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Tuesday, October 28, 2008



Author Henry Miller summed it up best when he wrote that, to become an artist, you must "be crushed … have your conflicting points of view annihilated." He wrote that you must be "wiped out" as a human being "in order to be born again an individual." He used words like "carbonized" and "mineralized" to describe what a writer must endure before he or she can "work upwards from the last common denominator of the self."

Had I read Miller before taking my leap into creative writing four and a half years ago, I’d have surely dismissed his advice as inapplicable to my life. After all, I'd been planning since college to traverse the same gateway used by my literary heroes, many of whom also started out at newspapers. I was certain that my years of reporting would provide a kind of equity against which I could borrow to gain entry into publishing. My journalism career had been "successful" and "rewarding,” and I had an "impressive" list of "accomplishments" and "awards.” I fired these words like arrows at the hearts of agents and expected them to swoon.

There was no swooning.

Instead, I have been "annihilated ... wiped out ... (and) carbonized." I've learned to write all over again. I've repeatedly built and rebuilt, razed and reframed the same stories. The highs have been higher than any I’ve ever experienced. The lows have been the lowest, the destruction of self, and a bit of self-destruction.

In the past four and a half years I’ve rewritten two books so many times I’ve lost count. And, along the way, I've made most of the mistakes they mention in the books about book writing (the ones I read after I made the mistakes — STORY ... YOUR FIRST NOVEL ... MAKING A LITERARY LIFE ... ON BECOMING A NOVELIST).

My first book was read by a major publishing house in New York City, only to be returned looking like a badly bandaged body, the result of bad handling by the postal service, though they managed to keep the encouraging note of rejection intact. The second book was requested by another big house following a face-to-face meeting with one of its editors in New York, but that too came back ... addressed to "Ms." TJ Sullivan ... a blow to both mettle and manhood. Now, here I sit, all the more humbled and wiser for having survived it, with a first novel locked away in my bottom drawer, a fresh and solid second novel on my desktop, and the outline of a third book taking shape nearby on dozens of 3x5 cards.

And yet, that familiar stab of rejection still stings just as much.

I received my first rejection letter in long time yesterday, from an agent I thought would be a good match for both me and my book. I know now how little such responses mean. As with the rewrites, I stopped keeping tally of rejections long ago, an exercise as pointless as counting hiccups, or sneezes. They're all an ineradicable part of life. Some people get more than others. Some get less. Eventually, one will be the last. But, the first is always the worst.

This is the writer's life, and I've no intention of doing anything else but continuing to write books.

Nonetheless, as Billy Joel sang so well when I was back in high school, sometimes "I really wish I was less of a thinking man and more a fool who's not afraid of rejection."

TJ Sullivan

* Cross posted at LA Observed.
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Blogger John Ettorre said...

I feel your pain, pal. But I know you'll continue trying, which will win the battle eventually. As all serious writers know, we don't do this because we want to, but because we have to. In the end, that's why you'll be successful, TJ. As Nietzche observed, "that which does not kill me makes me stronger." Just think how strong you've become through this adversity.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 8:22:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Greg said...

And what of your friend, the heretic, the apostate, . . . wandering the suburbs of Arizona speaking of broken process models and the power of fan fiction?

Of course that is a series of articles on its own. Is there the only carbonization? Like unemployment figures, how many writers have entered the mineralization only to stop trying altogether?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 8:24:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous JSChancellor said...

Well said, Friend. It never ceases to amaze me the sheer amount of hope that comes from sending out either a query or a manuscript, despite the outcome of past attempts at publication. I suppose that is what truly makes us authors...that the love of writing is so deeply imbedded in our souls that we have no choice but to trod on, however painful it feels at times. Thank you for writing this today, I needed to read it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008 7:28:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Gianna said...

Hey, keep trying. There are lots of avenues for us writers, too. Those traditional publishers are just conventional snobs.

Monday, November 17, 2008 10:55:00 PM PST  

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