I was recently honored to be a keynote speaker at the University of Toledo’s English Department-sponsored Shapiro Writing Awards banquet. I’ve posted the speech below.
I’d like to begin by thanking Tim Geiger, the English faculty, and the university for inviting me tonight and, especially, those of you who participated in this year’s Shapiro Writing Competition. To write is a difficult enough endeavor; to submit what you write for others’ to judge is plain courageous.
For the sake of providing some perspective on my writing career, last fall, I participated in a literary fair along with Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help. Two weeks ago, I was in Orlando participating in the University of Central Florida’s Book Festival. There, I served on a discussion panel and held a book signing. Among the authors in attendance were James McBride, the author of the bestselling memoir The Color of Water and Miracle at St. Anna; Ellen Hopkins, one of the bestselling authors of Young Adult literature and of some of the most frequently banned novels in libraries and schools (for which she is a personal hero of mine), and Lauren Groff, a rising rock star in literary fiction. Her most recent novel Arcadia has received rave reviews from nearly every major review publication, including the New York Times. Next weekend, I will be appearing at a book festival with Carl Hiaasen, the journalist and bestselling novelist for both adults and children. My purpose is not only to drop names; although, it is kind of fun, but to share that, simply put, without my Masters of Literature Degree from UT, I would never have found myself having beers and making friends with such august company.
Seven years ago, when I determined to pursue a writing career in earnest, I decided that I first needed to spend time listening to smart people talking about smart literature. That’s when I applied for admission at UT, and for the next three years, my professors (Russ Reising, Melissa Gregory, Christina Fitzgerald, Tom Barden, Jamie Barlowe, amongst others) more than met that need. In fact, it was in Melissa Gregory’s class that the idea for my novel So Shelly first flitted across my consciousness. I should actually apologize to them all, for at the time, I was teaching full-time and raising three elementary-school aged children and was never quite able to give the amount of attention to my studies as was appropriate.
It’s truly an honor for me to be given the opportunity to address this particular audience. It’s an absolute joy to be among my people, my kind of people: you English Majors, you purposeful idlers, you unapologetic romantics, you erudite thinkers, you iconoclastic throwers of conceptual bricks, you rejecters of the status quo, and, most importantly tonight, those among you about-to-become members of the 99% – not the 99% of economic have nots but the 99% of those who will seek mainstream publication for their writing but never see it on their local bookstore or library shelf. I cite this deflating statistic not to discourage you; rather, by standing in front of you tonight as a 1 percenter (in the published sense, not the financial), I hope to convince you that you too can make that transition. Early in Sophocles’ Antigone, Ismene, the title character’s timid sister, asserts that “things impossible, ‘tis wrong to attempt at all.” But if I had believed such nonsense, I’d have never bothered to defy the absurd odds against achieving mainstream publication, yet here I am. But, not so long ago, I was you – attending classes here at UT, and since this is a celebration of writers, it’s to them that I wish to address the remainder of my talk. Know this, if I can do it, trust me, so can you. I have no preternatural gift for writing. As a writer, I compare myself to the type of hockey player known as a “grinder” – not a particularly graceful skater or stick handler but one willing to muck it up in the corners, throw a few elbows, and, in general, do whatever needs to be done to put the puck in the net. When I started, I didn’t have a single contact in the publishing industry. I was a nobody from nowhere, but I possessed a stubborn determination to succeed, and I resolved that I would never stop trying until someone told me I was good enough. And after four years and three failed novels, someone finally did.
However, I must warn you that the world of mainstream publishing is not for the thin-skinned or the easily-discouraged. And, you will most likely fail if you do not learn to make friends with the devil that is REJECTION.
Actually, you should be more than mere friends with REJECTION but lovers – with all of the sublimity, ecstasies, frustrations, masochism, and neuroses that mark any halfway-decent love affair.
As English majors, you should already be well on your way to forging this relationship, because, for if I can assume you’re anything like me, for many of you, REJECTION has been a lifelong companion:
A) As children, we were rejected by potential playmates who grew weary of waiting for us to “put down that stupid book,” so that we would come out and play.
B) We were rejected by potential romantic partners who were less-than-impressed by our pale skins and under-toned bodies, which resulted from so many hours spent indoors with books and journals.
C) We were rejected by those who were mortified by our choices in fashion and hair styles, both irrelevant considerations as we read and wrote in our favored nooks and crannies.
D) We’ve been rejected by potential romantic hook-ups who immediately disconnected when the inevitable question arose: “What’s your major?”
E) Some of us were even rejected by those more widely-esteemed major programs themselves and only “settled” for the English department as a second choice because “I like to read,” or because “I did ‘good’ in English in high school.”
F) I know of some rejected by their parents who refused to pay the tuition for such a “worthless degree.” I mean, “What are you going to do with an English major?”
G) As undergrads and grad students, we’ve had draft after draft rejected for being either too original or too derivative; too under-sourced or too over-sourced; too obvious or too obscure; too predictable or too unconventional; too timid or too overreaching.
H) We apply to numerous grad schools and MFA programs hoping that just one will take us and allow us to borrow even more money that will take a decade to pay back – if we can pay it back at all.
I) In pursuit of academic publication, we’ve had papers and articles rejected by the most arcane, yet somehow significant, literary journals.
J) Chasing mainstream publication, we’ve been rejected, novel after novel and by agent after agent (In my case over a hundred), and, once represented, by editor after editor at publishing house after publishing house.
K) Once published, the rejection doesn’t stop. We brace ourselves against not only the rejection of the trade publications (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Book List, to name a few) but also against the myriad of amateur bloggers and the dreaded and spiteful reviews at Amazon and GoodReads.
L) We face the almost certain rejection of the general reading public who prefer their pot boiler stories of paranormal beings, soccer mom erotica, political thrillers by right wing talk show hosts – hell, anything by right wing talk show hosts, ghost-written celebrity novels and tell alls, and the story of a five-year old, raised in a shack, who recounts his journey to heaven and the five people he met there (I may be guilty of conflation there.) to anything remotely literary or nuanced.
M) Finally, we find our books rejected by the slew of e-readers who prefer the un-vetted crap they can download for free to the painstakingly-edited pieces that require an investment of nine dollars.
So, if any of you intend to advance farther into the world of mainstream publication, I heartily encourage you to do so and, as I earlier noted, I’m living proof that anyone from anywhere can make it; however, proceed with full knowledge that the devil of rejection lurks. If he is unable to simply tempt you away from your goal with the Internet and television and fancy Smartphones, he will test your resolve with the constant reminder that the odds of publishing are too great and your talent too lacking. So, thicken your skin, steel your nerve, trust in your talents, think of my example, and stubbornly resolve to disarm rejection by embracing it.