In the Toolbox

I’ve noted something in the comments on writerly support sites. The further along writers are in time, and in attention to their words, the less likely they seem to care about commercial success. 

Instead they’re plugging along, “not taking it personally”, writing a book every year or three. They’re writing them not simply as acts of creative expression meant for family and friends, but as books they’d like, someday, to sell.

The writers congregate on agents’ blogs to discuss the how and why, practising voice and plot and pacing, and they talk business. How to sell. Where to sell. Drawers of rejections. There’s almost a fetish about rejections: one author mentioned papering his studio with them.

That “don’t take it personally” is the most quoted and most amusing bit of rejection advice out there. I understand the advice –

but of COURSE you’re going to take it personally, when you’re new. You’re waiting to be hired. You’re showing up at a job interview with your best clothes on, the ones you fretted over because you’re not sure what the corporate culture is like really, and you took a crowded bus off your regular route and arrived a little sweaty and rumpled; after you got there you worried about having coffee breath and no mints, so you went and splashed your face in the bathroom sink and gargled water and breathed deeply and pulled yourself enough together to go in beaming.

And you get an automated call saying the position’s been filled. You wonder why. What was it? The rumple? The coffee breath? You don’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes, or how many people interviewed for the position, or what their resumes looked like, or what the selection committee was looking for. You don’t know, in the case of rejection, whether you simply aren’t qualified or you don’t fit. You have no idea what’s going on behind those doors. It’s personal because you don’t have enough information for it NOT to be personal.

Then one day, you wake up with fifteen finished books and six drawers of rejection letters and your spouse is annoyed with how much your head’s in the computer, and you’re not taking it personally anymore.

Why? The writers who stick around appear to be those who’ve validated their own punch tickets. They’ve hired themselves. They write because it’s what they do, and being ignored hasn’t stopped them. They keep polishing and saying, and the rejections, well, they’re just the way it goes.

Mainly, they’re still putting it out there. Submitting anyway. One said “I have come to accept I don’t write commercially viable stories” – and then he submits. Maybe someday.

What drives a person to think they have something unique worth saying, something both interesting enough and important enough that it should be available to people they have never met? What makes a war-hardened writer, poet, filmmaker, dancer, artist, actor? One who keeps submitting, keeps putting it out there? One who is not only motivated by the drive to be seen and heard – because that’s the ‘personal’ that must be let go in receiving rejection – and who is not motivated by the success because there are years of non success, but instead is motivated by the belief in their own expression for its own sake?

 I know enough of ’em, you think I’d have distilled it.

I haven’t. So I’ve been asking around. Historically, I’ve been worried that the answer in me is arrogance: I’ve been wrestling with a particular fear of being the nerdy, know-it-all kid. It dogs me in almost everything I choose to speak. The reason why Rants was originally born was out of that fear – the reason why it was grew awkward was out of that fear. The withering personal response I got to Eureka last year hammered that fear with a big heavy hammer — yes, it said, you are an arrogant know-it-all — and I had to choose: Do I accept this criticism? Do I throw it off?

I decided to throw it off. It’s a fear I’m letting go of a bit at a time, and in its place I’m left searching for the answer: why do we make art, and why do we wish to share it?

My Faux Pas thinks it’s a faulty gene.
A friend is thanking the artists who’ve helped her; answering them by joining her perspective to the conversation.
My Grandmother was responding to a Christian call.

When you hire yourself, you’re declaring that the frame that decides competence should grow to accept your input. In the case of entrepreneurial adventures, this tends to be bounded by market interest; in the case of artistry, you keep deciding that you have something worthwhile regardless.

That’s an interesting phenomenon.

Way back when, in my abnormal psychology course, Zimbardo’s fabulous textbook stated an explicit truth: mental illness is entirely constructed in culture. What is “ill” for one culture is accepted behaviour for another. Our culture creates a frame; the mentally ill cannot keep their lines inside that frame. The mental illness is compulsion to draw outside, inability to choose to stay inside: all of us have aspects of self that we cannot completely control, and all it takes is living in a society that rejects that aspect.

I learned the service of artistic vision from someone who was mentally ill, which meant that my own idea of artistic impulses appeared to spring out of mental illness. (Certainly, I can see why they’re twinned.) I was confused about motivation – because to hire yourself and keep at it suggests you think what’s not in the frame, what you’re saying, needs to be included.

But most of our great heroes are people doing this work. Civil rights activists, artists who see not a penny in their lifetimes, the lone voice pointing out the naked emporer, the individual saying ‘no’ to tyranny. We need tribe, but we need to question tribe, too.

Submitting anyway asks less of a me than taking prison time for conscience sake.

Thinking of it that way, submitting anyway is the least I can do.


  1. Long ago, during one of my dad’s sabbaticals, my parents rented the house to an anthropologist. We met him before we left, and he had done some really interesting work with tribal peoples, and particularly shamans in… either India or the Amazon, possibly both, I can’t quite remember. But I remember him talking about individuals who would have been locked away in our culture: they heard voices, they liked to rip apart small animals with their bare hands, they hallucinated with and without the help of mind-altering substances. He was coming up with western diagnoses like schizophrenic and psychopathic, but the tribespeople were considering these folks as touched by the gods, and giving them jobs within the tribe that seemed to have been tailored to the “mental illness”. You like pulling the entrails out of birds and smearing yourself with blood? Do we have a divination job for you!

    Fascinating stuff. See, now you’ve got me thinking about societies who pathologize our “normal”… well, my dragons pathologize emotion already. But this right here is the seeds of story, to me.

  2. One thought that went skittering through my mind as I read this – how many artists are ignored or villified during their lives, and then after their death, suddenly society realizes the value of their work. All those artists that were ahead of their time, who lead society into a new way of thinking or seeing… something in them said – I’m right and society doesn’t see it yet. Did they know someday society would understand? Did they care?

  3. This post made me think of an interview I once heard with Edie Falco, where she talked about the years and years when she was acting in obscure productions and working as a waitress, broke into her mid-thirties. And then came The Sopranos, and now she’s famous. But she’s probably the same actor, more or less. So how could she keep having faith in herself that she was that actor, years before almost anyone else noticed? It’s amazing to me.

  4. Part of the way to keep having faith, in my experience anyway, is to really, REALLY take stock of the work that’s being done in your field. The dirty little naked-emperor secret: much of it is crap. Not all of it, but enough that you begin to realize that merit alone is not all it takes to get published. There’s luck, or zeitgeist. There’s knowing the right people, or being in the right place at the right time. And there’s plenty of genuine crap that becomes ragingly popular.

    Now, obviously, you don’t want to be the next hotshot piece o’ crap. You want to do Good Work. But isn’t your work ALREADY better than the worst of what’s getting published? If you’re putting any heart into it, and have an ounce of craft to your name, then YES. Yes it is.

    You’re already good enough to be published, QED.

    If you haven’t been published yet, there are other factors in play, somewhere. But hands down, the #1 reason for not being published? YOU HAVEN’T WRITTEN ANYTHING YET. Most folks never do.

    And that’s one thing that keeps me at it. That, and the crazy.

  5. Hello, my name is Faux Pas and I have a bad gene (hello faux pas).
    I’m an art maker, because there’s not much else I’m as good at. I do it because I DO have that horrible art gene, but it’s MY gene and I accept it as such. To make a livable wage off of my art would be Nirvana, but I would still be suspicious of the validation. I would still question why “they” like it and do “they” really get it?
    It’s funny, but I am much more accepting of the rejection and I see it much more as a character flaw in the viewer than as a value judgment on the level of my artistic skills.
    BTW, I really like the direction you’ve chosen for your digs here.

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