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Weekly Wrap: Pummeling Ourselves

by Susan Henderson on September 29, 2006

Quick interruption: I’m interviewed here. And the dangers of pretending you’re deaf are here. Now back to the weekly wrap.

Every Friday, the Hendersons go to Chinese school. Some of my homework:

Mandarin is something I really suck at and I’m not afraid to admit it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings to know I will probably suck at it forever. Same with taking pictures. They’re always blurry because when I press the button, I inevitably jar the whole camera. I suck. Oh well.

The books I write are another matter entirely. The slightest sense of failure in my writing absolutely devastates me.

This week struck me hard. I was very moved by your responses to the Question of the Week and the pain so many of you expressed that comes from being a writer or artist (rejection, self-doubt, and perhaps that pain that drove us to be artists in the first place). I am so very moved by Tommy Kane, not just his interview answers, but the whole person and the art he creates. And this week, also, was a week of unexpected deaths. If you follow Neil Gaiman’s blog, you can’t help but feel the shock of grief. And my friend, the writer Girija Tropp, who won this year’s $10,000 Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize, came to New York (her first time in this country) as a celebration of sorts – a splurge to see what’s next for her career. And while traveling, her mother passed away, and it’s become a different journey altogether. She’s staying the weekend with me, by the way.

Behind every painting and manuscript and song is a person. I think that’s what I want to talk about today. Art is not a product; it’s a relationship the artist is offering you. I think one reason why artists bond so fiercely with each other is because connecting with both an artist and their art calls for immeasurable intimacy, vulnerability, and risk. And I think that’s why rejection in this business…an editor with a dismissive “I think I’ll pass on this”…can be so very debilitating.

Maybe, for me anyway, self-doubt is a survival instinct. I want so badly to protect myself from rejection that I attack my work before I even think to send it out.

*

A year ago, maybe two now, I had a really lovely lunch with an editor at a big time publishing house who loved my novel and recited lines from it over and over without looking at a cheat sheet. I felt like a rock star. She was already seeing sequels and asked me to indulge her by writing an extra chapter featuring her favorite character.

Time went by, she couldn’t push the book through the committee, and that was the end of our contact. Whatever had made her run across town in her pajamas to print out the second half of my book was not enough to seal a thing. And in the end, you’re just there with your rejection slip and no book. Just like before. Wondering why you keep writing.

After that, I wrote a second book, a memoir, but was afraid to show it to my agent. I still liked it and wasn’t ready to be crushed. So I blogged about it instead. An editor at an absolutely huge magazine contacted me that day and asked me to email her the entire manuscript. She called me the next day saying she just finished it and loved it, especially the ending scene where Mr. Henderson is peeing and eating an ice cream cone at the same time. “We’d like to excerpt it! I want to blurb it! Who’s publishing the book?” “Well, nobody is.”

Now, with two books on my hard drive, I contemplate starting a third and just can’t do it. Why? Because it feels stupid. Because each person knows how much rejection they can take, and I’ve reached my limit.

Instead, I decided to put up a little corner for writers and artists that didn’t suck the life out of them. That would be LitPark. I get notes sometimes from people saying they think I’m nice, and I appreciate those notes, but to be honest, LitPark is my f-you to the publishing business. It’s my way of saying, “Enough already! There’s more of us than you so treat us with some respect, damn it!” I write here and there, but I stay where the love is.

*

Thank you to those of you who responded this week: Mikel K, who had an epiphany one drunken night when he was throwing crumpled beer cans at a lead singer, and that epiphany: he is a writer despite what others say, and his feelings about his talent swing from great doubt to cockiness; Julie, who wonders, when she tinkers with her work-in-progress and cuts even the passages she loves, if it will ever be right; Frank, who knows one negative comment can override all the good, but sometimes the resulting anger gets him to forge ahead; Kasper, who’s learned that art will be judged in completely subjective and unpredictable ways, so he tries to make art that’s significant to himself; Greg, who will believe the criticism over his own opinions and talks about how he judges himself by how much gets published; PD, who believes self-doubt sharpens his work; Sarah, who doesn’t mind a little self-doubt but can be paralyzed by outside criticism; Grant, who seconds the idea that self-doubt alternates between moments he’s sure he is brilliant; Gail, who thirds that idea (I’ll go ahead and fourth it here) and assures Greg that publication only alleviates doubt for a second; Lori, who believes anything is possible when she has supportive friends; Jordan, who she doesn’t doubt her abilities so much as she doubts she’ll ever break into the impossible world of publishing; Ric, who says it can be crippling to go long periods without positive feedback, but that’s where coffee and cigarettes step in; Joe, who says the stories themselves seem to get lonely when there’s no audience, and who uses the unforgettable phrase “horsey of hope” when he reveals his fear is that he’s destined for mediocrity; Dennis, who describes the self-doubt when he reads someone who blows him away but bets that even his idols have these same voices in their heads; Amy, who talks about doubt born from the disconnect between her instincts about a piece and the way it’s perceived by others; Myfanwy, who says doubt fires her up to prove herself wrong; Lauren who seesaws between elation and doubt even on publication day (Congratulations on VERTIGO‘s release this week!); Betsy, who likes Myf’s reminder of what’s really important: health, family, friends; Patry, who has become impervious to rejection because a rejected story at one magazine may win a prize at another; Thea, who says self-doubt creeps in like a cockroach in the dark, so she keeps the light on; Kathy, whose second-guessing can get such a hold of her that she over-edits; and Lance, who I continue to call my twin because his answers are always the same as mine, and that is, he skips right over self-doubt and goes straight to self-loathing. Thanks for being candid and for being here for each other. And thank you to Tommy, who is beautiful, inside and out.

