Thursday, March 17th, 2011

On Expectations (And A Writer's Lack Of Same)

This winter I got a rejection note for a short story I had sent out to a magazine 838 days previously. I have too much personal integrity to name the magazine (that was a joke; I don’t; I’m just scared of editorial blacklists), but here’s a short list of things I did with my life while that magazine was considering whether to publish my 16-page story: I grew my hair ten inches; I paid off a car loan; I did my taxes (three times); I got my own apartment; I read 131 books; I attended two weddings and a baby shower; I cut my hair off again; I drove across the country three times. Additionally: I completed an MFA in creative writing, taught five semesters’ worth of college freshmen how to write, and, after 149 job applications, landed a full-time position with health insurance and a 401(k). I wrote a dozen more stories and the beginning of a novel. I sold reviews and articles to various markets. I actually published the story in question in another magazine. In the animal kingdom, the elephant is considered to have an especially long gestation period at 22 months. Depending on your reckoning, 838 days is one elephant, two giraffes, three humans, five sheep, 19 kangaroos, 25 litters of rabbits or 70 litters of North American opossums. If I'm good in this life, perhaps heaven will be the chance to set a pair of possums loose in a certain editorial office.

Studies of emotional cognition in preschoolers have shown that the ability to mask disappointment is highly correlated with perceived social skill level. “Display rules,” that is, accepted social guidelines dictating the expression of emotions, can be seen in use by children as young as three years old—children who don’t yet fully understand the difference between authentic and fabricated emotions. Writers, who understand nothing if not the difference between authentic and fabricated emotions, are often shockingly bad at hiding their own disappointments. For example: begin talking about trying the writing life, about applying to MFA programs, and the first thing anyone who has gone through a writing program will tell you is, “Don’t expect to get anything out of it.” You’ll be told that workshop is harsh (or else stupid), that creative writing teaching jobs are a figment of Jane Smiley’s imagination, that James Franco is the only person in the country allowed to publish short stories anymore. You’ll be assured, essentially, that putting pen to paper is bad business.

Fiction writers who have had some success are a little better at hiding this kind of sentiment, but not by much. Try finding any essays or interviews with well-known writers that don’t take the same cynic-stoic approach. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone, and learn to keep from building expectations,” writes one of the grandfathers of short fiction, Richard Bausch, in his “ten commandments” of writing. Translation: Never think about Jonathan Franzen, if you can help it. There could hardly be more of a difference between Bausch and a writer like Zadie Smith, yet here is Smith expressing a similar sentiment: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” This mantra of acceptance is everywhere. Acceptance of the difficulty of the writing task. Acceptance of the waiting. Acceptance of the greatly flawed and hugely problematic enterprise of mainstream publishing. Acceptance—grimly—of rejection itself.

It's possible to make too good a study of limiting expectations. I can attest to that fact. Writers, as a group, like nothing more than to talk about their “process,” which is how I know that I don’t have a good one. Since finishing their MFAs, some of my graduate school colleagues have landed major book deals, published work in prestigious magazines and taken jobs in high-profile literary organizations. They self-promote and network; they get by on sheer talent and grant money. They start their writing days at dawn. Some of these folks are polymaths: they research and write, play music and write, design fashion accessories and write, do stand-up comedy and write. Others are simply diligent, polishing and refining final drafts of projects they began years ago and are seeing through to completion.

I wish I belonged to either of these groups. Instead, on my computer’s hard drive languish five partial drafts of the novel I began writing in 2008. All of the drafts are between 100-200 pages in length. I don’t think any of the abandoned drafts are terrible, which, in a way, is worse than thinking they’re just unworkable. Those drafts make me think the problem is that simply that I cannot finish a book-length work. I don’t have the stamina, the attention span. I have game, but I can’t close. Some of this paralysis is surely caused by ineptitude—if I knew how to write a novel, I would have written the damn thing by now—but I'm suspicious of the effects of the writer’s gospel of resignation.

A year ago, my graduate school thesis director read a new story of mine, a story that I had written as an exercise and did not think was very good. In an email, he told me it was terrific, that if I could write a few more stories like it, I’d have a book deal. I laughed at my computer screen when I read his message. I was surprised he thought the story was impressive—but I was more surprised at his rosy forecast for my writing career. Hadn’t he heard about the James Franco thing? I dismissed his response, citing his insulated position as a successful writer. His work never saw a slush pile. He wasn’t following publishing trends obsessively, like every young writer I knew. Clearly, I could not take his message seriously. I knew better. I knew what to expect of myself and of my work: little, if anything at all.

