Confessions of an “unsuccessful” writer

There are some things in the writing community that seem to be a definite no-no. I don’t understand why it’s this way, but it seems it is. One of those things is not to mention how long you’ve been writing and remain unpublished. I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing, but that’s the reaction I’ve gotten more than once, around different sets of writers over the years.

But since I think it’s a stupid thing to think is wrong, I keep doing it. And I’ll do it now.

I got my first rejection letter in 1975. It was for a short story (and it really needed to be rejected for SO many reasons–especially since it wasn’t a short story, it was a first chapter) and came from Asimov’s magazine. If I remember rightly, it came before the end of the school year.

I’ve gotten a lot of rejection letters since then. Starting in 1983, they were generally personalized rejection letters. That means that the editor or agent really wrote it and addressed certain problems, or that someone scribbled a handwritten note on a form rejection letter. Writers get all excited when they get personalized rejections. I know I used to. But it’s still a rejection letter. There’s rarely an invite to send something else. (Though I’ve gotten three of those.) It’s still a rejection. You’re still not really closer than you were before.

So it’s been almost 40 years since I started submitting, which is supposed to be a big step in a writer’s life. I haven’t submitted something every one of those 40 years, but I’ve pretty much been writing that entire time. Someone who does something like this for so long with “nothing to show for it” must either be crazy, so I’ve been told by a few relatives.

Which has got me thinking about why I keep doing this writing thing. I mean, what’s the point if you’re not getting published, you’re not raking in the moolah, you’re not getting all the big kudos?

Now, there was a time when I was desperate to be published. I was desperate to have that income, to be able to stay home and just write. In all honesty, my money-jobs have generally sucked vacuum and I’ve never been better off than working poor in my entire adult life. I bought into the myth that being a published writer was a panacea that would solve all those problems and give me a measure of respect among those people who scoff at my passion. Writing–publishing my writing–was my ticket out of all the hell and hassle that was my life.

Except it wasn’t. Yeah, I had a small press publication at the turn of the century (anyone else weirded out by being able to say that?), but that didn’t amount to a whisper in a windstorm. All those personalized rejections certainly didn’t help, even those I’ve been told that my writing was fine time and again. I won, placed or showed in several contests, and received praise from the judges, but that big dream of publication never happened.

So why keep beating my head against the wall? Wasn’t it obvious that I just wasn’t going to make it? When do I just give up and do something else that would be more profitable?

(Anyone else hear frustrating questions like that from loved ones, whenever you’re involved with something they just don’t understand. I hope they’re well-meaning, but oft-times it feels like they’re just plain mean, y’know? Why do they think I have to conform because they’re uncomfortable?)

Anyway, the question remains: Why keep beating my head against the publishing wall?

So that lead to a time of thinking and analyzing. This is not something that comes naturally to me (I think it might have something to do with my autism, I don’t know), but it takes a long time, like months. And what I came up with was kinda mind-blowing.

I let others define what “success” was supposed to be.

The only “validation” to be had from writing is to have a book published by a traditional (or trade or NYC or whatever it’s being called lately) published to the average joe on the street. (Among some writers, your “cred” goes up the better your agent is, if you’re still unpublished.)

Isn’t that silly?

How can that be the only reason for doing something personally demanding? Is the only “valid reason” for running to win the Boston Marathon or become an Olympian? Is the only “valid reason” for playing music or singing to win a Grammy or earn a platinum record? C’mon, really?

Writing is something that allows me to understand myself and the world I live in. Writing is something that fulfills some inner need for creativity for me. Writing is what has kept me alive through the deepest tiger pits of depression in my life (because no one could finish whatever I was writing the way I wanted it to be, I knew that instinctively). Writing is something that challenges me to do better every time I do it, where there are laurels to be gained but never to be rested upon. Writing is something that hope will make me a little more understandable to those around me, some of whom I’ll never meet any other way.

And I’ll tell you want writing is not, at least for me. It’s not something that defines me–I am many things besides being a writer. Writing is not something I do every day. I do not spend every minute thinking about it. Writing is something that frustrates me to no one, so when I finally do earn one of those laurels, I know I’ve really earned it.

Most of all, writing is not something that anyone else can define for me. It’s personal. It’s passionate. It’s satisfying.

In that analysis, I accepted that not everything I write will appeal to even a large percentage of the reading population. I will likely never write anything as popular as Harry Potter, or Anita Blake, or Middle Earth or Stephanie Plum. And that’s likely why I’ve had 40 years of rejections and am presently “unsuccessful” in other people’s eyes.

Even more, I’m good with that. I’m convinced that, somewhere out there, there’s a niche of readers who will enjoy the stories I want to tell. Nowadays, I don’t need a big publisher to reach them. Forty years ago, this option wasn’t available, y’know. If I hadn’t “beat my head against the wall” all this time, my stories would’ve had zero chance to find that readership.  Even better, I don’t have to deal with anyone else’s definitions of success and have that chance ended before it had a chance to really begin.

So, maybe I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t really beating my head against a wall. I wasn’t wasting my time and energy. I was just keeping my engines running so I can have my shot at “success”–how I define it.

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  1. I worked on a novel for many years – off and on when I had the time and the energy and the desire. My brother hounded me incessantly. Are you finished yet? No. Smirk. When I finally wrote ‘the end’ I shopped the manuscript for about a year before an agent asked to represent me. I worked with him for another year. He couldn’t sell it. We parted ways. After a period of pouting I began all over again. Almost another year later a small press called me and said they wanted to buy it. Unbelievable. It was finally sold and published.
    I write primarily because I love to write. I love to tell stories and always have. A big part of the enjoyment is immersing myself in a world of my own creation. It’s intimate, private, and no one has any control over it but me. Well, sometimes I wrestle with the characters 🙂
    It’s not about the money, although I wouldn’t turn it down. Publication simply allows me to share my love for telling stories with whoever might enjoy reading them.

  2. If you enjoy writing and learn from it, I think that’s the best reason in the world to do it. 🙂

  3. Deleyan, I can relate to this so much. My husband and I have been pursuing our writing for decades too. (He writes screenplays, I write novels.) We had to finally make our peace that we were doing it for ourselves, not for any worldly marker of success. Sure we’d be thrilled if he got a movie produced or my novel became a bestseller. But the important thing for us is doing the work.


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