That’s the word of the day; of the last several days as a point of fact. I imagine that every human being has those moments where we feel like we’re on a slow train, going nowhere. Sometimes we don’t even feel like we’re on the right track. I’ve been feeling that a lot lately.
I have heard it said that one should focus on the good things in one’s life, one’s blessings and the like. For my part, it’s good advice. The problem, as most of you know, is that no matter how good the advice, sometimes we still just can’t bring ourselves to follow it.
I’ve been having those days lately.
I’m not going to argue with the good advice, but I do want to point out something I think is important: sometimes the dissatisfaction one feels is justified.
Now, maybe, you’re the worrier type, and maybe you have other issues – not with circumstance or stuck life goals or whatever – that mean you spend more than your fair share of time dissatisfied. In that case, go ahead and investigate whether or not your dissatisfaction is justified. It may not be. But for me, at this moment, investigation done as thoroughly as I can manage, it feels pretty damn justified.
So, a little about the background here, for the sake of clarity. I’m roughly two months away from my 35th birthday; a little less than that and I graduate with my associates degree. I have some very good things in my life. I’m moving on to finish my B.A. at university, I have a fairly happy and stable relationship, I’m going to study abroad in China just after this semester ends. Granted, a couple of weeks ago I got laid off of 2 out of my 3 jobs, but I’m not really counting that as adding to my frustration, except in the most oblique way. It’s a thing. It happens. It sucks when you’re trying to make plans for the future, but John Lennon said something salient about that, and everyone should look it up if they haven’t.
No, the vast majority of my frustration comes, as most frustration does, from goals impeded or unrealized. In short, parts of my life are not what I want them or have worked hard for them to be.
As for college, that’s a long slog ahead of me. I’m looking at least another two years for my B.A. – it took me three to get my A.A. because, you know, I have to work on top of going to school – and then 3 to 4 after that to have a degree I can do something marketable with. My major is philosophy. (As an aside, when people ask me what I’m going to do with that degree, my typical response is, “Whatever the Hell I want”. I’m not sure it satisfies their curiosity, but it usually gets them to shut up, and that’s fine by me. There are basically two things one can do with a doctorate in philosophy: teach and write. I’m okay with both of those things. I used to be a psychology major and the idea of teaching the subject makes me want to lobby heavily for the reinstatement of corporal punishment.)
That’s what I’ve been doing with my education, and it’s a long road left to travel before I get anywhere appreciable with it. I’m okay with that.
What I want to do when I grow up – perish the thought – is be a writer. It’s my vocation. It is, however unsuccessful at the moment, my profession. It is my passion. It is also, statistically, the hardest vocation to make a living with, in these United States.
Yeah, I know how to pick ‘em.
Then again, maybe like love, we don’t get to pick our passions. It certainly didn’t feel like it to me. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “You know, I’d like to try to make my way in a field full of rejection and hard scrabble to make ends meet.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t anyway. And, quite like love, it’s not a rational decision to be weighed and risk evaluated. It’s all risk, and if you’re very lucky, or perhaps very persistent, you come out okay in the end. Then again, there are a lot of writers living below the poverty line.
So, here I am, pursuing a career in a difficult field, and not getting very far. I’ve been at this, trying to make money from my writing, for going on eight years now. I’ve been writing quite a bit longer. I’m constantly learning about the craft, and I love pretty much all the work I do to improve. (I have a special dislike for writing query letters. Nothing like being judged on your writing ability based on the example of a business letter. I may go on about that pet peeve cum psychotic hatred of mine at some other time, in an undisclosed location, under the cover of night, probably down by the docks.) My writing is very much improved and continues to do so. This, at least, makes me happy. I’ve written a novel, and am halfway through a second one. I’ve written many short stories – the vast majority of which, early on, were just not good. I’ve written some short stories that are good.
I get intelligent, fairly well-read, people to read and critique them, and – most importantly – I listen to feedback. If I ever get published there will be a dense acknowledgement page in the book, to be sure.
I read a lot. More than most people, if statistics are to be believed. I enjoy reading as both pastime and research into craft. It’s a wonderful way to spend time.
Perhaps most importantly, I write. I write a lot.
I’m not one of the writers who sit down at a specific time each day, or have a ritual, or even have specific number of words to reach in each session. But my process works for me and I produce a goodly amount of material. (Yes, I just used the word ‘goodly’. You’re welcome.)
Beyond that is where the frustration comes in.
