I’ve been looking everywhere for it. The search started rather meticulously. I would stand in the middle of the room and put a finger to my pursed lips, unabashedly funneling through my experiences and the experiences of those whom I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure of coming across in my days. Each thought, each memory making a cameo in my head was given due attention and held to scrupulous evaluation. But still, I had not found it.
I hastened my search, became flustered and frustrated with its elusiveness as I looked under couch cushions, in the backs of closets, behind the dusty cedar chests in attics, in the cabinets I forgot I even had in my place. I checked under the top layer of crap in my trunk, in the glove compartment, under the seats.
I looked in desk drawers at the office, even searched some drawers of the people sitting around me. I looked through my friend’s belongings, my mother’s, my sister’s, my priest’s, my enemy’s, my butcher’s, my baker’s. And yes, I would have looked through my candlestick maker’s things if I had ever had candlesticks made.
The problem, I perceive as I scribble here, is that I’m not sure I’ll know when I’ve found it. See, I’ve been trying desperately to find that story, the one that breaks through the mulish literary fortress of Dame Subjectivity, the one that plays all the angles right, the one that tells Pushcart to take notice and somehow raises an eyebrow at Painted Bride or the Georgia Review.
I’ve noticed that Dame Subjectivity’s whimsical art skirts the indefinable. I can string words together more adeptly than most folks I know. In fact, I probably string them together as well as most of those who have been paid to do so and perhaps even some who are lucky enough to make a living out of it. But I’m just cracking those first eggshells and Dame Subjectivity looks fondly upon those who have proven they can drop the egg in the pan without breaking the yolk.
I have for a few years now made great efforts to write consistently while living the life of one who wishes they could afford to have all the time in the world to write. The never ending story, i.e., my first novel, was completed this past December. I’m not calling it the never ending story because it would give Tolstoy a run for his rubles in length, but rather because it took just about the entire decade of my 20s to write. It currently sits under a stack of rejections from literary agents, most of which are as impersonal as giving your girlfriend cash for her birthday.
Paging through the Literary Agents section of the 2005 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market (2005, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio), you’ll notice that almost all the agencies state they take on a certain arbitrary percentage of “new” writers. Well, what constitutes a new writer? Most of us have been putting pen, pencil or crayon to paper for some time now. Also, almost all the firms add this optimistic phrase to the fine print: Obtains most new clients from solicitations and recommendations of current clients.
Now, unless my friends, who divide their collective time evenly between ballgames, their wives and the bar stools of a place adequately named The Ale House, have a secret writing career they’ve kept from me, I don’t know anybody’s clients. And as I’m sure most struggling scribes will attest, I don’t have the time or the financial means to go traipsing off to literary conferences all over the country in the hopes of meeting and impressing someone enough to get my work all the way to a desk where eyes hover above it moving left to right with conviction.
I had thought that any effort to sell myself as a meritorious creative writer would have been worthy of an O’Henry Award, the finest of fiction. Though my work career has revolved predominantly around writing and editing, I had yet to have something creative published, save for a short story in an independent anthology someone had done up to raise money for their church. Not exactly The New Yorker or Harper’s.
As writers, our resume is sometimes as important as the words on our pages because without a resume, you can never be sure that your pages ever fall under eyes. So, I needed a plan. Being rather insolent in my response to most rejection in my life, I set about becoming someone in the literary world. That meant writing.
I made notes and threw together a storyboard for novel number two, one I had no intention of taking my 30s to tackle. I had begun thinking about short fiction and any possible scenario that found itself lost in my head was let loose in a notebook. In my disdain toward the ignorance of the literary agents I had contacted, I set about putting together a list of short fiction credits, having them published anywhere and everywhere people could feast their eyes.
The plan, as daunting as my insolence has made it, is to have accumulated 10 to 20 pieces of published short fiction, personal essays or creative non-fiction in various journals and e-zines by the start of next year, as well as two completed novels.
I will use this portfolio of literature to do what so many writers do – to validate the flickering dream of get away writing cabins and readings in college town coffeehouses, guest instructing appearances at MFA residencies and book signings in downtown Barnes & Nobles. Most writers reading this would probably smile a compassionate smile, and I understand the loftiness of my goals for a writing year.
But in trying to achieve those goals, one unmistakable accomplishment has begun to grow larger. For the length I imagine my second novel to be, I am still on pace to have it finished by year’s end. I have completed writing seven short pieces of fiction or creative non-fiction and three of them have found homes in literary publications.
There is a statement that has been said infinitely in articles on writing. It is the backbone point to any discussion of the craft. Writers write. We can feign that frustration stops us from sitting back down at that keyboard after another rejection. We can abhor what we take as the offensive disregard of our work.
We can fight our inner demons, tell ourselves we’re not good enough to make it, blame the market for an unfair shot, belligerently scorn Dame Subjectivity for her seemingly impudent treatment of our dreams, but if we don’t continue the primary activity which spawned the desire to jump in front of that violent bus, then we never improve. Writers write and writers read and that is how we hone our craft.
You don’t wake up one day and become a good foul shooter. You shoot hundreds, thousands, and all of the sudden, it seems to click. You have form, function and fluidity. The ball starts going in the hole.
The process is painstaking. Most of us don’t have time to come up with another story idea let alone the time to sit down and write it. I spend most of my time waiting on answers about one piece, trying to have the work validated, while continuing that ridiculous search for the yarn of yarns, the one the cool cats of the literati want to play with the longest, the one that reveals to me that voice they’re all leaning into the wind to hear.
All the while, I change the rows of a certain Excel spreadsheet on my computer to orange, taking them from hopeful, joyful, anxious rows of submittals and marking their place in the warm hearth of rejection. Each orange row has become more of a badge of honor than an addition to the caldron of despair.
Short fiction markets, at least more than lit agents and publishing houses, help spare the feelings of the more temperamental of the writing masses. Some of my rejections have included kind words and personal encouragement about my writing, actually pointing out examples from the work that stood out to them.
It gives me great joy to know that at least someone under Dame Subjectivity’s thumb read my work. You can’t be discouraged by rejection. Some of those outlets really do get inundated with material, and our Dame is a finicky bitch with her choices.
But again, some seem to want to know who the hell I am before they dare put my musings in their journals. It’s as if they say: “We like what you have to say, but who are you? Can you please send us more when your bio paragraph includes more than your favorite cereal and the name of your Fiction Writing professor in college?”
That’s fine. I take small steps. I attack the “little mags that could” with gusto. I work my way up through the minor leagues. I pay my expatiator’s dues.
In searching for that story, I found something else. I found that Dame Subjectivity respects me. I found that she appreciates my effort. I found a belief that if I continue to test her, sooner or later she’ll reward me.
She doesn’t let you know it, but somewhere deep inside her, Dame Objectivity wants to get out, she wants to impartially reward my words based on what they say and not the bio paragraph that delivered them. You see, my words are improving while I search, and I know the words I’m looking for are around here somewhere.