When it comes to your writing, there will be a great number of people who tell you no. I am not speaking of agents who feel they can’t sell your manuscripts, or editors who aren’t in love with your book—these are ordinary career set-backs for both working writers and aspiring ones. Poorly wrought novels, clumsy execution, a lack of emotional charge in the prose, and the idiosyncrasies of the publishing industry, are all normal stumbling blocks that a writer works through in her pursuit of excellence. Sometimes being told “no” becomes an essential part of the process of becoming not just a published writer, but an excellent one.
I am talking about the negative influences you are likely to experience all your life. Early years during which your siblings tell you that your poetry is stupid and anyone could do it. Or the awful disbelief and pity you see on your colleagues faces when they discover you really do have a manuscript in the desk drawer. I had a boyfriend who told me that my beloved New Yorker Magazine only printed cryptic stories without endings and that there was no purpose to fiction. Why bother writing things that don’t even happen? he asked.
Another thought it might be kinder to let me know gently my writing was just a hobby, not a serious pursuit. He asked my teacher, the short story writer and novelist, Mary Robison, whether I was just kidding myself. He was surprised by her answer. “No, are you kidding?” she said.
Even after I published a couple of books, I occasionally heard bad things said about my work. When I stopped writing for a few years in order to help my son, who was clearly disabled (it turned out to be autism, and he’s done very well after many years of intervention), it was brought to my attention that I was being used as a cautionary tale in a popular How-To book about how to become a successful novelist. Apparently, the author of the book listed me as a writer who, having shown great promise, mysteriously and forever disappeared. My international bestseller, my film, my next novel, all the articles and short stories I’d written, were signs of a career that had blossomed, then died. I had no viable career, as far as the author of this book was concerned, and was an example of failure to all.
The author of the book never bothered to get in touch with me to ask why I wasn’t publishing at present and learn about my son. He assumed I couldn’t get a contract, that I’d burned out and finished early. I was so discouraged by what he wrote, I couldn’t even talk about it. I put it out of my mind and taught my son how to point, clap, speak, play. I spent years on the floor with a little boy who later would feature in my novel, Daniel Isn’t Talking. That boy grew into a delightful young man who is now taking A-levels in modern Greek and French, and GCSE’s in Spanish and Chinese. He’s autistic, but social, loving, connected, curious. The novel, Daniel Isn’t Talking, really needs a sequel to it along the lines of Now He Speaks Greek.
But what if I had stopped writing after a few novels? Should we vilify authors who end their careers early, or don’t get the sales figures anticipated? Should we call Melville a failure because he’d been out of print for fifteen years at the time of his death at age 72?
I finally got in touch with the author of the How-To book that hurt me so, asking that he remove my name from his list of literary failures. It made him appear ill-informed, I explained, as I’d published a couple of new novels recently, one of which had hit a few summer bestseller lists and had been optioned for a film. He was deeply embarrassed and we had a little laugh about it. But even now, I can recall my humiliation at the words he wrote and that thousands would have read, stating flatly that I wasn’t good enough, that I hadn’t “made it.”
Why would I show you all this dirty laundry? Why not post the photos from People Magazine and the five-star reviews instead? Why not show me standing with Julia Roberts, or touring with Hilary Mantel or being interviewed by The Sunday Times? I am grateful for all these events, but do you really want another diva in your life? Yet another writer who tells you how great and easy it is for her now that she’s got publishers all over the globe? Because those moments of fame and success are minuscule next to the long years of being humiliated by people who think you are kidding yourself, years of being utterly obscure, of enduring criticism of your work, your career, your choices. All the naysaying and rankings and constant striving can dog our lives and cause us to finally turn on ourselves and stop writing altogether. I’m telling you all my dirty laundry so you don’t feel so bad about your own. Anyway, I don’t want to be anybody’s diva.
“No” is very powerful, and arrives in many disguises. “No” is inside the sneer of the person you are speaking to at a cocktail party when you admit you are a writer. It is on your professor’s mind when you tell him your write verse. It fills the air at a literary festival when the panel of experts discuss about how they no longer have time even for a slush pile, that publishers are not interested in new writers over the age of forty, that there is no market for literary fiction. I want to shout back to to these “experts.”
First, I want to tell them it is poor practice to show up at a literary festival and disparage the market for literary fiction. There is no market for books at all if you compare it to, say, video games. People spent 91.5 billion dollars on video games last year. If were are going to look only at market forces, not even the top selling category of fiction (romance) has any sort of market. In fact, people spend 10 billion on romance novels annually, but over three times that on tattoo removal. So, should we all go into that profession?
Next I want to say that if they have no time for the slush pile, they might consider hiring a few readers from the infinite pool of smart, savvy people of any age who would love a chance to read for a living. As for limiting new writers to under age 40 (or 30), what would they have done with manuscripts by Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Mary Wesley, Wallace Stevens, Anne Sewell or the contemporary writer, Helen DeWitt? Told them, sorry but you are too old?
I’ve experienced much discouragement as a writer, and I know I am not the only one. But learning to swim in a sea of “no” is part of our experience, and that of most people in the arts. Some will try to wrangle their way into published work by taking a job with a newspaper (if they can get one) or becoming adept with social media, or social climbing, or becoming a critic of some sort.
None of these are necessarily bad ideas, but there is really only one thing to do if you wish to be a good writer. You have to take all care in your work. You have to give it the dignity and attention it deserves. You have to honour your commitment to writing and to yourself, learn to accept that the environment for a serious writer, for an honest writer, is not always kind or willing. But as long as you can keep negative people and comments from distinguishing the joy and satisfaction you receive in bettering your craft daily, none of the doubts or fears will hurt you. Indeed, “no” never stopped any serious writer.