This is a piece I wrote after receiving a rejection letter for a novel. There are contradictions and hyperboles, but I chose not to edit much.
Failure and the Right to Create
Although I was given the time, ability, and resources to write, I have, in the end, not written.
Before I go much farther: I haven’t given up on my ideas. But, I’ve failed. As a writer, as a carrier of thoughts, and as a thinking member of the human race. This wasn't unfair, or due to unjust dealings. What I experienced was a mechanical failure, in which near perfect pieces combusted due to negligent and hasty construction. I wasn’t victimized by anyone, or barricaded away from anything of vital importance. I didn’t even lack skill, or, to use the accurate word, gift. I lacked wisdom. I didn’t know when and how to use what I had. The failure was, to put it simply, very much my own fault.
This is what the story was:
In high school, I wrote part of a pretty marketable book. There was interest. More interest than I knew how to handle.
I didn’t have the experience I needed to finish it at the time. The ending was as obscure as the future was. But, I liked the attention it was getting, I liked that I had freedom to think creatively without feeling guilty about it, and I liked the hope that it held – that somehow, I could get out of suffering the corporate trap America seemed to funnel its best and brightest into. (Which, to be clear, I am not. I was always around them, however.)
After flailing around with the draft for a while, it became clear that I wasn’t able to finish it. I tried to gain some traction in the market (and, by extension, forgiveness and help) by writing a few rushed short pieces, but those were about as popular as I was in high school. So, I gave up and started something else. A new book. I felt, after spending a couple years writing, rewriting and reading, that I finally had the full technical ability to write the book that would liberate me from a specific kind of anxiety. I was worried that the right to be creative would be taken from me someday by necessity, or force, if I didn’t act fast. And nothing has ever brought me more joy or wonder than the ideas I’m given, by others and by the virtue of consciousness.
I took a semester off pursuing the draft. I spent a summer in a library editing it again, instead of enjoying the remaining time of my limited youth. As far as I can remember, I think I was trying to redeem myself. What I owed, exactly, and to whom, is kind of a blurry subject. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t worth the energy. (Which, somehow, I had a lot of. I feel if I had expended the same amount of belief and vigor and thought into something else, the outcome would have been a little easier to take.)
Yesterday, the book received its first rejection letter. One interested agent, one submission, one rejection. Seriously – that was the way I did it. That was how delusional I was. I genuinely believed somebody owed me immediate success. (Not to mention, delusional enough to call a half-edited debut with a single tentative offer “safely on its way to the shelf”. You can take a look at my other article, which otherwise has some pretty good stuff in it, for that nice fabrication.)
Hope, when precious, deteriorates into delusion. At least, when I have it, it does. The idea was beautiful in my mind. As a child, I couldn’t understand how something which was so fine and immaculate to me could mean nothing to everybody else.
The rejection was fair. The book isn’t what I thought it was going to be, or what the company expected. There was a break down, sure, but I’d spent such a long time acting mechanically it felt good to finally allow myself to sob for a day. About everything.
Logically, the rejection shouldn’t have been a surprise. An agent and/or publisher loses nothing through declaration of interest. It’s easy to shoot a few emails saying you might possibly want something and promise a few vague figures. I must’ve been so weak in the head that I allowed myself to float on that thought while I trudged through a manuscript that violently fought against its own existence.
Now, a single rejection wouldn’t have meant much if it wasn’t a reflection of the truth. The agent was perfect for the book – she wasn’t the problem. I was.
A few days before I heard the final verdict, I got the news which began the cycle of doubt. I had experienced stress earlier in the week because of the election – about my ability to influence the cultural landscape, because of how deaf people seem to be to one another, how committed to false organization we are, and how that tears us farther and irreparably apart. I was wondering if culture was something a person ought to bother trying to improve at all, whether this was actually possible given the perceptual freedom granted to all conscious individuals. But, that’s a post for another time. About the book:
Even though I’ve gotten plenty of kind words from figures who took glances, the editor who worked on Cronus – and, therefore, also understands the dynamics of my writing– finally got back to me a few days before the rejection. Here’s what he said:
“The 2nd novel lacks the driving force of the first book.”
