Wednesday, January 12, 2011

'sall good

A word about rejection—not Rejection with a capital “R,” but simple puny plain vanilla everyday mundane rejection. (Because that shift key does make a difference. Think about “right” vs. “Right,” for example. See?)

Okay, fine, for comparison’s sake let’s talk briefly about Rejection. Rejection of the capital variety--professional Rejection--is painful, but also expected and somewhat anonymous. Over time, you get used to agents scribbling “good luck with another agency,” or “not for us,” or, simply “NO!” (“Good God, no” is obviously implied) in the margins of your carefully crafted, blood-soaked and tear-stained queries. At some point (if you stick with it long enough), though you’re disappointed, you really do develop that duck’s back. The Rejections slide right off. I’m not saying you won’t harbor a vendetta against a particularly nasty agent or two, perhaps one who felt the need to say something akin to “how could I possibly sell this you stupid stupid fat smelly writer?” But I digress. Once you land an agent, you face publisher Rejections. These are the biggest and scariest of the big “Rs,” especially when you get the type of Rejection your agent labels the “kiss of death.” (As an aside, why is it a "kiss?" Bitch-slap seems more appropriate.) Which means the publisher “loves your writing style” but doesn’t know “how to sell the book.” In other words, “we dig the book you’ve forgone school plays and promotions and any hint of a normal sex life for, but not enough to go to bat for it.” And there’s nothing you can do to fix it, short of writing an entirely different book. Which is the opposite of awesome. But, again, though you may not like it, you can handle Rejection from these faceless powers that be who sit atop slush piles drinking Manhattans and mocking your font choice.

Lowercase rejection--that’s another animal altogether. It involves watching your mom’s face contort in pain as she reads your manuscript. It’s your friend asking how your “little project” is going before launching into details about her pug’s hemorrhoids. It’s posting your blog on Facebook and getting no love, while your drunken rant likening goldfish crackers to manna from heaven garners a host of thumbs-ups and a page of comments. It’s real and it’s painful and it plays into all your insecurities and fears and co-dependencies. And it sucks. Because I think we all can agree, rejection from someone you know is exponentially worse than a stranger’s rejection.

But I learned something this week. Somewhere along this crazy path to publication (or maybe to financial ruin and cirrhosis of the liver; the jury’s still out), rejection stopped slaying me. I have a friend--an uncommonly bright and talented friend--with whom I shared my work recently. I’d shared short stories and excerpts with her before but, I have to admit, only those I’d chosen carefully because I knew they fit her style—dark and gloomy and decidedly non-mainstream, bleeding into the margins of acceptable subject matter. I knew my current novel wasn’t her brand of artisanal whiskey. I knew that from the first time I told her about it over breakfast and she raised her eyebrows, impaled her pancake, and changed the subject to some new foreign film about excrement. But I sent her the first chapter anyway, just for shiggles. Because if you aren’t willing to put yourself out there, then what’s the point? Might as well keep your desk job.

I believe our subsequent conversation went something like this . . .

“Ummm . . . I read your chapter.”



Awkward pause.

“I’ll tell you what I did like about it. I liked the setting.”


Sniffle. Cough. Yawn.

“You write kind of flowery.”


“Maybe if you, like, toned that down a bit . . . .”


“Anyway, Lou and and I had an amazing time in Napa. We never left the bed, and let me tell you . . . .”

So, you know, essentially she hated it. I guess I should feel honored she said anything at all; she has a rule that if she can’t honestly heap praise, she keeps her mouth shut. (Clearly she’s not cut from the same “pleaser” cloth that I am.) Though I think she must have strained to find something nice to say. I mean, I appreciate the effort, but the setting? Really?

But here’s the upshot (to borrow one of Kris’s favorite phrases) . . . it didn’t bother me. I get it. It’s not her style or a subject matter that interests her. And I am a flowery writer. I lean toward the verbose and I never met a metaphor I didn’t want to whisk off to Vegas. I think it works for this book and the demographic I’m wooing. I’ve been writing long enough and had enough input over the years to feel secure in my vision. That doesn’t mean I won’t take another look at it with her comments in mind--criticism is always helpful. I may tone it down a bit, but I don’t anticipate a major overhaul. One person’s excrement is another person’s art and vice versa. It’s nice to finally live here, in a place where rejection doesn’t sour me on my work. In fact, I might even invite my friend over for pancakes when the book is published.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


You know when you first hear a word or phrase and then you hear it again and again in a matter of days? My latest iteration of this phenomenon, which really should have a name (yes, I know awareness is probably sufficient, but a quippy name would be so much better), is with the french term "mise en place". Credit goes to an episode of Top Chef, after which it showed up in varying contexts and situations. I've comandeered it as my own now, terrible accent and all. And while mise en place is a beautiful thing to say, not to mention a lovely concept for we type-A-the-Container-Store-might-be-my-heaven folks, the phenomenon I will call awareness (for lack of that quippy term) has recently spoken to me in a more profound way--not with a word or a phrase, but in an idea, a notion, a lesson, if you will.

The weeks leading up to the holidays included for me a book club meeting, a Mahjong game (if you don't know it, learn it, its fantastic, not to mention addictive and, in my house, always involves wine), and a fair amount of yoga. Out of each of these delightful endeavors came a consistent theme. At book club, we read Last Night in Montreal about a girl, Lilia, who, as a result of a vagabond childhood, couldn't stay in one place, emotionally or physically. She remained on what she called the surface of life, never diving in, never taking the risks, feeling the fear, experiencing the pain, or relishing the joy. At Mahjong, a dear friend discussed her fear of buying a dog for her kids, already anticipating the death of the animal they don't yet have but know they will love like a family member. All of this made me think about what is required of us, in the bigger sense. How invested must we become in our own existences? I found the answer at yoga - sweet, blessed yoga, where construct is meaningless and questions can be cast aside for their cosmic irrelevance. At the end of a practice, sweaty and splayed out on our mats, we were told to thank ourselves for showing up. Just showing up. Not for executing the best downward dog or flying into crow. But for being there, ready to take on whatever the body and the universe was offering up that day. Showing up. That is what is required of us.

For you fellow over-achievers, showing up might connote mediocrity, but to my mind, it is anything but mailing it in. Showing up is engaging, opening up, being vulnerable to all that life has to offer, the good and the bad. Because, to be sure, you can't have one without the other. That might mean bringing home that new fluffy puppy, or allowing yourself to finally fall in love, or continuing to write in the face of repeated rejection and failure, all of which bring both joy and pain. So this is me, showing up. I hope to see you here.