Your mother is worried about you. In all my years of being her friend, I can’t remember ever seeing her this nervous. She tells me you want to be a writer. She says your heart is now set “like ice in a freezer.” She says you’ve just finished your Bachelors in English Lit and you’re getting ready to apply to the University’s Creative Writing Masters program. I’ll be honest m’boy: she asked me to talk to you, to give some insight into the real world of writing because she thinks you may not know what you’re getting into. The wrong Masters degree is too expensive a mistake for your family to make, she says. And she’s right. So, I’m going to talk to you now, like an adult – Big Man ting. It might not be what you want to hear but I hope you can take it.
When you were little, you used to love martial arts movies. Remember? You used to love Steven Seagal. Remember how many times we watched “Marked for Death”? Remember how, every time I visited, you would act out parts of it for me? You and I always agreed that the best lines in that movie belonged to the rasta-man, Screwface. We used to repeat them in our terrible Jamaican accents and then collapse on the floor laughing. This one was always my favourite: “Everybody waan go ah heaven. Nobody waan dead.”
Well, that is an important truth for a writer, Sayvaughn. Remember it.
Like your mother, I used to practice law. Not once did anyone ever say, “God, you’re so lucky. I have this idea for a great lawsuit but I just don’t know where to start.”
Now that I’m a writer, I hear that kind of thing all the time. Now, the mere mention of my occupation and people become starry-eyed. It seems that for everyone, there is a road not travelled and a book not written. Almost everyone thinks their life is bestseller material, and the few who don’t are planning to write a children’s book one day, someday. But not today.
See, that’s the thing: nobody is prepared to do it. Not one person has ever, upon receiving my practical advice about becoming a writer, responded with, “Awesome! I’ll get right on it.” Why? Because their romantic notions of a writer’s life do not gel with the realities I lay bare for them. Their star-shaped pupils quickly retract, glaze over, as I describe a life which involves much more drudgery than they’d imagined, much more…punishment.
The simple truth is: you cannot become a writer unless you are prepared to hang a bullseye on your chest. Writers die a different death every day, Sayvaughn, and here are the most painful:
- Death by economic sacrifice
In the absence of other resources, if you fully commit and give yourself over to the occupation of writing, you might just starve to death before your first publication.
Writing doesn’t pay well. A couple hundred here, a couple hundred there – that’s it. And you have to spend money to make money as a writer. In 2012, after writing a novel and trying (and failing) to get it published, I decided that people – myself included – would have more confidence in my work if I had an MFA. That’s graduate school; that’s money. Sure, the University had payment plans, but it was still money I didn’t have and had to raise every month by making a drastic lifestyle scale-down.
Once I’d finished my MFA and had a minty-fresh body of work to start sending out into the literary world, I had to confront another cost: submission fees. They are usually between US$3.00-$5.00 for each item submitted. Literary contests involve a larger fee, sometimes as much as US$25.00. These may seem small but they add up. You may have to submit to tens or hundreds of journals before getting one acceptance. That’s a small fortune for writers like us, living far from the main publishing centres and subjected to jacked-up currency rates. So start saving.
Most writers will confess to creating their finest work when they are able to put aside all other distractions. And what’s the greatest distraction? Having to go out every day to a non-writing job that pays the bills, puts food on the table, clothes on your back but leaves you no time or energy for the mental isometrics of creative writing. The pondering, the imagining, the crafting and re-crafting of perfect paragraphs – it requires total immersion. Sayvaughn, I know you’ve read all the Harry Potter books. But did you know that series was written during a time when JK Rowling was jobless and penniless, living in a cramped apartment with her daughter and relying on State benefits? She spent her days writing in cafés, with her child sleeping in the pram next to her. Every aspiring writer of young-adult or children’s books wants to replicate Ms. Rowling’s riches; but how many are willing to start where she started, to do time in the rags? Are you?
- Death by social rejection
Parents – your mother included – live vicariously through their children. We know this. When I told my parents I’d decided to switch professions, they were pretty vocal with their disappointment. They had scrimped and saved and sacrificed for me to get a good education so that I could become a Lawyer – a sure-shot at power, influence and income. They didn’t mind if I changed careers, as long as it was for something equally aggrandizing. Instead, I was being cruel and ungrateful, squandering their lifelong efforts and hopes on the dicey wager that is a writing career. How could they face their friends and say their daughter “wrote”? Anybody can write, where was the prestige in that? And how were they supposed to live without the pleasure of watching me prowl around in intimidating, sober-coloured suits?
It hurt me, you know, Sayvaughn – their rejection. But I believe one day my parents will see that the highest return on their investment is for me, their child, to be happy and fulfilled. The only way I can be that is if I write. I believe your mother will come around, too. In the meantime, ask yourself: Could I be happy doing something other than writing? If the answer is yes, then go do that thing.
Friends and colleagues also rejected the premise of me becoming a writer. Although they never said it outright, it was always hovering there, in the vicinity of our conversations, like a bad odour:
Them: So what are you doing now?
Them: Great, that’s so amazing! I always wished I could do something like that, something so….(words implied: “crazy/irresponsible”). I would love to be able to pursue my passion (word implied: “hobby”) like that. Good for you, Celeste!”
Them: Hey, I saw you got something published in a magazine.
Me: Yeah, thanks.
Them: Does that kinda thing pay well? Like, compared to Law.
Me: Actually, that magazine didn’t pay. Many don’t. It’s about getting my work out there…
Them: So why do you keep…I mean, then what’s the point?