Low expectations are not a recipe for good self-care. You get sour; you drink too much wine; you stop reading because everything you read makes you even more sour; you go on diatribes against successful young writers in the kitchens at parties. You definitely are not working out. Eventually you wear a hole in one of the elbows of your bathrobe and instead of taking it off, you think, “That makes sense. It’s nice to have a little air circulating around. They should make all the bathrobes this way.”

Funnily enough, it was the 838-day rejection that led my way out of this low-expectations funk. That particular thanks-but-no-thanks got under my skin. I was outraged, really outraged, when it popped up in my inbox—not because I really thought my story had stood much of a chance at the magazine in question, but because it was the first rejection in some time to catch me off guard. Usually I expect the rejection slips; they turn up like clockwork four months, six months, eight months after I mail off a submission (a beaver, a baboon, and a moose, respectively, if you’re keeping track). My mind is steeled against their inevitable arrival, knowing the odds, knowing I’m no genius. This one was a nasty surprise, though, and for a day or two I was just disgusted.

I’ll tell you what, though—after I got that rejection, I finally thought about what disappointment actually means. I stopped trying to avoid it and just thought about it: about why we’re ashamed of it, about why we try harder to hide it than feelings that are inarguably worse (see: rage, hate). In a letter to Bennet Langton, Samuel Johnson writes, "I know not anything more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed." What a jerk this guy was, right? I think differently about disappointment: I don’t think our goal should be to avoid it. I think disappointment is evidence we’re on the right track. I think it means we’re after the things that matter. I think we should stop being afraid of getting caught caring about our failures.

I would like to end in an uplifting way—to write that I ended up submitting the story my advisor liked, that it’s been published, that I’ve taken up an old draft of my novel and am now determined to finish it. The truth is, perhaps appropriately, somewhat more disappointing. I did submit that story, but so far it has garnered nothing but more rejection slips of the “Dear Writer: Go away!” variety. I recently began a new draft of the novel, electing to ignore the files piling up on my computer’s desktop. I got a free copy of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” anthology and used it as a weight to hold down the lid of my broken garbage can.

There is, however, one small, good thing here: I have not given up. I read every day; I write every day. I'm reminded that I know what I want. I'm reminded that if disappointment is all that I must bear, I can bear it—I can welcome it.

S. J. Culver has some degrees in writing and maintains a tenuous web presence here.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

Annie K. (#3,563)

Dear S.J., Never give up, never give up, never give up. Yours, A.F.

Hamilton (#122)

You've been accepted by The Awl though!

GailPink (#9,712)

As a writer, going-through-or-having-gone-through similar experiences, I enjoyed this. Thank you.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Here is a story you might appreciate, though it is about academic publishing rather than literary.

A faculty member in my department submitted a book for publication. While this is done in a similar way to literary works (you have to find a publisher who likes the idea and get a contract and like that), once it's finished the book then needs to be blind peer-reviewed before it can be published. Well, her book came back with one very positive review and one negative review that requested some changes. This is not unusual. What is unusual is what the faculty member did: she refused to change a single word, wrote a seven-page letter detailing point-by-point how the reviewer was wrong, and sent it to the editor. The editor accepted this, admitted the faculty member was right, and published the book without a single change.

So yes, not having expectations too high is important, but when you've got something you know is good, you need to be willing to stand up for it.

doubled277 (#2,783)

This is all too true. And it has nothing to do with a coerced belief that your work is good – it has to do with that moment you finish or re-read something and say to yourself "this is good" but before the moment you then let your mind wander to "I wonder what others will think" because invariably "others" will disagree (with you and each other!) about what it is, what it could be, what it should be. So if you have that aha moment, where you know it's good – hang onto it! And stand up for it! When something truly new comes along – a lot of people think they hate it… until they can't stop humming it's tune, so to speak.

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

There is also the part where academic reviewers are often incestuous backbiting sonsofbitches, more than objective editors.

melis (#1,854)

As someone who works for an academic publishing house, I can only say: yes. Yes. And they never, ever make a deadline.

Mr. B (#10,093)

The idea of trying to publish fiction or poetry is almost too depressing to think about. I'd rather write a novel just to see for myself whether I can do it.

