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

by S.J. Culver

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.