an audience of exactly one person. But at least that one person will be a happy reader. 🙂
Appropriate Keane song of the day: “Better Than This”