Discouraged? Often. Defeated? Never!

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, there are tons of spurious author quotes floating around.  It’s become so prevalent that there are even sites exposing the fake quotations, like this one examining things Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said: http://nofauxquotes.blogspot.com/2012/10/questionable-oscar-wilde-quotes.html

Goodreads is where people turn for quotes, but how can you tell if they’re legit,  since they’re unsourced.  Example? Goodreads pushes a spurious George Eliot quote–“It is never too late to be what you might have been”–which has never been proven to be something Eliot said or wrote.  It’s at the top of their George Eliot list. It shouldn’t be.

Despite intensive investigation by Eliot experts, nobody’s found that line in her books, her letters, or her table talk.  But it sure is popular. I suspected it was fake the first time I saw it on Facebook (another good source of bogus quotations), because I’ve read biographies of Eliot–as well as all but one of her novels–and it just didn’t sound like Eliot.  It felt too 20th century-on-a-mug-inspirational.

So I don’t know if Sinclair Lewis actually said,“It is impossible to discourage the real writers – they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write.”  As soon as I saw it on Facebook recently, I checked other Lewis quotes and it doesn’t feel too different from verified quotations of his.

But I do disagree with the sentiment.  It is, I think, very easy to discourage writers.  I see it all the time, and I’ve seen it in my own career.

My first short story to be published hit a trifecta.  It won the Harvey Swados Prize, named after a celebrated editor at Dutton.  The judge was Martha Foley, famous editor of The Best American Short Stories anthologies.  The story got published in Redbook, which paid very well and had four and a half million readers back then.

But I didn’t place another story for over five years, despite writing dozens and submitting everywhere.  I was increasingly discouraged as those years dragged on and the rejections filled my mail box.  How could this be happening?  How could I have started my career so strongly and then hit a wall?

I wondered if I’d wasted my time and money in my MFA program, if my childhood dreams of being a writer would never come true, and I strongly considered a major career change.  I actually started to explore going to rabbinical school, since I was so deeply invested in living my Jewish faith at the time.  Or maybe I would become a psychologist since I had such deep interest in the field.  I wasn’t certain where to turn, but I knew I had to rid myself of this albatross my writing had become.

And then, after the long drought, a letter of acceptance came, and then another, and then more.  That terrible time of profound discouragement was a lesson to me, because it taught me how unpredictable and even crazy a career can be, how all I had control over was making my work as good as possible.

There’s lots out there to discourage writers: bad reviews, poor sales, a lousy book cover, nobody showing up to your bookstore reading or signing, an editor switching houses, a publisher dropping your book.  And writers do give up and stop writing, if not forever.  However, I think many of us ultimately learn the truth of lines from Joseph Brodsky’s wonderful poem “Aeneas and Dido”: “But, as we know, precisely at the moment / when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.”

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10 Responses

  1. Lovely piece, Lev. It’s also helpful for any writer to KNOW that anyone who rejects your work is WRONG.

  2. Beautiful Lev. We didn’t choose to be writers, and we certainly didn’t choose it because it’s easy.

  3. Yes, I do feel writing chose me–back in second grade!

  4. Absolutely, Lev. I’ve been there on all of it. “Keeping on is the real trick,” Donna Fletcher Crow (and no doubt 10,000 others)

  5. Your thoughts are just what I need at this moment, Lev, after a few recent rejections and some ho hum book sales. And our sensitiviity as writers–right on! I recall that Virginia Woolf would take to her bed for a week after just one poor review. With me it takes one bad word! But I do love that final quote by Brodsky. Ah, to feel that “fresh wind” on the face! We have to believe in ourselves. Somehow.

    • I’m glad that what I wrote touched you, and at just the right time. The only up side to rejection as a writer is that at least it’s not in person–as it is for actors. But it’s still extremely hard to deal with, especially when it comes in waves.

  6. A wonderful post, Lev! I agree that there are many forces out there that could pull us down… if we let them. I’m reading “Do The Work” by Steven Pressfield. He also wrote “The War of Art,” which I also love. Anyway, in “Do The Work” he talks about Resistance and how it is a force that arises in response to artistic effort. Very compelling book and one that’s helped me when I’ve gotten discouraged.

    • Thanks, Donna. I think the book you point to shows the importance of finding resources of all kinds to help us through the dark times. My college mentor is now my best friend and she’s also encouraged me to keep going, and also noted how stubborn I am in a good way: I just won’t give up even if I give way now and then.

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