Wow, I usually don't like "writers on writing" stuff because all the other ones ever before this were pretentious, but I like this one a lot! [Edit: sincerely.]

zorica (#4,135)

Coming to terms with what I think of as "the struggle of something worth doing," including the heavy toll of disappointed hopes one pays at every turn, is part of growing up, or at least it is in the ballet world. Maybe I live in a harsher reality, but I think it's only harsher because it starts at ten and eleven years old; the scenario is the same. You have talent but you have vicious odds. You hang on because there's an incredible desire to do it and at least a tiny bit of encouragement from outside sources. There are years where the challenges pile one on top of the other interspersed by brief flashes of achievement that seem to amount to a lot less than they promised. The only difference between the people who survive the struggle and stay in the biz and those who "don't make it" is the willingness to continue struggling. If you're lucky enough to watch a best friend become a prima ballerina you can see how a little extra cash and a load of fans don't do almost anything to mitigate how fucking hard it is to chase the dream every day for a living. The adolescent fights it — the injustice, the cruelty to someone who works so hard and is so devoted! But then you grow up. You go to your auditions and see the machine at work and see that occasional person slip through the cracks on their way to success and eventually you get a scrap or two thrown your way and rather than feel like you're owed more you realize there are a lot of people who could never, never dream even of trying their hand because they were born wrong. Born poor, born to parents who themselves were so afraid of disappointment they weren't encouraged to try, born without talent, born without sight, born without one hand (not everyone's life allows them to try being a writer!). On your worst day as a dancer/writer you're still privileged enough to be in the race, and it's not about winning or even about finishing, it's about not being sour for being allowed to run.

I don't mean to say "quit yer whining" but I think it's really a sad thing to get caught up in. Disappointment, in huge quantity, is the hallmark of the thing worth doing. It takes a bit of pluck but if you can sit there after being cut from an audition or opening a rejection letter and find a way to connect that low directly to the greatest high you ever got from doing what you do, then I think the bitterness and frustration mostly resolve themselves. It's not an easy resolution and it never feels good to be let down, but since it's going to happen, over and over again, for as long as you're crazy enough to pursue something rare like artistic or literary achievement, I say "why fight it?" I'm never happy to be thrown on the trash heap or raked over the coals in rehearsal but with the fast approach of the end of my eligibility even for that, I have to say it's nice to still be able to say, "I'm a dancer" and not "I was a dancer when I was young" which, quite soon, is all I'll have left.

toonz (#10,533)

love this article, love this comment.

melis (#1,854)

Ditto. I love that picture, by the way.

Mandy Van Deven (#10,541)

Oh, how true this is! Thanks S.J. for validating what so many of us feel and experience.

Debussy Fields (#9,962)

I'm not so good with metaphors, but which one of Richard Bausch's children sired short fiction?

Hillary Rettig (#5,883)

>I don't mean to say "quit yer whining" but I think it's really a sad thing to get caught up in. Disappointment, in huge quantity, is the hallmark of the thing worth doing. It takes a bit of pluck but if you can sit there after being cut from an audition or opening a rejection letter and find a way to connect that low directly to the greatest high you ever got from doing what you do, then I think the bitterness and frustration mostly resolve themselves.

I totally disagree with this commenter. There's a huge difference between resilience (an essential/admirable quality) and being caught up in an essentially disempowering system. SJ's reaction makes perfect sense to me, including her(?) rage – although I think that rather than being angry with herself, she should be angry at the journal that incompetently, irresponsibly and disrespectfully held onto her story for more than 2 years.

Writers routinely put up with crap that no sane businessperson would put up with (and, yes, it is a business, even if we're talking about a literary journal subsisting on grants); and they also regularly get told that it is their duty to put up with that crap for art's sake or whatever. That's total BS, and it's why I and so many others have moved to self-publishing and self-promotion – not just because we don't want to get exploited or disrespected, but because we know that disempowerment is unhealthy on every level, especially when endured over years.

Hillary Rettig

zorica (#4,135)

I guess from my point of view, the idea is not to let someone else's incompetence and disrespect be a disempowering force in one's life (which doesn't mean don't object to it, but does mean don't let it fill you self-loathing). I agree with you that rather than be angry with his/herself, he/she should set the bad mark firmly on the shoulders that deserve it — the journal. And I also agree that if/when one finds oneself in a system that is failing, the best thing to do is to choose another system. What I don't agree with is the idea that discouragement isn't going to be a part of achievement. There's always going to be incompetence and disrespect out there, and there's always going to be things that could have, should have, ought to have gone your way, but didn't. If you respond to that with bitterness and negativity and see it as depressing and discouraging then I don't think you're doing yourself any favors. I certainly wouldn't say you have to be thankful for it! Not in the least! But I think it's narrow-sighted to let the outrage inspired by pettiness and injustice sour one's concept of the career. That's a danger that I understand full well because I sacrificed a few years of my own to that kind of outlook. Growing out of it was the happiest alteration my life has ever seen, and probably the only reason I've been able to do any of the great things I've since gone on to do, few or mitigated as they may be.

edgeworth (#8,867)

When I read pieces like this by young writers who are struggling real hard yet still being more succcessful than me, all I can think is "I hope they're older than me." (I'm 22.)

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