Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fear -- cluck, cluck -- of Failure

By Lori Nawyn

I write manuscripts then file them away like a squirrel hoarding nuts for winter. Unlike a squirrel’s stored supply, however, my stashed manuscripts do me little good. That’s because I’m not a squirrel…I’m a chicken. I never submit half the manuscripts I write.

At first, I thought I suffered from manuscript rejection anxiety, an ailment I have yet to find a clear and concise definition of. After an internet search, I discovered it’s not uncommon for authors to suffer from such a malady. I found this appeal from John Last, Emeritus professor of epidemiology of the University of Ottawa, wherein he pleads for a colleague:

Are there any editors aware of support groups for authors who have something original and important to say but suffer from obsessive anxiety that inhibits their ability to pursue their ideas to fruition?...My admittedly rather superficial inquiries about the prevalence of this condition suggest that it is not uncommon among creative artists and writers, which leads me to wonder whether there is/are support group(s) for victims.”

I didn’t have time to attend a support group, even if I could find one. So, I further researched the subject and stumbled upon the following advice, intended to ease the pain of rejection:

When submitting manuscripts, send two SASE's, one rose colored enveloped labeled"Acceptance Letter," and a black envelope labeled "Form Rejection Slip.” Enclose a smiley face sticker, with instructions to the editor to affix it to the black envelope if he has scribbled a personal note of encouragement or advice in the margin of the rejection slip.”

Interesting counsel, but not applicable to my particular situation because, after reading and contemplating the advice, I realized it was not the rejections, or the words therein, that unnerved me. Some of my rejection letters actually evoked a smile. One I still have:

Had we had received your manuscript a year ago, we would have been eager to publish it. However, due to what we perceive as instabilities in the market that render us unable to make a profit, we cannot do so as we plan to cease publication. However, please feel free to send additional manuscripts as we enjoy reading your work.”

And, my personal favorite: “If you were a well-known author, or a male author, we feel your manuscript would be saleable.”

I was working on the first problem. However, since the publisher didn’t mention an option to adopt a masculine pen name, there wasn’t much I could do about the second!

I decided to break things down to see how I really felt about the whole process of writing and submission. Writing - good. Rewriting - check. Filing - great. Getting manuscript out and rereading, revising, and rewriting - wonderful. Putting manuscript into envelope and sending -- eeekkk!

Two images popped into my head. The first was of my fiery, redheaded high-school typing teacher, Mrs. Weidman, who gave my fingers a sharp rap with her ruler if I erred at the keyboard. She made it plain she didn’t like me, and she had zero tolerance for my inability to produce spontaneous, blunder free papers. To this day I don’t know why -- it wasn’t for lack of trying -- but my brain and fingers could simply not make a connection that would allow me to type 100 plus words per minute with no errors.

The second image was of my mother. In my youth, I frequently followed her around and tried to get her to listen to my stories. Her response was almost always the same: “Lori, writing is not your forte.” I knew she thought she was doing me a favor by discouraging me from making a fool of myself. She believed writing, for me at least, to be a frivolous occupation. Her words stung.

Silly as it seemed, though nearly two decades had elapsed, I continued to allow my self-esteem to remain in a battered state. I wasn’t really afraid of rejection -- I pretty much expected it. The problem was I feared I would never measure up. My efforts would never -- ever -- be good enough for the Mrs. Weidman’s of the world. Sometimes, I could almost feel the smack of her ruler on my fingers when I even contemplated putting a manuscript into the mail. “Yes, Mrs. Weidman, I’d better check it one more time -- I’ll file it away until I can…”

In addition, as I’d discovered with a handful of other things in my life, when a parent expresses stringent and repeated opposition to your choices, it can be difficult to overcome. Could my manuscripts ever be perfect enough that my mother would believe writing was my forte?

My yearning to have my manuscripts be undeniably perfect in every aspect, to the point I feared sending them out (some even after private editors combed over them) was rooted in a fear of failure. I had to have a stern talk with myself and remember failure is a normal part of life. Without it, like I often told my children, how could we learn? It’s not failure that matters, it’s the way we handle it. It’s getting up one more time and trying again, even if those who oppose us think we shouldn’t.

I’m getting braver at submitting manuscripts. As a result, I’ve enjoyed some rewarding achievements, milestones I never would have reached had I always been a chicken and not tried. Now, each time I submit, my fingers and heart hurt less because I know I haven’t truly failed until I quit, and I don’t intend to quit.


Janet Jensen said...

Lori, your blog post made me laugh. Most of the rejections I've received have not been at all original. Just "no thanks, not for us," or "we have to be very selective about what we accept, and only the best will do . . ." More and more, they are simply form letters. So you should definitely keepy yours, because someday those same folks will want to eat their words.


Anne Bradshaw said...

I can relate to all this. And yes, I have a finished manuscript stashed away, waiting for I know not what. Time for it to mature, maybe. More likely courage to let it fly the roost. Like you, I'm chicken.

Josi said...

Somehow I managed to leave my comment on another blog--says a lot about me. So here it is again:

You know what's cool about chickens though? they never give up. I've been trying to keep mine in their coop for months, and they just keep on trying to get out. I feed most of our leftovers to them, and they always attack it with a fervor no matter how much food they'd had that day. So, it's not all bad to be a chicken.

Marsha Ward said...

I like that you never will give up. Lori. Thanks for the post, and double thanks for signing it up top. I really, really, like to know who is talking to me when I read a blog post--without having to scroll down first to see who posted!

C.S. Bezas said...

Oh, Lori, this is priceless. So well written and very inspiring. In fact, I mused on your inspiration at my own blog. You've acted as a catalyst for me, Lori, and I thank you.

Lori Nawyn said...

Have I ever told all of you that you're wonderful? Well you are...I really enjoyed your comments.

Anne, I hope one day soon you'll be able to let your manuscript fly. You're a talented writer, someone I've admired for a long time.

Cindy, I'm humbled to think I've inspired you -- I look up to you so much and am frequently inspired by your insights and wisdom.