When I was in college I used to joke that I didn’t need to date much because I was a writer, submitting my work to be published, and I was already getting a steady dose of rejection as it was. Granted, the flip side to this, was the fact that I wasn’t devastated when I found out a boy I was interested in wasn’t interested in me.
I started writing secretly when I was in sixth grade. I did it because my friends were doing it, though, it ignited something in me that burned bright ever since. I wrote my first book that year, it was a 100 page tome, complete with beginning, middle, end and a moral. It’s not bad for a sixth grader, my 36 year old self must admit.
However, I didn’t begin submitting my work until I was 24, after my first fiction writing class.
Robert Olmstead taught that class. A pompous, self-centered ass of a man, talented and a writer that deserves the applause he has received, but as a man, as a human, he was insufferable. Every Wednesday for one semester, I plodded to class with my dreams of grandeur by my side. After three hours, I left my small class in tears. Tears that lasted an entire week, a crushed spirit that took 7 days to rebuild, only in time for the next installment of Olmstead’s inflicted misery.
To my grave, I will be thankful to Olmstead for the one lesson he did teach me, how to take criticism, a lot of it. This wasn’t a touchy feely class where everyone read each other’s work and beamed ‘wow, this was a good piece, I really like your writing.’ Nope, we were led by example, Olmstead was ruthless with us. If it sucked, he told us in no uncertain terms, which part was bad, why it was bad, why it should be tossed into a deep trash can and burned until even the memory of the words we had written were ashes. The class followed in suit, seldom did you hear what part of your story was ‘good’. There was always a million little things that needed improvement.
I wrote a story called The Chess Game, a story about God and the Devil playing Chess. It wasn’t a metaphoric story, it was just this idea that the Devil was bored and wanted to play chess in his old age, and the only opponent worthy of playing was God. I turned in my story, the class had a week to read my words and correct it, torture the times new roman words in black, blue and red ink. I didn’t sleep well that week, how could I? It was yet again my turn to put my soul on display for slaughter.
I arrived at class and sat down. Olmstead was lead into the room by his pretentious belly. (He walked belly first, pushed out as if he were an over-stuffed British officer. The rest of him swaggered as he walked.) Papers were shuffled about by the class, and Olmstead gave a lesson on how novice writers like ourselves should not use backstory, not only did we not understand it, but we wouldn’t use it properly. I raced through my story in my mind, had I used backstory? Was that where this lesson came from? What did I do wrong in my story.
The sadistic commentary on stories began. Olmstead insisted that if it was our story that was being critiqued, we were to be silent. If this was a story that had been published, we would not be in the rooms where our story was being read, so we could not defend it or explain it. The same went with his class. Your story was critiqued, you kept your mouth shut. The first story, a little piece about a man out west during the gold rush, was shot down until the final comment of ‘this one probably needs to just go straight to the trash can before you even leave the class tonight’ resonated in the air.
Then it was my stories time. There was this strange lull, as if everyone was trying to collect their thoughts, and then the room erupted in anger and debate. It was a God and Devil debate, it was a religious debate, it was some girl yelling that ‘God would never accept the Devil in heaven, even if it was just for a visit.’ My lower lip quivered and my heart began to break. They didn’t like this story, they didn’t like my writing. These dreams I had been holding fast to for all these years were a joke, a waste.
My friend Sophie, who I had asked to take the class with me, and who I owe a debt of gratitude to for this, leaned over and grinned at me. She pointed and said, ‘something you wrote caused all of this.’ I hadn’t thought of I that way. Tears dried up and I thought, maybe I’ve got something.
Fast forward to the last story I turned in. When I received Olmstead’s copy of my story, there were no red pen marks dripping off the page, in fact, there was only one comment, at the very end, he had written, ‘we’ll talk. –R. Olmstead’. He signed all our papers after he critiqued them, probably for the same reason he brought up each class that Tobias Wolfe had called his writing ‘inspired’ or some nonsense.
Well, when Olmstead critiqued your work, there was no room left on the paper, he butchered our pieces, all of them. They all limped back to their owners in pieces, bruised and beaten. Mine, however, this time, was spotless.
I made my appointment, walked all the tears and anger and frustration I had built up that entire semester into his office and threw down my story and declared, “what, it’s so bad you didn’t even want to comment on it this time?!”
He looked through the story, and said, “this is the finest piece of writing I’ve read in the last three semesters.”
When you are criticized for months, you get used to a certain mindset. I didn’t hear that compliment from Olmstead, instead I pointed a finger to my story and demanded, “Yeah, but what’s wrong with it.”
“Nothing.” He said.
We didn’t become fast friends, I still love to hate the man. I came away from the class with an A-, but I’m convinced that is because he never gave anyone an A.
I learned how to take criticism from him though. I found my writing path from that class and I was given some wonderful advice from Olmstead. I still don’t like him, but I can receive 10 rejection letters in a week and it doesn’t faze me. I just keep submitting. Because the biggest secret to writing that no one likes to share with you, is that yes, talent costs in this game, but persistence is what makes up the other 85% of it. Never giving up, no matter what, that’s the other part of writing.
You have to learn to not take the rejection personally, and accept that you are going to have to get up from the ground and get up on the horse again and again and again and again! There are small victories that make it worthwhile, the awards, the small pieces that are published in literary magazines, the writer in residency positions. Take those moments to celebrate, and then get back to your persistent ways.
I recently submitted my newest novel to over 60 agents, and the rejections are coming back in droves, a few of them have requested the entire manuscript, and we’ll see how that goes. But some of the rejections have been harsh, ripping apart characters driving forces, questioning the appeal of my book, yet they have all said something that I try to focus on, ‘you are a tremendous writer’.
I might not have a publishing deal right now, I might still be in limbo in the publishing world. But I have a passion for writing, I have a dream, I have 13 books, over 700 short stories, persistence, and people in the business are telling me I am a good writer. I’m getting there.