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Life as Performance Art

It’s the time of year when aspiring writers get out pens and big legal pads of lined yellow paper. Others find their grandparents’ manual Underwood or Royal type-writer, spray WD-40 on the ribbon to refresh it after dec-ades in the closet and settle down to write the Great American Novel. Or they start a new file on their com-puter to write their tell-all memoirs and short stories.
Nonfiction writers do not need winter’s doldrums to write. Like anyone in military uniform, they see their pro-ject as a serious challenge to be overcome. February or August is perfect for that “See the hill, take the hill” attitude.
No month is dedicated to literary rejection letters, but February would fit the bill. Long cold days and nights with ceaseless blizzards of snow like rejection letters.
Some are encouraging with comments like, “Interesting stuff but not what we’re looking for; Better luck else-where,” to sheer snarkiness: “Are you serious? You’ll make more money if you get an entry-level job in the gift-wrapping department of Woolworths!” That, after the five and dime store has been out of business for a decade.
Literary Hub, a free on-line news service for writers and readers, had a recent article on 20 famous authors who received rejection letters. I make no claim to fame even in this small portion of the world, but am familiar with all types of rejection, includ-ing those from publishers. If I had held on to all of such letters I could paper a good-sized living room. But at least I am in good company.
The late James Herriot of “All Creatures” fame got about 10 rejection missives before a publisher took a chance on him. J.K. Rowlings didn’t have much better ini-tial luck trying to introduce Harry Potter to the world. Later, when she wrote a book under a penname, pub-lishers still gave her the boot claiming she had too little talent.
Maya Angelou said in the piece she got about 20 rejec-tions for every success. Ray Bradbury may have received the fastest rejection ever when Esquire told him to sod off within two days. He said he wrote 1,000 more stories and got 1,000 more rejec-tions before he got his foot in the door and found success.
Sylvia Plath said in her memoirs such a letter is not a personal rejection. “A rejec-tion is no indication of the true worth of one’s total hu-man identity: past, present, or future,” the poet said.
Stephen King thought re-jection letters, especially of early pieces, were good things. Otherwise, he warned, we will look back in embar-rassment on our early “mas-terpieces.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer was rejected many times in Po-land, then again when he moved to this country. “The only way to stop getting re-jection letters is to stop writ-ing, but what good is that?” he asked.
Isaac Asimov noted the same thing. “If you have talent,” Isaac Asimov added, “you will receive some measure of success, but only if you persist.”
The writers I mentioned had great success. We don’t know about the others who gave up and used their type-writer as a boat anchor. We hear all about the great American Jazz Age writers — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein … — who went to Paris and came home as literary he-roes. We don’t hear of the others who had to work their way home on a cattle boat.
“If you are going to be a writer, then write!” bellowed Hemingway to Fitzgerald one night in a Paris bar. That makes sense for anyone — writers, painters, gardeners or tiddlywinks master wanna-bes. It’s not easy. As the pro-lific author Winston Church-ill said, “Everyone wants to be a writer and have written; it’s the writing everyone hates.”
There is an easy and effec-tive way to avoid collecting rejection letters. Thanks to modern technology anyone can be a writer and published author, without resorting to outrageously-priced vanity publishers. The answer is one of the online publishers, with Amazon being perhaps the best known.
Self-publishing is not easy nor necessarily inexpensive, because he writer does all the work: writing, proofreading, editing, selecting the front and back covers and all oth-er details. It’s either that or hire someone to do those things.
But then comes the day when a box of your books arrive. The next bit of fun is selling them — more accu-rately, trying to sell them. It isn’t easy. However it can be done, sometimes even suc-cessfully.
Forget about money. That’s not the point of writ-ing. Judy Blume, who has written best-selling young adult and adult fiction as well as other stories, started writing simply because she was bored being a traditional housewife. One day a story came to mind and she couldn’t get it out of her head, so she started writing. After that, more stories came to mind, and more writing.
“The thing is, no one writes unless they have to,” she explained. “So you have to write because if it’s inside you, then you will.”
Having a story in your head is like a song that keeps rattling around in your brain. You have to write the story to get it out so you can get on with life. At least that’s what happened to me.
A few years back I had an idea for my first murder mystery. I have lots of ideas, and mercifully soon forget about most, but this one hung around. It grew when-ever I did something mind-less like mowing the lawn or vacuuming.
Finally I started writing, re-vising, revising again and at last self-published. Good. Done with it. Get on with life. Except enough people liked that story that when another one came to mind I was compelled to get back to work.
It’s still the new year, so don’t want to let these 12 months slip by with nothing to show for them. Maybe you have a story you want to tell. Come on, you know you do! Forget about fame and fortune. Go have some fun, be creative and start writing.
As for rejection letters, the best advice of all comes from young adult writer and self-publisher Kelly Link: “Don’t self-reject. You know what I mean.”

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