As I’m rummaging through my desk drawer looking for stamps, my fingers brush against a small stack of envelopes, joined with a paperclip. It takes a moment to place it.
It’s a stack of rejection slips from literary agents. They are half-sheets of paper, a few of them with torn rather than cut edges. Most of them are typed and unsigned. One looks to be a copy of a copy of a copy. Then, torn and left unsigned.
Why keep these?
A smattering of the nicer rejection letters
Because they were the only agents who took the time to send me a rejection in the mail. The rejection emails have been buried and lost in my overflowing inbox years ago.
It’s been six years since I’ve finished my novel, Two Ways to Pray. I could work on rewriting my query letter and send out another batch. But it won’t change the truth that I’m unpublished and lacking pedigree, credentials, and formal training.
In short, I am a huge risk.
I wrote the novel in question in a fury from 2006 to 2009, mostly during breaks from teaching, at the university where I was an adjunct instructor. I wrote four drafts, amounting to about 1,000 single-spaced pages. I wrote because I loved the story. I wrote even though I wasn’t sure anyone would read it.
And I wrote it in such a fury because I was quite sure that once I had children, I’d never have time to write again. That seemed to be the consensus among parents—do what you want now… because once you have kids…
An old draft of Two Ways to Pray–I know by the amateur single-spacing and left-justified margins
In the first year of writing the novel, I wanted to be a talented writer, someone whose prose was notable. Even memorable.
In the second year, I wanted to be a well-known writer, someone whose stories you couldn’t put down, but who may not necessarily have the literary admiration of her peers.
In the year that I finished the novel, I decided that I didn’t mind being that author who would successfully publish just one book and whose name was always forgotten when people talked about it at parties. Oh! Yes! I did read that. Got a copy at the library. Who wrote that again?
My aspirations sunk lower and lower after I started querying agents and our mailbox became a revolving door of SASEs and rejections slips. I knew it was going to happen. Everyone gets rejected! This is a tough business! they all had said. And frankly, it was a business that I knew nothing about but… damn them! They were right.
So did I stop writing?
No. Because I can’t. I love it too much. I’m like that with things that I love. I just can’t give them up. (Like those ill-fitting sweaters that took me months to knit–and now sit in a drawer.)
And I love to write—especially if I thought it could help others. Is it strange that? The fact that–for me–writing took the shape of ministry to others? I’m sure there’s some vanity involved in it, but I knew that I would keep doing it even if I never earn a cent from it.
So I put the novel away.
And I kept writing.
When I found out I was pregnant, I decided to put to rest the idea of publishing my novel in the near future. Even if a publisher were interested in it, I had lost my zeal to work on it. And I couldn’t see a future in which I had enough time to revise a novel with the guidance of an agent and walk it through publication—while being a mother.
What was the novel about?
A mother and a daughter.
Funny. Life is funny.
And yes, that is part of one of the sweaters that now sits in a drawer (circa 2011)
I realize now that even though I had tried to put on the lens of a mother in my novel in order to write a believable mother, I was still imagining a mother’s thoughts and motivations and fears through the eyes of a daughter. I had only ever been a daughter. What I knew about motherhood was secondhand perception. It was guesswork, even if it were good guesswork.
But then a bigger realization.
What I didn’t know about motherhood—until about three months into it—was that it is remarkable training for handling rejection.
The constant sting of reality slapping my previous expectations in the face. Over and over again.
That cozy nook I had planned for nursing my infant? Turned out to be a torture throne for post-birth hemorrhoids. Move on.
The house is an utter disaster and the fridge is empty? Order pizza and call one of those eager volunteers to help with laundry and dishes. No pride left here. We left it at the hospital with those cans of formula that we found out we were going to desperately need when breastfeeding crushed us.
All of that mental and emotional twisting and breaking humbled me. And then humbled me some more. And what it left was a version of myself that didn’t mind so much when things didn’t live up to my own expectations.
Life goes on.
Because in the next hour, there will be new problems and issues that require my attention. I don’t have the time anymore to dwell and dwell, as my ISFJ personality is so prone to do. There are constant demands for my energy in this present moment, so why waste any of it on stuff I can’t fix?
Growth is good.
I probably won’t be as well-known as Jodi Picoult and I probably won’t achieve the literary mastery of Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates, but I can say that I finally believe that I have written a book that will connect with someone. It took me eight years, a few thousand pages, the birth of a child, and a complete identity shift, but I feel that I have something to offer the world now.
As I (finally!) read through the September/October 2014 edition of Poets & Writers, I read and reread a few lines of Rufi Thorpe’s article called “The Perversity of Spirit.” She writes:
“Talent is the least important thing about a writer, compared to a love of books, which must be deep and abiding. The only other thing a writer needs is perversity of spirit, the emotional equivalent of a cartoon creature’s bouncy springiness, so that after being run over or blown up—or, in the case of the writer, rejected and then rejected some more—the writer is irrationally unfazed by even the most valid criticism and continues with the work of being a writer, magically unharmed.”
Perhaps someday I’ll return to my novel about a mother and a daughter. Not now, but maybe someday.
Right now, each line of that novel is colored with the voice of the daughter—and what I imagined a mother might think. But if I were ever able to re-write the mother’s voice, what a great book that would be. To intertwine two authentic voices, inspired by two different headspaces in my life.
But right now, I look up to see my daughter playing with some blocks on the floor of her room. I’m sitting in the glider.
Feet propped up.
Appreciating how many nights of interrupted sleep, how many feedings, how many moments of desperation have led to this moment of calm.
I’ve just been able to read an article in a magazine with just a few interruptions.
I know that in about ten minutes, she’ll want a snack or she’ll need a diaper change or she’ll decide to start pulling all the books off a shelf. But right now, she is content to sit with her blocks. This moment is well-earned and so I appreciate it so much more.
And that is how I feel that it is with writing. Hard work. Self-doubt. But in time, a moment of satisfaction.
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Mother’s Day, 2015