Today, I recalled that I survived an author’s worst nightmare. I gave it some consideration, smiled off a painful memory that became bittersweet in context, and moved on with my thoughts before yanking myself back to ponder it some more. I thought maybe the experience could be useful for another writer. Therefore, here we are.
In college, I was on the selection committee for a student-run literary mag run. I also submitted a poem for consideration. You may already see where this is going.
Setting aside the amazing ethical conflict of being allowed to sit on a submissions committee and submit, there’s a much more practical reason this shouldn’t ever be allowed.
We read blind for this process, so there was no identifying info on any submission. This is a great practice for ensuring committee members consider each piece on its own merits. In this instance, it also lowered any social shield my piece would otherwise have.
I remember the electric anticipation I felt as we got closer to my poem. Surely I would get some nice comments, right? Maybe praise. Even if my poem wasn’t selected, I might get some positive reinforcement, right? “I liked it, but… .” I would have been happy with that.
They laughed. Our coordinator read my poem title, and all of my friends laughed. And laughed. And blasted it to tiny, smoldering pieces. Along with my heart and my soul.
Here is the moral of my story, and it’s important: They laughed at my piece. There was no identifying information on it, right? It was strictly my work they laughed at, not me as a person.
And you know what? That poem was really, truly awful. Just creatively vile in the worst ways. So while these people responding in such a way was a little Ill-advised since they very well knew the author could have been in the room, I don’t blame them for hating it. I hate it now even more than they did then.
But back then, I thought it was pretty good! So I wanted to die when my work elicited such a response. I invited the vacuum of nothingness. But mostly, it was the first time (of many) I considered giving up on writing.
I learned perhaps the most important lesson for any creative, though. I learned to separate myself from my work. I had to in order to survive and keep going.
This poem sucked. It didn’t mean I sucked. (Disclaimer: I would never try to argue I don’t.)
I survived the absolute worst kind of creative rejection: truly honest and brutal criticism on a visceral level from the peers you respect and like, and I lived because I separated myself from my work.
That is the hardest thing to do as a writer. Letting others read your work, especially early in your career, is extraordinarily hard. It’s like showing your loved ones what is written on the inside of your skin. Nothing in my life has made me feel more vulnerable and exposed.
But as a writer, you have to do it. It’s scary and difficult and sometimes excruciatingly painful. Do it anyway. Your anxieties about it will probably materialize at some point, but you have to do it. It might go bad. Shut up. Move on. Do it again.
Why? Because otherwise you may as well be sticking a bucket on your head and talking to yourself. But more than anything, realize the art you make is flawed, but it is also wonderful. And above all, it stands alone and does not define you as a person.
That’s what the collective of your body of work does. You will write duds, and that’s okay. Just as you have things about your appearance or personality you’re self-conscious about, you will feel that way about your work.
However, the overwhelming majority of your writing will fill you with pride, so don’t let one painful failure define your work. Move on, and bury it under a mountain of good writing so only the most dedicated literary archeologists will ever find it.
And who knows? Maybe by then, it’ll be diamonds.