I often see on Facebook postings by friends, typically former students, who are chasing various dreams and life goals that many would perceive as unrealistic rather than settling for something less. They inspire me and give me hope. Reading one such post recently reminded me of a speech I gave a few years back at a banquet at the University of Toledo for English majors who had won various department-sponsored creative writing awards.
Rereading my speech, I feel that there is still value in it and real world wisdom for those dreamers learned from my own Quixotic experiences “tilting at windmills.” What follows is the written version of that talk with the numerical order of talking points included. This is for the dreamers who refuse to give up their dreams or give in to the naysayers. In the words of Aerosmith, I say, “Dream On.”
- It’s an absolute joy to be among so many of my people, my kind of people: you English Majors, you purposeful idlers, you unapologetic romantics, you unconventional thinkers, you iconoclastic throwers of conceptual bricks, you rejecters of the status quo. Most pleasing for me tonight is the opportunity to address particularly those among you who will choose to become members of the 99% – not the 99% of economic have nots but the 99% of those who will seek mainstream publication for their writing but never see it on their local bookstore or library shelf. I cite this deflating statistic not to discourage you; rather, by standing in front of you tonight as a 1 percenter myself (in the published sense, not the financial), I hope to convince you that you too can make that giant leap. Early in Sophocles’ Antigone, Ismene, the title character’s timid sister, asserts that “things impossible, ‘tis wrong to attempt at all.” But if I had believed such nonsense, I’d have never bothered to defy the absurd odds against achieving mainstream publication, yet here I am. Know this, if I can do it, trust me, so can you. I have no preternatural gift for writing. Believe it or not, I don’t even enjoy writing that much. All things considered, I’d rather watch television. As a writer, I compare myself to the type of hockey player known as a “grinder” – not a particularly graceful skater or stick handler but one willing to muck it up in the corners, throw a few elbows, and, in general, do whatever needs to be done to put the puck in the net. When I started, I didn’t have a single contact in the publishing industry. I was a nobody from nowhere, but I possessed a stubborn determination to succeed, and I resolved that I would never stop trying until someone told me I was good enough.
- However, I must warn you that the world of mainstream publishing is not for the thin-skinned or the easily-discouraged. You will, most likely, fail repeatedly, and you will give up on the dream if you do not learn to make friends with the devil that is REJECTION.
- Actually, you should be more than mere friends with REJECTION; you should be lovers – with all of the sublimity, ecstasies, frustrations, masochism, and neuroses that mark any halfway-decent love affair.
- As English majors, you should be fairly accustomed to rejection and already well on your way to forging this relationship because, if I can assume you’re anything like me, for many of you, REJECTION has been a lifelong companion:
- As children, we were rejected by potential playmates who grew weary of waiting for us to “put down that stupid book,” so that we would come out and play.
- We were rejected by potential romantic partners who were less-than-impressed by our pale skins and under-toned bodies, which resulted from so many hours spent indoors with books and writing journals.
- We were rejected by those who were mortified by our choices in fashion and hair styles, both irrelevant considerations as we spent most of our time reading and writing in our favored nooks and crannies.
- We’ve been rejected by potential hook-ups who immediately disconnected when the inevitable question arose: “What’s your major?”
- Some of us were even rejected by those more widely-esteemed major programs themselves and only “settled” for the English department as a second choice because “I like to read,” or because “I did ‘good’ in English in high school.”
- I know of some rejected by their parents who refused to pay the tuition for such a “worthless degree.” I mean, “What are you going to do with an English major?”
- As undergrads and grad students, we’ve had draft after draft rejected for being either too original or too derivative; too under-sourced or too over-sourced; too obvious or too obscure; too conservative or too unconventional; too timid or too overreaching.
- We apply to numerous grad schools and MFA programs hoping that just one will take us and allow us to borrow even more money that will take a decade to pay back – if we can pay it back at all.
- In pursuit of academic publication, we’ve had papers and articles rejected by the most arcane, yet somehow significant, literary journals.
- Chasing mainstream publication, we’ve been rejected, in my case novel after novel and by agent after agent (somewhere north of a hundred), and, once represented, by editor after editor at publishing house after publishing house.
- Once published, the rejection doesn’t stop. We brace ourselves against not only the rejection of the trades (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Book List, to name a few) and mass media publications but also against that of the myriad of amateur bloggers and the dreaded and spiteful “Allocators of the Stars” at Amazon and GoodReads.
- We face the almost certain rejection of the general reading public who prefer their pot boiler stories of paranormal beings, soccer mom erotica, political thrillers by right wing talk show hosts – hell, anything by right wing talk show hosts, ghost-written celebrity novels and tell-alls, and the story of a five-year old, raised in a shack, who recounts his journey to heaven and the five people he met there (I may be guilty of conflation there.) to anything that is remotely literary or nuanced.
- Finally, we find our books rejected by the slew of e-readers who prefer the un-vetted crap they can download for free to the painstakingly-edited pieces that require an investment of nine dollars.
So, if any of you intend to advance further into the world of mainstream publication, I heartily encourage you to do so and, as I earlier noted, I’m living proof that anyone from anywhere can make it; however, proceed with full knowledge that the devil of rejection lurks. If he is unable to simply tempt you away from your goal with the Internet and television and fancy Smartphones, he will test your resolve with the constant reminder that the odds of publishing are too great and your talent too lacking. So, thicken your skin, steel your nerve, trust in your talents, think of my example, and stubbornly resolve to render the sinewy arms of Rejection impotent by embracing it.
To the Dreamers – whatever your dreams may be.
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