By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
Today I got a rejection letter for a book manuscript. It hurt. It wasn’t the first one and won’t be the last, but it still hurt. I keep waiting to develop the thick skin all the writing advice books say you need to survive in this business, but mine feels as tender as ever. Wounded pride and self-doubt spring eternal.
I should have done a better job hiding the hurt from the kids, but they burst into my room to tell me about the new level they reached on their computer game and the tears and the red, sniffly nose were too obvious.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” Jack asked.
“It’s nothing, Jack. I’ll be okay,” I said.
“Don’t you want to tell me about it?” he asked, borrowing a line I use on him.
“It’s just some bad news I got about my book,” I said. “The publisher I sent it to doesn’t want to publish it.”
“What? That’s crazy. I read those stories and they’re good,” Adam said.
“Yeah, I read them, too, Mom, and I liked them,” agreed Jack.
Wanting to be part of the discussion, 5-year-old Kate chimed in. “Well, Mom, maybe you can just make your book more exciting,” she said, trying to fix things for me.
“Kate, those stories are about Mom’s real life. It’s not like she can just spice them up,” argued Adam. “Besides, you didn’t even read them.”
“But that’s only because I can’t read yet!” Kate fired back.
“It’s okay,” I said, interrupting the budding argument. “I’m sad about it right now but I’ll be okay and I’ll try again.”
And I will try again but not because my skin is any thicker and not because I have any hope that the next rejection won’t sting just as much.
When I try again it’ll be because I believe in the work and because I want the kids to one day hold a book in their hands that has their mom’s name on it and their childhood stories in it. I’ll try because not trying would say more about me than the failure. And I’ll try because I want the kids to go after their own dreams one day. I don’t want them to quit because that’s what they saw me do.
I think what writers need most is not a thick skin but rather the strength or insanity to let themselves get hurt over and over again – to be a thin-skinned masochist willing to ride the waves of disappointment in hopes that the little island of opportunity will come into view any moment.
Listening to the kids debate my professional problem did put things in perspective, though. I look at them, healthy and happy and growing, and I feel like the worst kind of stingy jerk to want anything more than that. My “non-spicy” life is so blessed. I know it’s wrong to indulge in a pity party when there’s so much around me that’s right. And yet, doing work that is personal means the failures feel personal, too. They cut deep, and there’s no barrier thick enough to block it out.
My thin skin is likely a permanent condition. It’s what makes me want to write when, particularly on tough days, learning Portuguese or wrestling alligators would be so much simpler and easier on the ego.
The best I can hope for is to stay just crazy and masochistic enough to try it all over again and watch and wait for that tiny island to appear on the horizon.