Fail, Fail Again, Fail better

A little light as the end of the semester grows nigh…


…Being a writer sometimes feels like a paradox. Yes, we should be unswerving in our missions to put passion down on paper, unearthing our deepest secrets and most beautiful bits of humanity. But then, later, each of us must step back from those raw pieces of ourselves and critically assess, revise, and—brace yourself—sell them to the hungry and unsympathetic public. This latter process is not only excruciating for most of us (hell, if we were good at sales we would be making good money working in sales), but it can poison that earlier, unselfconscious creative act of composition.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott illustrates a writer’s brain as being plagued by the imaginary radio station KFKD (K-Fucked), in which one ear pipes in arrogant, self-aggrandizing delusions while the other ear can only hear doubts and self-loathing. Submitting to journals, residencies, fellowships, or agents amps up that noise. How could it not? These are all things that writers want, and who doesn’t imagine actually getting them? But we’d be much better off if only we could figure out how to turn down KFKD, or better yet, change the channel—uncoupling the word “rejection” from “failure.”

There are two moments from On Writing, Stephen King’s memoir and craft book, that I still think about more than 15 years after reading it: the shortest sentence in the world, “Plums defy!” (which he presented as evidence that writing need not be complex), and his nailing of rejections. When King was in high school, he sent out horror and sci-fi fantasy stories to pulpy genre magazines. For the first few years, they all got rejected. He stabbed his rejection slips onto a nail protruding from his bedroom wall, which soon grew into a fat stack, rejection slips fanned out like kitchen dupes on an expeditor’s stake in a crowded diner. Done! That one’s done! Another story bites the dust! That nail bore witness to King’s first attempts at writing, before he became one of the most prolific and successful authors in the world.

* * * *

Samuel Beckett wrote, Fail, fail again, fail better. I started submitting essays to literary magazines the summer after my first year of graduate school. My mentor, a gentle and encouraging nonfiction writer, presented it simply. “Take a manila envelope, put your essay in it, add a SASE, and write a very simple cover letter with your name and information in it. Give it shot! Maybe not the New Yorker, but the next tier of journals.” A friend with ambitious aspirations disagreed. “Always submit to the New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review! Why not? You have nothing to lose. I see it as a challenge; the minute AGNI rejects me, I send them something else, that day!”

I bought a roll of stamps, a box of manila envelopes. I submitted to journals I had heard of—Tin House, The Iowa Review, Guernica—and was soundly rejected by them. My heart would jump when I saw my own handwriting on the SASE, and then sink when I tore open the envelope only to find a form rejection slip. But sometimes, it would jump again if I saw any drop of a reader or editor’s pen ink on it. “Thanks, try us again sometime,” or “Sorry, not for us,” were the comments from one desperate creative soul in the world to another. Ink drops on form rejection slips were splashes of hope..

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