“You’re not a real writer until you have a drawer full of rejection slips.”
My pen had stopped on the track of its lined paper. I remember wondering how to phrase the speaker’s sentence into my spiral-ring binder of college notes, their contents color-coded, painfully comprehensive, and now stacked in a storage tub in my family’s garage. In the midst of an education of constructive criticism and the nuances of Anglo-Saxon poetry, this guest speaker spoke not to the dreams of this classroom of young writers, but to our realities. Writing was a way of seeing, a way of thinking, honesty and hope and struggle coalescing to expose the thrumming depths of existence. It also rarely sold.
I remember sitting in that classroom, thrilled with failure. I held the thought of unread writing cupped in my mind, touched it testingly. There was an energy here, a struggle, tendrils of story spreading out to parallel the hopeless task that writing itself reflected: life. Few would succeed, I realized. Failure was the currency of the industry. But so many writers would still try, night after morning, to capture the world they saw worth sharing. Struggling to find meaning in a savage world, to render their findings in savagely beautiful prose, to see that prose printed in a market red in tooth and clause. And it was that struggle itself that made the whole process worth the while, I realized, the smiling acceptance of an attempt worth its own time. A task still backed with hope. I remember thinking I would frame my first rejection letter, words sensitively turned towards the back of the frame, and hang it above my desk.
This past week, I received my first rejection email from an agent for a book-length work. I laughed when I opened the email, smiled to myself, and didn’t even try to explain.
At twenty-six, I am reaching the age where the goals of my peers begin to solidify around me. For the past month I have been traveling across the states on a long-delayed friendship tour, starting in Seattle with the wedding of my perfectly odd friend Laura, reuniting with college friends, crashing with family in rural Washington and dyeing Goodwill shirts in Portland, then flying to Chicago for adventures involving late-night comedy runs. Then Ohio to visit my dad, with time spent with my aunt and sister as well. I’ll meet a friend from Korea in a backcountry campground tomorrow. And as I get to know my friends once more I am in awe of the solidity of their goals. Doctor. Lawyer. Teacher. Wife, husband, parent.
I, on the other hand, don’t have a wall on which to hang a rejection letter, nor a printer on which to print it.
Instead I bought a car this week, a manual 2007 subaru outback, that I have named River Song after a character from the BBC show Doctor Who, in keeping with the tradition of my sisters (whose cars bear the names of Donna and Melody Pond). Come Monday, I will step into this car and drive across the country, starting in Kentucky and stopping in Nashville, possibly swinging down to New Orleans before hitting up Austin on my way to some desert hiking in Arizona and New Mexico. On the 24th I will end in California, where my sister will have just returned from a year in Australia (with Donna abandoned along the way), and then I will find the next direction for a winter’s work on the water.
At times I look at where my life stands and I freeze, stuck in stasis. I don’t have an M.D, after my name, nor the makings of a law degree. I am as far from marriage as it is possible to be. I can take care of my needs, past, present, and future, but there is little chance of my ever preceding any purchases with the phrase “high-end” and I am somewhat glad of that.
Instead I have a memory crammed with orcas slicing through still water, of glaciers piled high above drifting sculptures of ice, of the wide silk of the sea in the mornings before the wind rises. I have some sea days for a captain’s licence, and a world of ocean on which to gather more. I have a tent dyed at night with the shifting color of the northern lights, which I watched twist above my head with one arm propped on the wet tundra, and I have the memory of a wolf’s stare as I looked up from my notebook and startled his long, low trot past my lonely tent. I have the promise of these places next summer, when I will drive up to Alaska for another summer’s work on the sea, and I have the homes and travels that have preceded those days: Korea. Australia. New Zealand. Wherever my backpack fell in Europe.
I have fall in the Norwegian Fjords, driving through yellow leaves so steep above it felt like looking up through ripples of sun beneath the sea. I have the life story of the retired mortician who gave us a ride in New Zealand on his way back from picking up a talking parrot for his aviary. I have the day my rented scooter broke down on the wrong road in Cambodia, the taste of the Coca-cola as I rested with locals before walking down the road once more, and I have the familiar turn of my own scooter along the coastal roads on Jeju as I dodged drying shallots beside a neon sea. I have waterfall hikes without shoes in Australia, and gentle mountains submitted in Scotland. I have the stare of the wolf, stabbing through my concept of self.
I don’t own much, but I have stories.
And the odd thing is, when I go back over these stories, it is never these ones I enjoyed the most that ring truest, but the days that hurt. The days of heartbreak, of hopelessness, of realizing that life stung and finding the beauty in that rawness of feeling. The days that I failed are the days I treasure most. I don’t know why this is, but again and again, I find it to be true, that honesty comes from lived hurt. From the space expanding within failure.
One of these stories I believed in enough that I wrote out its 70,000 words while sitting at a desk in Korea. Believed in it enough to spend two years refining those words early in the mornings before heading to sea, to finally summarize that story in emails to agents whose answer I knew would mostly be “no.”
Until, someday, somebody writes “yes.”
Instead of a drawer I have a glove box, and it waits for rejection. Waits for failure. Waits for the mess of being twenty-six and trying, waits for the struggle that makes life worth the attempt, waits for the irrelevance of success. Waits for life, lived.
I’ll find a printer, I think, and make a keychain, or a dangle for the rear-view mirror, or a necklace. It will read:
“Dear Ms. Lang,
No thank you, but thank you for writing to me about your memoir, THE YEAR OF THE SQUID BOATS.