I gave a talk recently to a few teenagers who want to be writers. The talk was on determination in the writing world. I’ve been thinking about the talk for a while now. Isn’t a speech or talk better after you’ve done it, because you come up with so much you ‘meant’ to say. If I had one piece of advice, one quote that sums up everything I’ve ever been taught about writing, everything I’ve ever said about writing, everything I’ve ever read about writing, every last author I’ve heard talk about writing, and everything I truly believe in my heart of hearts about writing it would be this one quote: “Writers write. Everyone else makes excuses.”
Jack Bickham said that. He was an author who is probably best known for writing a little book called The Apple Dumpling Gang in 1971. Yup, that book was made into a movie in 1975.
One of the things I did when I was talking about determination, other than use most of my own history as evidence, was try and drill home the fact that this writing business is rather difficult. That you have to love it, you have to be moved to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, to watch that blank white screen fill with Times New Roman 12 font. You have to find a way to make writing your air, otherwise, when the rejections come storming in, there will only be yourself and a few stories you wrote and a feeling of despair. I know this for a fact. I’ve had two different times of writing, one when I dreamt the words, when I thought them as I drove home from work, and rushed to the computer to plug into a story. And there have been times when I didn’t feel much like a writer and I had to force myself to sit down every day at the same time and write something until the time I had allotted myself was up.
But I did that one thing I have come to cherish no matter how I’m feeling, I wrote. No excuses. (And I have had PLENTY of excuses that I tried to make, trust me!)
I thought that using myself as an example to these kids who didn’t know me from anyone, wasn’t really going to help get my point across. So I did a little research and I found some wonderful company in which I could nestle myself. It’s nice to know that as I continue to be rejected time and time again, waiting for that one big break that will prove all 14 of the books I’ve written have an audience; I’m in good company.
Here’s what I found, some big names who themselves came across some nasty rejection.
Dr. Seuss was told his work was “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
Anne Frank’s diary when it was submitted for publication was told: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
Madeline L’Engle, my hero as an Author, wrote the book A Wrinkle In Time. It was required reading when I was in 6th grade. Originally, the book was turned down by 29 publishers because it was too different; children wouldn’t be able to relate to the book. It has not been out of print since it was published in 1962. The book won a Newbery Medal, Sequoyah Book Award, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book received this gem from the editor of the San Francisco Examiner: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
H.G. Wells had to endure the indignity of a rejection when he submitted his manuscript, “The War of the Worlds” that said, “An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would “take”…I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book’.”
And when he tried to market “The Time Machine,” it was said, “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”
Emily Dickinson. Did you know that only seven of Emily’s poems were ever published during her lifetime? A rejection early in her career said, “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
Ernest Hemingway, regarding his novel, “The Torrents of Spring” was rejected with, “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.” Good thing ‘ol Papa was ornery enough to take such criticism.
Stephen King , another one of my writing heroes, used the washing machine as his writing desk. He wrote the book Carrie there. He was told in one rejection letter ‘We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.’ He tried to throw out the manuscript, but his wife saved it and encouraged him to try again. It sold later, and Mr. King was given a nice sum of money for his work.
Tony Hillerman, the master of the books about a Navajo police officer working on a reservation has sold millions. When he was getting started, an editor wrote him, “If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
And my favorite example is one that keeps me going in my most desperate of moments. He wasn’t a man who dreamed of being an author, though he penned some wonderful words in his time. He was extraordinary in his own right, but after I read the facts I’m about to tell you about, I put this man on the top of my list of people who exemplify determination.
Abraham LincolnIn 1831, Abraham Lincoln failed in a business venture.
In 1832, Lincoln was defeated as a candidate for the state legislature.
In 1833, Lincoln failed once again in another business venture.
In 1835, Lincoln’s fiancé died, shattering him.
In 1836, Lincoln suffered a nervous breakdown.
In 1843, Lincoln was defeated as a candidate for the U.S. Congress.
In 1848, Lincoln once again was defeated as a candidate for the U.S. Congress.
In 1855, Lincoln was defeated as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In 1856, Lincoln was defeated as a candidate for U.S. Vice President.
In 1859, Lincoln once again was defeated as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States of America.
It’s not always easy, any path you choose for yourself. There are pitfalls and mountains, there are rough spots and depression. I think it’s important to throw a party for every little victory, keep your eye on the reason you set down your chosen path to begin with, and try to do it all with a modicum of humility and a general dose of laughter and smiles. Don’t let your excuses win, think of that time as just time you could be using to take a few more steps up that metaphorical mountain.
And for those writers out there, even the slightest of little steps are worth a lot too. Remember, J.R.R. Tolkein wrote 245 words a day, it took him 11 years to write the Lord of the Rings books, and he wrote the whole thing as one giant ass book. When his publishers said, we wanted a trilogy, he just separated his book into three parts and said, ‘there you go.’