*

Tommorow, see through the eyes of a New York photographer . . .

Have a good weekend! (Steelers have a bye week, thank God.)

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Myfanwy Collins September 29, 2006 at 11:23 am

That photo of you in the kitty dress says everything, Susan. I just love it and I also love how it so perfectly encapsulates your touching post–because we’re all just standing out there in our favorite dress waiting for someone to notice how genius we are for wearing it.

Thank you for litpark and for you!

xo

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Myfanwy Collins September 29, 2006 at 11:26 am

p.s. “You write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for everyone must think you are silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then some one says yes to it…and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed.” — Gertrude Stein

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Claire Cameron September 29, 2006 at 11:57 am

Ha – I’ve had the ‘run across town in my pajamas’ line come to nothing too. Sometimes it’s about knowing you are not alone? Litpark does that too.

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PD Smith September 29, 2006 at 12:40 pm

I’m in a similar position to you, Susan: I want to write another novel but I’m wondering whether I can justify devoting so much time and emotion and energy if all that happens is that, as you said, it ends up gathering cyber dust on my hard drive! It’s a difficult one…But I think you should definitely go ahead and write your novel.

Great quote Myfanwy!

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Jim September 29, 2006 at 12:42 pm

You are so wonderfully fearless, Sue, even mired in doubts. I do admire you.

Hug Girija for me, please?

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Gail Siegel September 29, 2006 at 1:52 pm

Dearest Sue:

Clearly, you have an audience here and in so many of the other arenas where you are writing columns. When will the publishing industry wise up? I wish I knew — because if any writer should have a book populating the shelves, it’s you. I know. I’ve read your work.

In the meantime, my beautiful friend (inside AND out, I emphasize,) thanks for creating this lovely park for us all to play in.

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Robin September 29, 2006 at 1:52 pm

Thanks for this, Susan. Thanks also to everyone who commented. I think I also reached my ‘rejection limit,’ and, except for blogging, I’ve been pretty much frozen ever since. I keep hoping the freeze will thaw, or that I will get an idea that feels so marketable that I can write it without feeling paralyzed by what I fear will come. Without feeling paralyzed when someone asks me, “What did you do today?” and I have to answer, “I spent the day writing.” Because that’s only cute for a couple of years.:)

Maybe it’s time to send a few things out that didn’t get their full quota of rejections.

Or I could blog. Ha.

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Lance Reynald September 29, 2006 at 1:54 pm

ditto on Jim’s fearless comment.

that was a great wrap Susan!

I just love coming here.

have a wonderful weekend.
xo-L.

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Aimee September 29, 2006 at 2:03 pm

Interesting that this is the topic. When I first decided I wanted to write I kept it a secret. I felt like that small town girl who thinks she too can be a supermodel. And then just the other day I was talking about the question, when will I be able to say I’m a writer? When I make money writing? When I get a novel published? Or am I a writer as we speak? Am I just too insecure to believe it is okay for me to chase my dreams?

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Greg September 29, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Aimee – I have that same question in my head. When will I feel comfortable with that title, and do I deserve it?

My roommate loves to introduce me as a writer, and I immediately freak out because I know the questions are coming… No, I haven’t published a book, produced a film-able screenplay, or seen one of my plays on stage. “But I have been in these magazines that you’ve never heard of…”

Susan – I’ve done my own ‘fuck you’ to the industry. In Fargo I created my own monthly satire newspaper and put out 20 of them before I thought the joke had worn off. But the reason I did it was because I really thought I had written some funny shit and knew that people would get a kick out of them if they just had the chance to read them. When they got rejected elsewhere, I was like “Well, fuck you all because I’m going to get them out there without any of your help.” And my paper did catch on – syndicated in the weekly alternative, had a couple of big stories written about me in the papers up there, and was positively reviewed on NewPages.com. So one of my biggest writing successes has been my middle finger, and that felt pretty good.

I’ve started three books where none have gotten past chapter 4. Bleh.

-Greg

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Kasper September 29, 2006 at 3:52 pm

Thanks for your usual insightful comments on all of us, Susan. It must become a burden at times.

