Much too often I feel that I never should have “been” a writer. Way back when I was in fourth grade and my mother helped me revise a homework assignment into a wonderful little fable–I should have stomped on any thought that this would be a worth while thing to do for the rest of my life.
Later, when Damon Knight said that great science fiction and fantasy provided readers with a “sense of wonder,” I should not have believed him. I should have have forgotten those many, many times I was thrilled with what I was read, and I should never have imagined that I, too, may develop an ability to string words together that would create such awe and astonishment.
Back then, I was a fat kid with allergies who went through the public library’s science fiction section and then graduated to paperbacks from the local bookstore that would eventually give me my first job. They let me stock the science fiction section, recommend titles to order and encourage customers to try new authors.
I was convinced beyond doubt that I would write stuff that would find a place on the bookstore shelves, and my books did, but not in the science fiction section, because I worked so hard on science fiction, I cared so much about it, it was so very important to me, that the rejections from agents and editors hurt so deeply that, in an urge to be published, I turned to journalism where, to my surprise, my writing appeared in publications that would never print a letter-to-the-editor from a science fiction writer.
I still have an unpublished fantasy novel and fragments of a few others. The novel is beautiful to me. It contains my affection for folk music, my understanding that love is the most important thing that happens to us, and the necessity of the sense of wonder.
The farthest the book got up the chain of gatekeepers was a rejection from an agent who said she was confused: did I want to write a real novel, or a fantasy novel? that I wanted to write a real novel instead of a science fiction novel and you really can’t have both. When I heard that, I flippantly replied that you can have both, that it had been my ambition to write science fiction that could stand up as literature.
I shouldn’t have bothered. A rejection is a rejection. They all hurt, and, no matter how many awards I’ve won, how many famous publications have printed my stuff, they make me feel that I should never have thought I could “be” a writer, that my specific bundle of flaws had disqualified me from birth.
From reading biographies of writers, I’ve learned have that writers need a armor-plated “thick skin” from which the rejections will just bounce off. They also need an unshakeable self-confidence, a tireless work ethic, a cast-iron constitution that can resist that numerous “substances” consumed to make the words flow, a significant other who believes in the writer and the writer’s work, a BIG BREAK, and, later, when fame and fortune overwhelm them, an agent and editor who will defend their need not to repeat themselves, a small group of friends who endure their low moods and laugh with their rare manic highs, and nice hideaway in a scenic location where they can write stuff that critics will think is inferior to their earlier work.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Samuel Beckett was born into a functional (NOT dysfunctional) middle class Irish family, failed at teaching, met James Joyce and wanted to BE James Joyce, failed at being James Joyce, was depressed almost all the time, was broke almost all the time, went into psychoanalysis, bummed around, published poems and short stories that were ignored, had thin skin, met a woman who believed in him, drank, narrowly avoided arrest when he helped the French Resistance during World War Two, tried to write a lot of things, finished a few difficult-to-read works and, while suffering through larger works, wrote a play in French called Waiting for Godot that is, in my opinion, one of the greatest Modernist works ever, alongside the Seagrams Building in New York, Picasso’s Guernica, The Three Penny Opera, Falling Water, the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock…
I never had the thick skin. I never had the self confidence. I discovered early that all the substances that are supposed to make words flow leave you worse off than if you never consumed them. I never found an agent I could trust, and, consequently, they all let me down. I had a few great editors in journalism but the only good one I had in books rejected my second novel and then died before I could finish the third.
Somehow, I continued to write and, not because I needed the money. Samuel Beckett’s famous dialectic–“I must go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.” I hit so many, many walls, and, after hurting and whining and asking myself how I could have been such a fool–I came back to that original feeling.
I wanted to do this.
I wanted to string words together that communicated how wonderful things might be, could be, and, every once in a while, are.
And I still do.
Why? I really don’t know. I do know that, as long as I’m still capable of putting one word in front of another, I may reach that point when I realize why I wanted to do this.
Until then…I go on.