The second novel lacks the driving force of the first book. The first book, from high school. Which I trashed.
And, he was right. But it wasn’t just the book that lacked driving force, or that was contrived. I myself lacked vision. I was a stifled personality. Not to get dramatic about it or anything, but I was. I’d forgotten about the whole first half of my life as a figure skater. I’d twisted the past to mean something else, and for this reason the present, in my mind, meant something other than what it actually was. The imaginary ladder lead to imaginary places. Half of the personality was suppressed. I felt I had too much to lose, at the time, by admitting the negative. I worried I would lose the whole of what I loved.
Now, I’d like to talk about why the book didn’t work on a practical level. What was wrong with the writing. Even though the novel fits together in my mind almost perfectly, I don’t believe that that means I’ve done an effective job of translating it onto a page. Or, that it’s the type of thing which belongs on a page at all. Just because the idea exists doesn’t mean it’s necessary to write it down. Sometimes, it doesn’t want to be written, only thought. These were the problems, as told to me by others:
- My characters here are thin, compared to the characters in my first book. (Characters are apparently my strong point, according to the feedback I hear. Most of the time. The characters in WTUiF come off as false. They say art is like a mirror. So, to this extent -- I’m not surprised.)
- The beginning reads like a series of beautiful, unrelated scenes in a very symbolically complex world. Like music, not fiction.
- The characters are driven by theoretical ideas and not actual events, which makes their actions read as contrived demonstrations of various moral ideals. From a future vantage point, this bothers me most. I used to think morality could be instructed – in reality, the way an idea is interpreted isn’t up to the artist. Truth is decided by the viewer.
- And, naturally – it lacked driving force.
All of the above are fair and accurate criticisms, reflective of my errors as a human being. No matter how you spin a sentence, you can’t change the essence of a thing. And my essence, at the time, was one of vague, self-serving abstraction. I felt if I aspired to a certain degree of structural beauty, I could achieve a perfect image. Like a painting of sorts. But a novel is a painting as much as a painting is a novel – a story can be extracted from both, but one is linear and one is whole. A painting hits you all at once. A story is supposed to slowly reveal itself. The way I wrote it, almost none of the sequences are worth anything until you get to the end. Pow – an image. That isn’t how a story ought to work. Not a profitable one, at least. Or, a readable one, in any case.
Still, I’ll put the book out, one way or another. I do believe it’s worth the fight. Traditional, self published, at a point no sooner or later in the future than the natural sequence of events would permit. I remember Cronus had many of the same problems until I went in and rewrote the beginning. The rewrites were a success. Editing does work – books can be repaired and published. But, the final outcome won’t be reached anytime soon enough to predict. My exophonic languages professor says, two more stages, each 12-18th months. Maybe shorter, maybe longer. Maybe much longer – maybe I’m not old enough to understand what is worth saying and what isn’t. That’s okay. I’d rather do something well than trash it too soon or do it poorly. All I know is, when I have a few minutes in the coming weeks and months, I’ll re-read the draft, fix the beginning and send new queries – but I can’t promise anything more than that.
The important thing now is to not waste what I’ve learned. And, not to waste the time that lies ahead, however long or short it may be. I won’t toss out the ideas I spent a lifetime spinning – they can be applied to this reality, now more than ever. Maybe not through writing, at least not right now, but they can, should, and will be applied.
So, I made one, long mistake – I lacked the courage to leave a fight I am not in a position to win at the moment.
I look forward to the ideas and projects the future will bring – even the 99% of which will never amount to much more than a passing thought. Someday, I’ll see the things which appear in my mind appear in the world. I haven’t given up on my ideas. I’ll see what I love, someday. But, I’m a long ways out. For the first time, the distance is too far to count.
And, I embrace that.
Published by Stephanie Manova