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2016 Write-a-thon Week 5 report: little failures

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Halfway through the final week — we’re really in the home stretch now! (At the actual workshop, this was the point where we started painting each others’ toenails.) Accomplishment-wise, week 5 was kind of a mixed bag. I was on vacation for my birthday and was hoping to check two of my remaining goals off the list. But I actually got less writing done than in a normal work week.

I think this was because my writing strategy was “optimistically carry my iPad around all day with its brand new copy of Scrivener installed and hope vaguely to snatch a few minutes to myself at some point.” It needed to be a lot more definite. More like, “from x time to x time I am parked at that Starbucks/cantina/tiki bar yonder. Do not bug me unless something is on fire.” I only managed to do that on one day. So I made progress on the three remaining goals, but didn’t check anything off.

I already knew I wasn’t going to get much writing done on my birthday, which I spent at Disneyland with my family. On that day I also got a rejection notice. Really, universe? On my birthday? Yes, on my birthday. You can say it was my fault for checking e-mail, but I was in line for the Matterhorn at the time, and it was hot, and even at Disneyland waiting in line can get kinda boring. We were expecting to be joined by other family members who were with my nieces on a kid-friendly ride with a shorter line. So I was in three wait states: waiting for family, waiting for the ride, and waiting to get back into the shade. Like most people nowadays, I tend to fill awkward wait states by looking at stuff on my pocket computer.

Then, right after I got a rejection notice, they told us the Matterhorn had to shut down for a while. Universe, are you just messing with me at this point? All right, I can take a hint. I’m going off to Downtown Disney for a margarita.

I spent most of the rest of that day just trying to have a good time and not think about rejection. But then a couple of days later I got another rejection. (TWO REJECTIONS DURING MY BIRTHDAY WEEK UNIVERSE I KNOW YOU ARE JUST MESSING WITH ME NOW)

I decided to try using it as a teaching experience.

Clarion West teaches you a lot of the things you need to know in order to become a professional writer. But it does NOT teach you how to deal with rejection. By the time you are sitting there in that classroom, you have probably been rejected a few times, maybe even by the workshop itself. But you’re only sitting there because this time you weren’t rejected. This time you got in, you made it.

During the workshop you have to deal with other things that might feel a bit like rejection, like that one week nobody (including you) likes your story. And you probably get some moral support about the rejection process, by talking to other people who Get It. You know, when you find out a writer who’s MUCH BETTER THAN YOU still also gets rejected, that’s a little comforting. When you meet editors and find out they’re regular people who love fiction and not otherworldly monsters who are going out of their way to torture you, that’s also a little comforting.

Learning the art of taking a step back from your own fiction, trying to see it from an outsider’s point of view, helps rejection feel less like a small piece of your fragile soul getting shredded by a cruel universe, and more like this thing that just happens, an inevitable (if less pleasant) part of the process. I mean, the very act of living has a lot of unpleasantness associated with it, right? You’re gonna cry every time you stub your toe or have a cold or open the food and yard waste bin and it’s full of maggots and smells like death?

But there’s no way to replicate, in the workshop, the actual act of sending out a piece of fiction and getting a rejection. Maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea anyway. You can only learn so many things at one time. What can anybody else even tell you about how to deal with rejection? Most advice I see is along the lines of “I know it hurts, but get over it.”

Which… I can’t really argue with that, but… it doesn’t help me DO it. And then I get to feel like a double failure, because not only was my work rejected, but also, I’m a whiny little baby who completely lacks whatever inner fortitude is required to get over it. I don’t even know what getting over it looks like.

I try to imagine it, of course. I tell myself things like “even the best stories of all time have usually been rejected at some point.” And then I think about A Confederacy of Dunces, and how John Kennedy Toole killed himself and it was his mother who actually had that fortitude, and I just get depressed again.

I make analogies. Rejection feels like getting stabbed in the gut. Trying to deal with it feels like trying to cauterize a wound. And a part of me stands back and folds her arms and raises her eyebrows and says, “Wow, you are soooooo melodramatic about this. Is your writing self, like, fifteen years old or something?”

YEAH PROBABLY MY WRITING SELF IS THE MOPIEST OF ALL MOPEY TEENAGERS.

I felt disappointed when we didn’t get on the Matterhorn, too, but it didn’t threaten to ruin my day.

