In the Absence of Yes

On the sixteenth — or thirty-seventh — rejection

Listen to this essay on Cunningham’s podcast In the Atelier:

I am in full possession of accumulated resources — I have only to use them, to insist, to persist, to do something more — to do much more — than I have done. The way to do it … is to strike as many notes, deep, full, and rapid as one can. … Go on, my boy, and strike hard. … Try everything, do everything, render everything — be an artist, be distinguished, to the last.

And there’s the rub. Call us the Struggling Established, the Honorably Obscure, the Foolhardy Diligent — we who face the timeless frustrations of the writing life as faced by old Henry back in 1895 or Stegner in 1972. We’re firmly in a tradition of existential literary angst — a realization which, even if it makes nothing easier, can somehow console.

All these truths and quasi-truths … about publishing are finally ephemeral. … What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement … the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair. … But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul.

As for me, after filing away my essay’s latest rejection, I sit down to my own journal and write the following:

It’s not a matter of what you deserve, and — more to the point — certainly not a matter of what you think you deserve. All that matters is what you’re committed to, and how you honor that commitment, and — sometimes — what you are blessed by.

Author of the novels Q&A, Perpetua’s Kin, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), Partisans. Founder of Atelier26 Books.

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