Author Henry Miller summed it up best when he wrote that, to become an artist, you must "be crushed … have your conflicting points of view annihilated." He wrote that you must be "wiped out" as a human being "in order to be born again an individual." He used words like "carbonized" and "mineralized" to describe what a writer must endure before he or she can "work upwards from the last common denominator of the self."
Had I read Miller before taking my leap into creative writing four and a half years ago, I’d have surely dismissed his advice as inapplicable to my life. After all, I'd been planning since college to traverse the same gateway used by my literary heroes, many of whom also started out at newspapers. I was certain that my years of reporting would provide a kind of equity against which I could borrow to gain entry into publishing. My journalism career had been "successful" and "rewarding,” and I had an "impressive" list of "accomplishments" and "awards.” I fired these words like arrows at the hearts of agents and expected them to swoon.
There was no swooning.
Instead, I have been "annihilated ... wiped out ... (and) carbonized." I've learned to write all over again. I've repeatedly built and rebuilt, razed and reframed the same stories. The highs have been higher than any I’ve ever experienced. The lows have been the lowest, the destruction of self, and a bit of self-destruction.
In the past four and a half years I’ve rewritten two books so many times I’ve lost count. And, along the way, I've made most of the mistakes they mention in the books about book writing (the ones I read after I made the mistakes — STORY ... YOUR FIRST NOVEL ... MAKING A LITERARY LIFE ... ON BECOMING A NOVELIST).
And yet, that familiar stab of rejection still stings just as much.
I received my first rejection letter in long time yesterday, from an agent I thought would be a good match for both me and my book. I know now how little such responses mean. As with the rewrites, I stopped keeping tally of rejections long ago, an exercise as pointless as counting hiccups, or sneezes. They're all an ineradicable part of life. Some people get more than others. Some get less. Eventually, one will be the last. But, the first is always the worst.
This is the writer's life, and I've no intention of doing anything else but continuing to write books.
Nonetheless, as Billy Joel sang so well when I was back in high school, sometimes "I really wish I was less of a thinking man and more a fool who's not afraid of rejection."
* Cross posted at TJ Sullivan in LA.