The feeling that accompanies initial acts of creation matters most: the endorphin rush and enthusiasm and sense that life has meaning again. The chaos all around, every story overheard, every experience, intuition, emotion, description, dream can now be expressed. There’s great confidence and goodwill toward all as the brain stirs with serotonin like a sparkly whirlpooling slurry of new writer supergenius, the primordial soup of the mind. Of course now the only trick is to maintain that feeling, to see your first inspired work through to completion, to learn to fend off temptations to do anything other than sit alone and write, to experience for the first time the realization that the inspired early work that jumped with purpose from your fingertips isn’t as good as you thought, it needs work, and then learn to edit so every time you sit down it radiates a semblance of its initial worth, so it achieves permanent value when read with a sober eye no longer keen on admiring what you’ve done, an eye in fact not interested in what you’ve done, that’s seen it all and could give a shit. And then, even when the initial composition is completed and edited and read by a few friends and edited some more, how do you send it to agents? The so-called query letter is an art in itself unless you have good publications or an MFA from a handful of schools. Agents tend to respond favorably to your so-called query letters but either fail to respond or else wait two to seven months before sending kind e-mails informing you that, although they recognize your talent and admire your work, they’re not the best fit for your project. These days, you know much time will pass without hearing from agents — it’s that time of the year when most of the publishing industry takes off for the beach. You picture all the agents sitting on the beach with manuscripts on their laps, bare feet in the sand. A strong wind sends the pages flying off into the ocean. So the agents reach for someone else’s manuscript, the pages of which are scattered by another strong wind. So the agents reach for someone else’s manuscript, and this time instead of bothering to read the first few pages, the agents throw the pages into the air until the shore break is mucked with strewn manuscripts more than seaweed. You’re sure all agents are well-meaning people looking for the best possible work but even if you look on the brightest side of things and are as kind and as generous as you can be it’s impossible not to freak out about the time it takes them to respond — and still it’s always the same damn form rejection or a somewhat customized form rejection, the same damn recognition of talent and wishes for a successful career followed by the same quick critique or acknowledgment of difficulties in today’s economic climate followed by a crushing word of encouragement. Things are much worse for most of the population of the world, of course. But still, it’s hard to keep going, to muster energy, to call upon the courage and patience necessary to wash your brain clean. To brainwash yourself, essentially. To force yourself to keep going instead of giving up the ghost. Instead of letting the writing ghost that for so long possessed you leave your body and occupy something else. To instead of seeing a world filled with potentiality for fiction, see it as meaningless, beautiful or ugly or average, filled with a virus on the planet known as humanity. Everyone you see on the street couldn’t care less about what you’ve cared for more than anything else. That’s when anguish comes in. The ghost that possessed you seems replaced with something hurt, something tender, something heavy and soaked inside. When all the expectation and hope and goodwill and energy and enthusiasm for lit and therefore for life leaves you and is replaced with an emptiness that fills with bitterness, when every potentially annoying sensation becomes unbearable, when every formerly pleasant sensation feels like nothing special, what do you do? You didn’t get into this for the sake of winning over agents, these well-meaning matchmakers of market tendencies and talents on the cover of Poets & Writers, as though writing is more about the seduction of agents, the first hoop to jump through en route to publication. All that fancy stuff about composition and editing be as damned as you are once you think too much about this stuff instead of trying as hard as you can to give into the madness and repeat the cycle. Try harder this time. Be madder. Learn from mistakes. Make it more accessible and therefore more saleable (a terrible word). Make it more like something only you could write and therefore not something likely to sell anytime soon. Forget about agents and the publishing industry. Immerse yourself in work and life, daily writing and editing and analyzing life until the world opens up again and offers details and ideas for the world you’re writing. That’s when you say work is its own reward. Take a day off and write twenty pages during the hours you would otherwise be at your job. You know they’re a good twenty pages. You recognize thanks to repetition of experience that the first draft you’ve written that day is better than most of your finished products. First drafts come out better and you know how to improve the language, transitions, chronology, you know what to emphasize and what to hush. Or so you think. There’s no way of knowing what you really know. No way of anticipating anything beyond your control. You can’t begin to have hope. You must not have hope. There’s no hope. No matter what you write no one will care. Even if it’s undeniable excellence, no one will see it because you won’t promote its existence. You’d rather no one read your writing than read what you’ve written because you’ve hyped it. You input more than 900,000 characters into an electronic document and then undermine it with ≤ 140 characters hyping what you’ve written. Your tweet dives through shorebreak and hovers along the surface of a coastal shelf falling off forever. All your effort and ambition flounders at the bottom of the sea for thousands of years. Bubbles of nitrogen in your blood transform you into a Candy Crush master at work. At home, you serially binge on complete seasons of critically acclaimed cable TV. You assure yourself you’re internalizing lessons about character, dialogue, plot. Every character wants something. The engines run on conflicting desires, yet so often you read something on your phone as you watch. In time, the sea above you evaporates and becomes marshland and then a desert of paper. Your pen accesses a subterranean reservoir of strewn manuscripts reduced to ink. You will break the cycle of suffering this time and achieve something like Nirvana, which you really only associate with a rocker who blew his head off.
Lee Klein has two books out this year, The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel and Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejections Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox.
Original art by Mary Grace Tate.