Elsewhere

23 Oct

She poured herself another glass of wine and watched me as I sat on the floor sifting through my little wooden box of staggering failure.

“Can’t you just relax?” she said. It is a question I am asked often.

“I am relaxed. This is me relaxing.” And I took a swig of vodka, to prove it.

“Can I ask you a question? And I don’t mean to sound bitchy or condescending. But that is a lot of rejection letters. I mean … how do you see that every day and keep writing? What keeps you going?”

The truth is, I’d never really thought about it. But I wanted to answer her question as best I could. So I told her that the process of submitting manuscripts for publication involves, necessarily, an element of delusion. Delusion–because to believe in one’s talent, in the face of such strong evidence to the contrary, requires a Herculean effort of denial, a miracle of mental gymnastics. Delusion, and not persistence, is the key to success in the Arts.

But then, one must also understand–rightly, sanely–that this is all a part of the game. This box of papers, this crate that used to hold Spanish oranges, now stacked with sharp-edged letters–this is all in the game. This is normal. This is Good. This is how it happens. Rejection is the fuel that feeds the engine of the short story market; it is what separates the gold from the sand; it is a kind of self-cleaning, perpetual-motion machine, because if everyone’s a writer, no one is. Stephen King was probably rejected four times as much as me.

Or so I tell myself. Again: not persistence, but delusion.

I want to tell her that a real writer, a capital-W Writer, will not stop writing no matter how many pink slips he/she gets in the mail. But that would not be the truth. Because, the truth is, I am addicted to my writing as surely as she is addicted to her wine. I don’t write out of some heightened insight into the human condition. I write because it passes the time. I don’t stop because I can’t stop. It is a compulsion, not unlike touching the bedroom mirror fifty-seven times before going to sleep, or combing the frill of an Oriental rug at three in the morning. It is the sickness that makes one well.

She finished her bottle of wine and dipped into my vodka and ended up barfing all over my bathroom. I put her to bed and was alone with my letters until I crawled into bed around 3. And I knew, when I woke in the morning to an empty bedroom, that the box of anonymous letters, the evidence of my continued failure, would be waiting for me where I left it.

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