Rattle and Pen: Literary Grief (and hope?)

Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.

Editor’s note:

This is from the Rattle & Pen archives, and was first published in 2014. The hilarity, of course, is that the sentiment here rings just as true to me now as it did nearly three years ago. Ah, the writing life! Inspiration-ambition-rejection-dejection-delusional hope: the cycle continues!

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Last week I got a call from my literary agent regarding the novel draft I recently sent her. Her verdict after reading it: it needs revision. A lot of revision. (And the subtext of that recommendation is always, of course, that even a lot of revision may not save the thing. You may spend hours and hours, weeks and months, re-training the beast only to find that some animals are just untamable. It’s a risky endeavor, writing.)

I thanked her and got off the phone and sulked for a while. I scowled at the pan as I made my kids their grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Then I turned on the TV for them and prepared myself the traditional Sad-Girl Lunch: chocolate chip cookies and an enormous cup of coffee. As I ate, I sent my husband a series of increasingly freaked-out texts that went something like this:

1: 32 p.m.: Talked to X. Says novel needs re-working. Noooooo!!!!

1:36 p.m.: Will need time to fix it…

1:38 p.m.: Not sure how to fix it.

1: 40 p.m.: Change POV??? Can I write in voice of man??? Revamp structure???...

1:45 p.m.: Will have to let kids watch TV all afternoon so I can think about novel mess.

2:15 p.m.: Kids going brain-dead on Sofia McStuffins and the Neverland Einsteins and still no brilliant ideas here.

2:17 p.m.: Am obvs. stellar writer AND wonderful mother!

2:46 p.m.: Good thing our oven is gas…

2:47 p.m.: Jking. Opening wine.

2: 48 p.m.: (Jking again)

Eventually he sent a response text reminding me that he was, in fact, at work, where he actually had work to do, and so could we please have this conversation when he got home in a few hours? Fine. Very reasonable. (This is our marital arrangement. I will panic like Chicken Little on the day the sky is falling, and he will remain calm and remind me that it’s just a little rain.)

I sent the kids out to the back yard to play, and took up my usual mode of self-therapy: housecleaning. There’s nothing like furious scouring to exorcise the sludge of disappointment, and so I scoured. As I worked, I felt my mind begin to clear. My discouragement, cleansed by Comet fumes and adrenaline, began to harden into determination. So, okay. It needs work, I thought. I’m not afraid of work. I’m the freakin’ queen of work. God didn’t make me a perfectionist obsessive-compulsive for nothing. I’m gonna beat this novel’s sorry, effing….

You get the drift.

This is my pattern when it comes to rejection. It’s all so familiar that this week I’ve been thinking I should just go ahead and formalize it. Its working-title is The Sündberg-Lunstrum Five Stages of Literary Grief©. It looks like this:

Stage 1: Despondence

Stage 2: Angst

Stage 3: Bitching

Stage 4: Delirium

Stage 5: Ambition

I hate to publicly admit it, but I’m pretty well practiced at these stages. I’ve been rejected from some of the finest literary magazines in this country, several MFA programs, a number of fellowships, and more jobs than I can count. And before that, like most writers, I spent my adolescence apprenticing as a middle school social reject. (Let’s be honest, is any literary journal editor as mean as that pack of girls at the “cool” table in the cafeteria? You know—the ones with the good hair and the ESPRIT bags?) I’ve been thoroughly schooled over the years in the art of losing. But as Elizabeth Bishop might remind me, most loss isn’t disaster.

Rejection is just part of the deal when you’re a writer. We all know it going in. We all expect to get rejected now and then. (Or more than now and then.) Part of the reason I find cleaning the house so therapeutic is because it is a process with a guaranteed product. When I sweep and mop, the floor gets clean (granted, it’ll be dirty again soon—this is the reality of living with small children—but for a short time it is wonderfully clean). I cannot say this about anything else in my life. I might pour my energy and effort into teaching and still end up with students who don’t care about the subject, don’t do the work, fail the course. I might try to the best of my abilities to guide my children toward good—to help my son become a kind and honorable man and my daughter a confident and gracious woman—try to keep them both safe as they grow into the gifts I already see so bright within them; but, ultimately, it’s not all in my control. And, similarly, I might tear my novel to its fibers and re-knit it, but I have no assurance that what I can make of the story will be right this time. Writing, like nearly everything of value in life, requires work without the payoff of external reward. It demands faith rather than offering promise.

I’ve let a few days pass since the phone call. I’ve looked again at the novel and have talked it through with those close to me, have come to see a couple of pathways forward through the tangle—paths I could not see in the midst of my Stage 1 despondence, nor in the throes of angry zeal that mark my Stage 5 ambition. All is not lost, I see. All is not disaster. Now, shaken but not broken, I can return to the work with the respectful amount of fear and trembling. I say this because, for me, writing is sacred. I had forgotten that somehow. But, I’ve been reminded, it’s a sacred act, not a sacred thing. It’s the writing that fills me and gives me a sense of purpose. It’s the writing that allows me to wake up glad to see the day again. Not the finished story or the bound book—the writing. And so I’m back at the desk, re-thinking, re-plotting, and I’m tentatively, surprisingly, hopeful about it.

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