I love the desert—the minimalist environment, how your eyes can stretch for miles, the hardly traveled roads that go on and on. But I didn’t want my writing life to resemble a desert, and lately it had felt as if it did. Other than publishing an article here and there, I was cruising a long dry spell. All writers have them. But my parched streak had gone on for too long. I began to worry that things would never improve. My novel-in-progress had reached a roadblock.
I complained to my 24-year-old son. “Maybe I’m no longer a writer.”
As well as being a musician and songwriter, Travis is a logical, rational person who has grown up with a father who is a fulltime musician, and a freelance writer-mother since before he was born. He’s had a front row seat to the ups and downs writers and artists go through.
“Of course you’re a writer,” he said. “You had a book published. When’s the last time you read The War of Art?”
I had given him the book a year ago when he needed a dose of motivation, and The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle is the best motivator I’ve come upon. Whenever I begin to obsess about the publishing business and start to equate the dearth of current publications in my life with my own intrinsic worth, or when my students berate themselves about the same things, it’s time to break out Steven Pressfield’s short but powerful book. That and the Bob Newhart video on YouTube: “Stop it!” A great reminder to shut up and get to work.
Over the two hours it took me to read The War of Art, Pressfield reminded me that we need to re-think our thinking about art and writing. The major battle for artists of all kinds is the resistance we ourselves create, and that stops us from tapping into our creative selves.
My most recent read of the book reminded me of something I already knew but had once again forgotten: If you want to something to happen, make it happen.
After five years of work on a work-in-progress novel, I needed more immediate gratification than it was giving me. It was time to send out shorter pieces and make it rain. While focused on the novel, I had continued writing essays and short stories only to submit them in a scattershot way. I’d send a story out; it would come back with a “no,” sometimes accompanied by feedback or an encouraging word from an editor, sometimes not. I had more than a dozen unfinished pieces, half-forgotten and growing stale on my hard drive.
I looked through my files to see which pieces were close to being finished, printed them out, then picked a few I felt were good enough to finish and submit. I made a note of anthologies that were calling for short stories, decided that the beginning of one in my reserve file could work as a flash fiction piece, and that it was time to unearth a couple of already-published essays and submit them to journals that accepted reprints. Ditto for a couple of Q&A’s I wanted to do for literary journals. A friend sent me a notice for a poetry contest with a cash prize, and I entered. Months earlier I’d tried to place a book proposal for a noir anthology and got a not-exactly-a-rejection note in return, suggesting I try the editor again in the future. I did.
For a couple of weeks I dug in hard, polishing pieces that were almost there as well as the book proposal. I would romance rejection and see where it took me.
I re-subscribed to Duotrope.com, a valuable publishing resource. Every day I searched out another journal that was open to submissions and sent work out: three poems, two essays to journals that accept reprints, a fresh essay to The Ocotillo Review. I wrote, finished, or tweaked three short stories and submitted them to the anthologies.
I can’t say how many publications I sent work to, but it was enough to make my eyes blur. I remembered something I’d heard a friend in sales say, that you have to make at least a hundred calls to get five yes-es. Marketing your writing is a bit like sales. The more I submitted, I reasoned, the more likely it was that I’d garner a few yes-es.
I also did some overdue house-cleaning. If there is something to the idea that Feng shui works for homes, maybe it applies to creative work as well. I bought expandable files: One for works-in-progress so I could see what still needed work; another for filing completed stories and essays that I had submitted, plus others that had been accepted but not yet published. In yet another file I stashed the embryos of longer projects that I might someday want to do something with.
I did not sell my novel to the movies. But over the next two months, things began to happen. Reprints, stories, an essay were accepted. On the same day the essay was claimed by one literary journal, it was rejected by another. That’s how it goes. Had I only sent it to one journal, the “no” may have come in instead of the “yes.” I also signed a contract to as editor of Palm Springs Noir, an anthology published by Akashic Books, a project I had wanted to take on for at least a year.
I’ve known many talented writers who gave up submitting work almost as soon as they started, because they couldn’t deal with the rejection. But in our line of work, rejection is a part of the game. If you can’t deal with it, you have two choices: stop now or develop a thick skin. Because unless you become a best-selling author, a rare status as we all know, you’re going to get rejected, even after you’ve started to get accepted. I developed a thick skin early, yet every so often it wears thin. While I’m an endless encourager of others, I’ve been known to give up too soon, too. So when students or friends say they sent out their story or essay or book-length work a handful of times and got a handful of “no”s in return, I say, that ain’t nuttin’. If editors or agents give you feedback, act on it. And keep on sending out work.
Or as Dennis Palumbo, Los Angeles author and therapist to creatives, says, “Keep giving them you until you is what they want.”
There are many things I do to revive my writing mojo: I subscribe to journals I want to be published in, buy new books (used books don’t help authors), and support indie bookstores by shopping there. I try to be a good literary citizen by going to readings, writing conferences, book fests. I try to give back by sitting on panels and interviewing authors for my radio show and print interviews. You have to drum up some good karma for the publishing rain gods to want to help you.
Even in the desert, it does eventually rain.
This article originally appeared in the Author’s Guild Bulletin