What Makes a Writer

A few weeks ago, I started taking a class with several other professionals from the nonprofit sector. During our first break, the student sitting ahead of me, a man in his thirties who worked in a community college’s finance area, asked me what I did for a living.

I explained where I work. It often spurs one of two reactions: complete lack of interest or piqued curiosity. This man fell into the second category. “Are you a writer?” he asked. I admitted it. The next question sort of startled me: “What do you think is the most important quality a writer needs to possess?”

“Perseverance,” i said quickly, not thinking. But the moment it was out of my mouth, I knew it was true.

The man was surprised, assuming, probably naturally, that the most needed quality would be something like a big vocabulary or the general term “talent,” the meaning of which is of course completely esoteric.

Today I recalled the conversation as I tore open what felt like my 3,000th rejection letter. My manuscript was compelling, the letter consoled, but there was simply too much competition this year. There were too many manuscripts more deserving.

My name was spelled wrong.

It shouldn’t sting like it does, not anymore, and for the most part, many of them don’t. But there are days when I can’t stomach the thought of tearing open yet another quiet rejection, a stoic thank you for my submission. Submission: such an interesting word. To submit means both to send in for judgment and also to yield to the control of another. Are we all masochists, we perverse writers? Will you take the pain I will give to you? Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode asked in “Strangelove.” But that doesn’t really matter. What he wants to know is: Will you reteurn it? Like good masochists, we only send things out for the response, not for the act of sending them out.

I’m to the point now where every time I receive a response letter, I repeatedly whisper to myself, It’s a rejection, it’s a rejection. Not in recognition, but in hope: like Patty Hearst suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, I have seemingly come to love, to depend on the rejection of the literary establishment. Like Patty, I, too, have spent many years locked in the closet of failure, of “we liked your work but we can’t use it now. I pray for rejection because I simply wouldn’t know how to respond to anything else.

When Jim Elledge called me to tell me I’d won the Frank O’Hara award, I said things like Oh my God. Wow. Oh my God. Mostly without emotion. I was, at some level, waiting for him to say he was just kidding, that he appreciated my submission (read: my yielding to his control) but that my work really didn’t suit his needs right now.

Rejection is more comfortable than acceptance because it indicates you still have work to do. It means, surely, there is something you can still repair, or improve—something you can point to and say, This. This is wrong. But with acceptance there is nothing like that. People can praise you until they go blue in the face, but these comments are generally so less specific than the critical—what we would probably consider “constructive.” People might say they love your poems, or that they were moved by them, but the comments aren’t as clear as the person who says, “Your poem lacks the kind of depth or precision we generally publish. We prefer work that uses images. Are you familiar with imagery?”

Earlier today I was talking with a coworker who told me she’d received her very first rejection recently. I said, with sincerity, that rejection was the first step toward publication. I described to her my file folder of rejections, now too big to take any more half-slips, quarter slips, scribbed notes—it could simply hold no more. A described the Jack Sprat-like comparison of my acceptance file, how anorexic it looked sitting in the same filing bin as the reject file, fat and gluttonous and disgusting, like a small child who has worked his way through a tub of frosting and now, mouth smeared with fudge, teeth blacked out, has turned his attention toward the jelly jars in the pantry. There is no sating the rejection file.

And so, I remembered the conversation from class. Perseverance? the man was asking me. He wasn’t sure what I meant. I said, Writing’s the easy part. I took a sip of my drink for effect. It’s what you do with it that matters.

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