Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Avoiding Writer's Lobotomy
Publish or be lobotomized!
Throughout the roughly 3,571 hours spent writing and re-writing a novel, a number of unsettling questions are given to boil in the dark corners of your mind. After all, you’re devoting weekends and nights and social time and family time to this lonely, unpaid endeavor, sitting in a room by yourself typing about imaginary people in a made-up world. When people talk to themselves in bus stations, we call them, “crazy.” When people write down the voices they hear in isolated cabins, they’re called “writers.” You can’t help but recognize the thin line. And so you wonder…
But still you persist, investing your time and talent because you have to write this story, you were born to write this story. And yet those infernal questions keep worming into your brain. You question your talent. Your vision. Your skill. Your sanity. But it all comes down to The Big Question: “Am I really a writer?”
Years ago I read Elliott Baker’s, “A Fine Madness,” a post-modern novel that garnered acclaim in the 1960s. It even spawned a movie in which Sean Connery played the title role of Samson Shillitoe, a pleasantly deranged poet strutting his way through life and love with one arm punching the real world while the other grasps desperately at what he believes is his greatest poem, which keeps tantalizing him like a ghost and then disappearing before he can write it down. The book had been on a shelf at my childhood home for years, and I finally read it in my late teens because it seemed cool to read a book with my name on it, even if the name was mis-spelled.
I bring up A Fine Madness because its central tension captures a writer’s fundamental insecurity so succinctly. Samson Shillitoe collides with a psychologist, who is interested in the division between creative genius and madness. The book was written at a time when frontal lobotomy was still a prescribed treatment for violent and anti-social behavior, such as Samson’s. After Samson agrees to hospitalization (so he can write without distraction), the psychologist reads Samson’s poetry, is confounded by it, and sets up a panel of experts to determine if Samson Shillitoe is a real poet, a genius as he believes, or just a madman. At stake is Shillitoe’s brain. If the panel deems him a poet, then he’s free. If he’s not a poet, then a date with the lobotomy table awaits.
The judgment of Samson Shillitoe resembles a first-time novelist’s sense of impending violence or vindication while awaiting agents' and editors' judgement of their book. Upon submitting your little bundle of creative joy for acceptance, you know that statistics overwhelmingly indicate that you’ll be rejected many, many times before something works out, even if you’re really good. But stats be damned. Each rejection letter comes like a dip in a trans-atlantic airplane ride; you lose your stomach, wonder for a split second whether it’s engine failure, see it’s not, and then continue watching a bad movie and eating steamed white meat with flimsy plastic utensils. After a few more dips, and then a few more airplane rides, you just ride out the bottomless stomach feeling and keep on cruising. Rejection is as much a part of writing as turbulence and dips are a part of flying.
Dealing with rejection is a vital skill in life, especially in the arts, where your work is intertwined with your identity. Learning to separate yourself from your work is necessary, and the mark of a mature writer and person. But to get to that point, you need to know you aren’t crazy to handle the interim rejections. Somehow, whether from a panel of experts or a trusted friend or a powerful inner voice, you need to truly believe that you are, indeed, a writer. Even if it becomes apparent that this particular book won’t be published, you’ll understand that a designation of psychosis and lobotomy won’t be the consequence of your perceived failure. Because it isn’t a failure. It’s a learning process. Writing is a craft that unites your talent with your education and experience, all of which is honed by thousands of hours of practice in mastering your art.
Furthermore, a rejection letter isn’t a designation of “crazy” by a panel of experts. It is merely what the form letter tells you: that your story isn’t for that particular agent or editor at that particular time. If you wrote an erotic vampire novel in 2002, you might be famous right now. But if you wrote that same erotic vampire novel in 1962 you were probably lobotomized, and if penned in 2012, you are probably looking at self-publishing on Amazon. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You ain’t crazy. (Not necessarily). Your talent isn’t necessarily the problem. You were just the victim of bad timing.
I was fortunate to have some excellent teachers who gave lots of positive feedback on my writing throughout my student life from wee boy to big grad student. I got more positive feedback and even a few awards as a journalist. None of that mattered much when I attempted writing a novel. Switching fields as a writer is not like music, it’s not like playing drums in jazz band and then for a punk rock band, where you’re still basically just drumming. Writing in different arenas requires a complete re-tuning of your brain, and a total re-learning of your craft. I’ll get into that in a later post. But it makes affirmation that much more important when you go from being secure in your ability as a writer in one field, to being a total rookie in another. So I was fortunate to get the good feedback I needed from sources I admire.
First, a short story of mine got Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest fiction awards in 2011. OK, so now I know I can write fiction. Next, a friend read my novel in an early draft and said it was one of the best books he’d read. Cool. Readers might just like this. Then, amongst my rejection form letters from the panel of experts, a couple really nice rejections emerge. One particularly, from a big New York agent, was especially nice, saying that he believes in my talent, almost took my book on despite not taking on new clients, and that he looks forward to reading my next (shorter! More simple!) story. Right there, bam, I knew I was a real author. And that same week, I got my contract offer from Champagne Books.
So put away your lobotomy kit. I ain’t no genius, but I ain’t no crazy person, either.