See, the thing about writing, as a business, is that it depends highly on other people, and, unfortunately, a great deal of good luck.
Unless one wants to self publish – and maybe see no monetary profit at all from the endeavor – then one needs other people. Gatekeepers. These people are the literary agents, editors, and sometimes the editor’s assistants – that read the work, and serve as the threshold to that magical – and sometimes it feels like mythical – realm of publication. And, to be clear, I think the vast majority of these people are qualified, competent, and passionate. I’m sure there’s a few inept operators out there, the law of probability just dictates it as a possibility, but I’m not concerned with the yahoos. In truth, I’m not even concerned about the good people in the writing industry. What concerns me, most often, are the vicissitudes of the writing business.
There are a whole host of variables, that have nothing to do with the work, that can keep a piece of writing from getting published. For one, the market is screwy, and pretty much always has been as it is subject to not only the trends in public opinion, but also any given editor or agent’s current view – or lack thereof – of said trends. Not having something that fits into a current trend doesn’t preclude one from publication, but it doesn’t help either. Secondly, even the most passionate and professional person is going to have bad days or bad associations. You know what it’s like when you’re in a bad mood, nothing, even things you like, brings you joy, and things tend to get judged more harshly when one is in a snit. It’s just the way we are as humans. As for bad associations, a piece of writing can be beautifully written, impactful, and entertaining, but perhaps it contains a theme or subject that resonates badly with an editor or agent. If one is writing, say, about death, and the reader has recently experienced the death of someone close to them, this, in and of itself, could cause him or her to reject it out of hand, unread, sight unseen.
There are more variables, like this, and this post would be exhausting if I attempted to catalog all of them. So, I won’t. But maybe I’ve gotten my point across.
Add to that, the fact that a great majority of the rejections one receives as a writer have absolutely no indication as to why any given piece was rejected, and you begin to see where the frustration stomps in and leaves thick streaks of mud all over your new carpet.
Now, there are professional, freelance editors, and writing conventions, and workshops, and if you, like me, find yourself with very little extra money at the end of the month, (read as none), then these avenues for professional feedback just are not open to you. There are, in most places, writing groups one can join. They may or may not be helpful, if you can both find and join one. I recommend looking, if you, unlike me, have the time to devote to its activities. I don’t. And having limited options in these areas, I have to go at it the old-fashioned way: on my own.
And I know, because anyone who thinks they can put subject, verb, and object together, in the correct order, in a sentence thinks they are or can be a writer, (and some of them not even that), that slush piles and submissions and query letters pile up high enough to dry-drown an unwary intern. I get that. And I understand that is why many professionals send form letters. It both does and does not bother me; depends on the time of day you ask. But without feedback, without professional feedback, it is desperately difficult to know what one is doing wrong, if anything.
You develop a thick skin. You have to if you have a hope of making it in this business of writing. This is sometimes more difficult than it sounds when your product is also your passion, but you do toughen up considerably. If there is anything good about collecting rejections it is that you get used to it, and learn to get on with the work.
I’ve gotten a lot of form letters; some from magazines and some from agents. I have a growing stack in a file. (Sometimes I even print out the electronic ones to increase the size of the pile.) I consider it part of paying one’s dues. It sucks, but it’s necessary. And really, if you can’t get past the rejection and keep writing, you’re just not meant to be a writer. Keep it as a hobby and go into a more lucrative, and instantly interaction vocation. You’ll feel better, I promise.
I have also gotten some very positive rejection letters from editors. Seems strange to call any rejection positive, but some of the letters actually contained praise. I count that as a positive.
So, why am I writing about frustration?
Why don’t I just journal about this stuff and put something more entertaining in this space?
Because I’m fucking ready for something positive to happen.
That’s it. There are days when I get so terribly frustrated that, regardless of the quantity or quality of work I put in, I still seem not to get anything out. And it drives me bugfuck. So, I thought I’d share.
And there’s something else. It’s not going to stop me. I don’t think I’m particularly mentally tough, or wired differently than anyone else, I just refuse to give up. I guess it just wasn’t an option on my model the year I came off the assembly line.
So, if there is anyone out there reading this, dealing with The Frustration – maybe more than your fair share – know this: it’s not failure until you give up. Until then, it’s just a work in progress.
And when I have those days, when the stone is grinding me dull instead of sharp, I remember that the next one, the next letter, the next submission, could be the one that crosses over. The next one could make it.
No one can tell the future, so why choose to believe that it will never happen?
Why not choose to believe that it will?