Sunday, 24 February 2008

In the wilderness


Once upon a time, many years ago, I had a three-year plan:

  • use every spare minute when not at work to finish first novel;
  • after publication of first novel, use proceeds and switch to part-time work, so can write second novel even quicker;
  • when second novel hits best-seller lists, quit job and write full-time.

Not a bad plan.

Three years later, my first rejection slip advised that whilst the characters were interesting the pace was too slow; the second told me that the story was well-paced but the characters ‘wooden’, and the other six or seven left me in no doubt that it was time to move on, get accustomed to the eight-to-five drudge, and work on novel number two in my spare time.


I’ve kept the vast majority of my rejection slips, in the belief that they might help me track progress through what’s felt at times like a wilderness---not a pleasant wilderness of trees and mountains, you understand, but a wilderness that’s dark, inhospitable and teeming with uncertainties. These rejection slips, it seemed, might be used to retrace my steps and get me out of there if I ever wanted to leave, except you can never go back the way you came, can you? And so the black humour of some of them have served to entertain me at times instead. One of my favourite rejection slips contains the following:

“That you have the instincts and energy to make a writer there is no doubt, but how you are to learn the disciplines of restraint, taste and relevance He alone knows. Story-telling is an art denied to all tell-alls.”

Oops. Ouch.

Which brings me to questions of resilience and purpose: What strategies do writers, musicians, artists, develop in the face of frequent and long-term rejection? What stops us from stopping, and from deciding to never pick up a pen or a keyboard or a palette knife ever again?


Is it a matter of gleaning every morsel of useful advice each rejection slip offers? Of finding solace in the knowledge that you’re a member of a very large club (even though you’d really rather not belong)? Or switching into another medium where one’s skills might be better recognised? Of bolstering the ego by standing in front of a mirror every morning and reciting: ‘Every day in every way my writing is getting better and better ...’ or chanting: ‘I think I can, I know I can; I think I can, I know I can ...’? Or do all of the above apply?

I pinned the Peanuts cartoon (above) above my desk, very early on, along with the rather genteel matchbox joke, because I figure it’s better to laugh than cry, however wry the humour. And I’ve sent my work to manuscript appraisal services to buy as much detailed feedback and advice as I possibly could, to compensate for the (understandably) brief rejection slips from those poor souls chained to the slush piles in each and every publishing house. And when the wilderness seemed too dark and inhospitable and teeming with uncertainties, and there seemed to be no way out, I consoled myself by immersing myself in my writing and telling myself yet another story or two.

How about you?

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