If the novel is your medium ( it isn’t mine) then write a dozen of them. I recall that John Irving had about four or five unpublished ones lying about and then had them all published consecutively after THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP hit.

I think many contemporary writers are creating a kind of merger of the fiction and non-fiction genres, as Bruce Chatwin and W.G. Sebald did, perhaps in frustration over trying to chug the vast and demanding “novel machine” forward one more time.

But listen to me, a non-novelist talking.

One of the oldest things that has been said about me since I was a child ( since you posted that darling little girl picture) kind of sums it all up:

“Don’t expect an easy time of it. After all, you’re from Mars.”

I enjoy this board and the company of (sometimes) failing and often succeeding, peers. Thank you.

–K

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Julie Ann Shapiro September 29, 2006 at 4:28 pm

Susan,
Please don’t stop writing that third book. Although, I know how you feel. I’m working on the third draft of my third novel while the second novel is making it’s rounds with the publishers. I’ve had times where I’ve wondered why am I doing this to myself when the first two books have gotten rejected. The answer is I owe it to my characters. There’s a Native American expression that someone told me, the exact words I forget, but the gist of it is that story tellers are chosen. I believe these story ideas come to us as a gift and we need to honor that gift by writing them and sending them back out into the world.

Why not send your books to some of the independent presses? They seem much more open to literary fiction than the big presses.

Julie Ann Shapiro

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amy September 29, 2006 at 5:53 pm

I know how you feel about writing without great hope of publication… Why put the time and effort into the third work if no one wanted to publish the first two?

But maybe it’s too early to give up on the first two. If that editor at that magazine loved your memoir so much, surely other people would too? I never thought I’d seriously be saying this, but why not self-publish it?

I know that self-publishing is nobody’s dream, and for many people it marks them as deluded amateurs. But you’ve got a lot of industry credentials, not to mention this lovely blog — so no one could mistake you for an amateur.

You’ve also got a lot of people here who like you and what you write. Okay, maybe not enough people to get you on the NYT bestseller list. But even if only ten people ever ended up buying it, reading it, loving it, and writing you fan-notes, isn’t that better than letting it languish on your hard drive?

And a couple fan-notes might be all you need to get the energy to write that third novel. And maybe-just-maybe if you actually get the books out there, an real publisher will realize what he missed and offer you a contract. It has happened before — even Proust and Thackery self-published before they gained acclaim.

I guess my point is, I’d like to read your memoir. And I’m willing to pay for it. Why let the publishing industry hold your work hostage? Maybe it’s time to just get it out there, by hook or by crook.

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted September 29, 2006 at 7:52 pm

Don’t hit me, Susan: I *do* think you’re nice.

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Susan Henderson September 29, 2006 at 7:54 pm

Myfanwy – I love that quote and what you said about my favorite dress. Thank you!

Claire – We were given the same line?! Yuck. It’s like finding out the guy who’s flirting madly with you is just a drunk who will flirt the same with the next one who comes through the door. (When’s the line painter coming out by the way?)

PD – I think, in the end, we won’t be able to help ourselves from writing the next ones. But I have to say that I feel good and logical right now saying I won’t do it. It’s like saying you won’t shoot up heroin again.

Jim, Gail, Robin, Lance – You guys are great. Thank you for the sweet words. And Robin you made me laugh – yes, it’s only cute for a little while!

Aimee – Welcome! And I only recently came out to my family about being a writer. Last November.

Greg – How about a satire newspaper in Chicago?

Kasper, Julie, Amy – You guys are very sweet to offer suggestions, but please know I’m not asking for help on my particular books. I’m just adding my own sense of frustration and whiny-ness about the process to this discussion. The blog is about all of us. We all laugh and cry and rise together here. This blog is a group outlet, not some poor Sue telemarketing scheme.

Lauren – I was never a hitter. But a biter – oh yes!

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Sarah Roundell September 29, 2006 at 8:08 pm

Thank you so much for LitPark. I appreciate every entry and every comment on here and I look forward to each new day here with all of these talented people. You are so insightful, Susan, and I so hope to be reading a book by you in the very near future. For now I’ll take what I can get: your bit on http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com was very entertaining!

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted September 29, 2006 at 9:55 pm

OK, then…Don’t bite me, Susan! Oh, and while you’re not biting me? Know that I’ll do anything I can to help. Use me.

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Susan Henderson September 30, 2006 at 2:49 am

Sarah – You made my day!

Lauren – You are very dear. I may have to ask you to do my Chinese homework for me this week. Thanks for offering!

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Pia October 3, 2006 at 12:01 am

Sue – Please do not forget the sly, beautiful girl in the proud cat dress who wrote the first book, or why the girl wrote the first (then second) book, or how deeply and thoroughly the girl’s book touched people, not publishing houses (yet).

You write because you’re a writer.

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Susan Henderson October 3, 2006 at 1:34 pm

Pia – You are the best. x

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