Why are these things so different? Because one involves my — ego, I guess. My identity. Hey, I go on the Matterhorn or not, whatever. It’s fun if I do. I can fret a little about how spendy Disneyland has gotten, and now that you pay a per-day fee, it’s actually worth less on crowded days, and by the way, why is it so crowded today, it’s like 95 degrees outside, why is my birthday in July, I should never have come here in July, I should have celebrated my birthday some other time of year, I should have known it would be hot, I would get a sunburn, am I getting a sunburn? Probably. I think I sweated off all my sunblock. Is this line even moving? This whole trip was a mistake. I should never have come. What was I thinking? Southern California in July. All my plans fail. I should never do anything. I should find a shady spot and just sit there for the rest of my life. Which won’t be very long if I don’t get, you know, water and stuff. And I’ll get bored. I know I will. And they’ll kick me out of the park also. I mean, if I’m just sitting there. They’ll be like, hey, the park is closed, get a move on.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Rejection. I don’t know how people deal with it. Does it ruin everybody’s day? Does it ruin your day at first and then if you do it enough you get used to and it only ruins your day little bit? Is that my problem? I flee in the face of rejection every single time, and never develop the necessary scar tissue?

Getting a work of fiction rejected — when you’re not counting on fiction sales to pay the rent, anyway — should be no more disappointing than not getting on the Matterhorn.

Maybe the problem is that our culture does not teach us how to fail. “It’s okay if you try and don’t make it” is not a message we get. Instead we get “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” “Do or do not, there is no try.” Everything is high stakes, winner take all, zero tolerance. We don’t tell stories about the people who come in second. We’re only half-joking when we talk about a silver medal as “losing.”

But in order to learn, you have to be able to fail. Otherwise you’ll never step out of your comfort zone. You’ll never stop doing only the things you’ve already mastered, which doesn’t exactly lead to more areas, or higher levels of mastery. Little failures are the path to success.

But rejection — of any kind — feels different than other kinds of failure. It feels more personal. And I guess it is more personal, in a way, since rejection is based on a person who is not you making a decision that affects your life. Getting fiction rejected feels like a combination of being turned down for a job and being turned down for a date. It can feel like somebody telling you that you’re just not good enough, fundamentally, as a person. But that is almost never what people mean to be telling you, especially not when it comes to your fiction. I mean, you might turn somebody down for a date or a job if they seem like an unpleasant jerk in person, but most of the time, even if an editor knew you were a jerk, they wouldn’t care.

So why does it feel so personal? Like somebody taking an extra-sharp microplane cheese grater to my soul? (Those things really hurt, by the way.)

I dunno. Because I care, I guess. And maybe because I’ve always had been afraid that there’s just something… you know… wrong with me. When I was young, the other kids let me know I was a weirdo, my church let me know I was going to hell, and my society showed me what was “normal” and I couldn’t find myself there. I think a lot of us take to fiction because we feel like freaks, and fiction helps. Sometimes it tells us, “you’re not actually a freak, here’s a story about somebody who’s a lot like you in all these ways you thought nobody was like you.” Sometimes it tells us, “don’t worry if you’re a freak, freaks are great!” Sometimes it tells us, “when you look at the vast infinitude of all that has ever been and all that could be, the very concept of ‘freak’ vs ‘normal’ vanishes.”

But, freak or not, all of us like getting pats on the head. We like being told “yes, yes, you’re good enough after all.” Some areas of my life — schoolwork, say — were always pretty reliable sources of head-pats, so they became core parts of my identity. Other things, like my many hobbies, were always low-stakes, so that success was satisfying and failure didn’t seem like much of a loss.

Writing is a dumb thing to hang my identity on, I guess, in that equation. Sure, you get a pat on the head sometimes. But then you get a taser blast. And the flick of a whip made from razor wire. And a glass of broken glass to swallow. And a hundred fishing weights sewn into the flesh of your back. (Okay, obviously, I’m not talking about rejection anymore, I’m talking about the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow.) What you get is rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection rejection success! rejection rejection…
Getting good reviews means you also get bad reviews. Getting a book published doesn’t mean your publisher won’t go out of business. Failure is built in. Part of the job. Inevitable.

So why do it?

I don’t know. I guess I do it for the same reason it hurts: because I care, because I think it matters. It’s a feedback loop. Maybe everything in life is a feedback loop.

I have a new goal for the remaining two days of the workshop: find a ritualized coping mechanism for dealing with rejection, something other than tequila and self-pity.

Saint Expedite, can you help me?

I’ll come back again next week, with my Week 6 conclusion, and let you know what I figured out.

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