Wednesday, October 16, 2013

You Don't Know Nothing

Most Honorable Sir,
We perused your MS.
with boundless delight.  And
we hurry to swear by our ancestors
we have never read any other
that equals its mastery.
Were we to publish your work,
we could never presume again on
our public and name
to print books of a standard
not up to yours.
For we cannot imagine
that the next ten thousand years
will offer its ectype.
We must therefore refuse
your work that shines as it were in the sky
and beg you a thousand times
to pardon our fault
which impairs but our own offices.
-- Publishers

Rejection letter from a Chinese publisher; from
Louis Zukofsky's "A"

On Monday, Debbie listed a relative few out of a long list of writers who were refused by publisher after publisher, agent after agent. Here's another:

Laura Van Warner wrote her first novel while working as an assistant to Doubleday senior editors Loretta Barrett and Betty Prashker. Both editors suggested she stick to her day job and forget the writing, as she clearly had no talent.

If you haven't read Laura Van Warner, look her up on Amazon. She's doing okay.

There's a special brand of discouragement that comes along with being a writer. Literary agent Harriet Wasserman once said of her longtime client, Nobel Prize winning novelist Saul Bellow:
“For Saul, every book is his first book, and he is always the first-time writer welcoming reinforcement.” 
Few people really know themselves. We crane our necks to look inside and to our despair, we see a void. Why kid ourselves? We know nothing about writing.

But you don't know nothing.

To prove it, let me list a few things you do know, once you think about them:

  1. You don't have to be a natural. Any lousy writer can get good at writing if they keep on writing long enough. Gustave Flaubert once said, "I have never been so conscious of how little talent is vouchsafed me for expressing ideas in words." Graham Greene said it more plainly: "I have no talent."
  2. You do have to have a heart on fire. You have to care enough to keep going long enough to get good. 
  3. You may never see a novel of yours on the New York Times Best Seller List. Then again, you might. The fact is (assuming you keep writing) you don't know, either way. 
  4. It doesn't matter if you never see a novel of yours on the New York Times Best Seller List. You've had your head turned inside out and right-site round by authors few others have ever heard of. And those authors probably have a lot to do with why you dream of being an author. Like them. Obscurity's not so bad. 
  5. You'll never get rich on obscurity. Like many obscure authors, you'll have to work out some mix of struggling, living simply, and finding work. If you find work, try to find something that feeds the muse. Or that leaves your mind free to plot your novel during the day and your evenings free so you can write your novel. If you can't do the above, you must find work that sets your heart on fire. 
  6. You have to have a heart on fire. 
  7. And above all, you must find a way to write. You know too much not to. 


Cherry Odelberg said...

"The fact is, you don't know either way."
Ain't it the truth?

Patti Hill said...

Katy...THANK YOU! Lighting heart now.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Katy, I love your list. It's very encouraging. I have another author to add to those already mentioned. Jack London. He had upwards of 100 rejections before he sold anything. The first time I went to the state park named for him, where he actually lived and wrote -- I've been there several times and love it more each time I go -- I was so encouraged. I had racked up my own mounting pile of rejection letters, and was still a long way from being published. But it kept me going, because it showed that perseverance pays off. And working hard at your craft pays off. Thank you for this.

Kathleen Popa said...

Cherry: yes. :)

Patti & Sharon, nobody works harder, or inspires me more than you.