Don Rogers: Blessings from the sting
Ah, rejection, sweet rejection, an acquired taste with all its bitterness. But there may be nothing better for you.
That’s what I took from an article in Poets & Writers by the keynote speaker, Grant Faulkner, for tomorrow’s Sierra Writers Conference in Grass Valley.
Every writer drinks from this cup, dreaded as hemlock, killer of souls. And this guy argues for embracing the poison, even drinking more?
Rejection may well mean — probably does — that your stories all suck, your talent lacks, you’re not nearly good enough and never will be. You’re not so special, after all. Only mortal like the rest of us knuckleheads trying to get our work through the eye of a needle. Left pining on the wrong side of publication or wherever you’ve set the bar.
But it also means so much more. It means you dared take a swing. You produced something and risked yourself. It means lessons a pat on the back could never teach. It’s a map or at least a hint of one. It’s evidence of courage, true courage, that comes with putting yourself out there. That is, living, vs. breathing just a little.
And something else. Faulkner dwells in his piece on enduring dissatisfaction with one’s own work. Too easy to slip into self-satisfied autopilot, though he has a fancier term: Acedia. Acedia originally referred to monks who got a little lazy, whose concentration slipped from pure duty to God. Discomfort, a dose of brimstone maybe, put them back on track.
“The paradox is that the deepest faith, as with the deepest type of creativity, finds a strange comfort in the discomfort of serving a higher purpose,” Faulkner writes.
This is a state where the choreographer Martha Graham found no satisfaction, only “a blessed unrest.” Faulkner calls it a “gift of rejection.”
“Does rejection weaken us and make us buckle under its weight,” he writes, “or does it motivate us to go deeper into our work and push harder?”
I find music here. Burn out the ego, part of building the craft, and sail on.
My attitude seems peculiar among friends yearning to be published. I think of a lawyer who stopped working for three, four years to make his fortune writing a thriller and more recently a screenplay. I think he’s quit, though I hope not forever, when no publisher or studio bit.
An author of a memoir about his famous father only wrote it because he knew it wouldn’t be rejected, he told me over dinner. Never would have started if he didn’t already know it would be published.
I protect myself in a different way, I suppose, though I believe my feeling to be pure. Acceptance by a traditional publisher, that 1-2% chance, is only icing, dessert, not the main course. I don’t write with any hope of publication whatsoever. It would be fun, of course, and the validation would be terrific. For now, though, the little rejections embedded in critiques do so much more to further my craft, and I hope burnish it toward art.
I view writing as the original code, changing everything. It permeates all of human life, even such esoterica as mathematics and physics, the particle under the equation. It’s how we document history, how everything we know or think we know is transmitted through our species, what many of us understand about God, chapter and verse.
It’s the root of all mischief, worse than money, explicator of the seven sins, coyote of civilized society. The very devil his self. It is everything to me.
Beyond this intellectualizing, the truth is I simply can’t not write. So I do. And if I’m going to do this anyway, well, why not try to get better at it?
This goes beyond any consideration of talent, merit of the scribblings, journalistic impulses, income possibilities, sugar plum dreams of becoming the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, never mind Tolstoy or Le Guin, icons for the ages.
I go straight to my limits with writing, pushing at the wall. I’m frustrated. I’m humbled, even to my knees. I’m exhilarated, though this is rare, the pearl in a thousand oysters filled with sand.
But it’s also play, what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as flow from a concentration so profound a soul forgets existence in pursuit of the right sequence of words, that gateway to another reality achieved through abstraction. Where 26 pieces of code put you on a beach, not just reading about it but there, if only I can get the sequence just right.
This is why I read and think about Faulkner’s piece in Poets & Writers, why I go to conferences like the one tomorrow at Sierra College, where some of the best in this beautiful, painful calling will speak and teach. Why I keep writing, never satisfied, always diving for the pearl, deep as I can.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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