It’s sad really: when you’ve taken huge risks, braved all sorts of fears to shed an old skin and birth a new, more authentic you, only to have it rejected by people you care about. The psyche of the novice writer is a tender one, easily (and sometimes, fatally) injured by other people’s negativity. Keep your plans close to your chest, Sayvaughn. Never reveal too much about what you’re writing – it only gives people an opportunity to discourage you. Instead, work like a beast and surprise people with your success.
Are you interested in writing fiction or non-fiction? Hear this: of all of us, non-fiction writers endure the most hostility and rejection. It is impossible to write a memoir, to tell your truth, without implicating other people or impinging on their perceived truths. Family secrets are communal property: it is impossible to stake your claim to them without trespassing on someone else’s feelings. Sure, the best personal essays are the honest, soul-baring ones; but those writers often find professional success at the cost of family ostracism. Prepare yourself.
- Death by professional rejection
For a writer, the very personal act of creating new work is one side of the record; public rejection of that work is the flip-side. They are inseparable experiences and the sooner you, as a new writer, accept that, the better you will fare – psychologically, at least.
Month after month, the MFA student is required to churn out new work. She stands before her computer as if on a deserted beach, waiting for inspiration to surface; and when it does, she searches the horizon of her memory, collects the wreckage of her own subconscious, and combines it all into a new and awesome thing. A creature of the deep. And then, she must lay this creation on an altar, before stone-faced faculty and salivating students who brandish knives and bare their teeth. Beware: MFA workshopping is ritualized torture: to sit silent while a murder of writers (NB. that’s not a real collective noun…I just invented it…but it should be!) eviscerates your best efforts and pronounces on your ability or disability as a writer. But, to my mind, the MFA’s greatest virtue was that it prepared me for professional rejection, for the feeling of being misunderstood, for the biased criticism of the literary world.
Literary publications are as idiosyncratic and subjective as people are. Out of thousands of submissions received, a journal will only publish work which suits its particular tastes. If you, as a Caribbean person, plan to tell our stories and showcase our world and our language authentically, then you won’t be a match for most North American journals. This means when you, the Caribbean writer, submit your beloved story/poem/essay, you’ll be searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack: for a ballsy magazine with a broad world view. You have to kiss many frogs before you find that Prince. Some say the average North American writer must aim for as many as a hundred frog-kisses a year. You, from the Caribbean, aim for two hundred; that kind of promiscuity will greatly improve your chances of finding true love in this time of choleric American politics. And please know, the frog-kiss of rejection isn’t the sloppy, elaborate thing you might imagine. No, it is crisp and dry and so, so cold:
Thanks for sending us (blank). Unfortunately, it’s not right for us. We wish you the best in placing your writing elsewhere.
Two hundred letters like that every year. Ouch! I don’t know of many other professions exacting that kind of toll on the ego. And then…wait for it…there are the literary agents. Most major publishers will not accept enquiries directly from an author, you have to go through a literary agent. So you send your best work to the agency and hope they will accept you as a client. If not, brace for another, more incisive, rejection letter. My first said, “the writing was not what I’d hoped it would be.” I’ve never forgotten that – it still keeps me up at night sometimes.
- Death by self-flagellation
Remember Silas, the creepy Opus Dei guy, from The Da Vinci Code? Remember the scene where he stands naked in front of the crucifix, zealously whipping himself with a cat-o-nine-tails? Remember the blood trickling from his torn flesh? The way the pain made him stand on tiptoe and made spit fly from his mouth. Well, m’boy, that kind of intense self-flagellation is a normal feature of life for a writer.
With so many rejections coming from so many people, is it any wonder that self-doubt scourges us every day? We are always on the verge of giving up. We accumulate hours in front of the mirror asking ourselves if we will ever be good enough. Then there are the long showers, so we can cry privately: snot and tears – but never the pain – dissolving in water.
And then there is the guilt. The opportunity-cost of spending five hours at my desk today, was five hours I could’ve spent with my baby daughter. The opportunity-cost of spending thousands of dollars on my MFA was the modest nest-egg I could’ve started for her. And then there’s the corporate law career I abandoned, in 2011, to write my much-rejected novel. And all for what? For the ignominy of being a hustler, a peddler, constantly knocking on doors trying to sell these little trinkets I keep crafting; and for the privilege of being a dreamer. Is it worth it?
Sayvaughn, if you’ve read all the way through this and if, after everything I’ve said, you still want to write, it means you are a serious contender. I say this because the true writers – not the hobbyists – write because they have no say in the matter. They write because they are impelled to, whatever the risks, by forces over which they exercise no control. For the true writers, it’s a simple choice: write or die trying. That attitude is necessary to endure this calling. Sure, our choice of profession has marked us for death, but that only means we are in the business of resurrection. Every day, every little thing we do to keep our writing careers alive, is an act of resurrection – and there is glory in it. So, I received five rejections this week, but I sent out five more submissions – resurrection. So, my kid was sick so I couldn’t write for six hours today but, while I waited in the doctor’s office, I wrote six lines – resurrection. So, my mom was on my case again today about why I’m wasting my life, but I cut the conversation short and read a cherished book (Tandia, by Bryce Courtenay) for two hours, just to remind myself of why I write – resurrection: “…a dream is often lonely, but providing you are prepared to prevail, it’s invincible.”
Be invincible, Sayvaughn.
With love and admiration,