One night after a reading years ago, before any of us had published a book, I and another writer I know gave a third writer friend a pretty hard time about not wanting to submit stories to magazines. I was especially insistent; I told this third writer a few times that they had to “get hungry”.
Unfortunately, I was doing more talking than listening, so I don’t recall if it was fear of rejection holding that person back. If it were, I think I would understand. I recently tallied up the rejections the 17 stories in Nobody Looks That Young Here received and came out with more than 160.
As I’ve mentioned in these pages already, I’ve made a couple of submissions I’ve regretted— kudos, hesitant friend, one should definitely be sure a story’s ready before sending it off—but on the other hand, a hit rate of 10 per cent isn’t bad for a writer who’s just starting out. It is, to an extent, a numbers game. And while it can be frustrating for a new writer, it can also be empowering to know that rejection often has less to do with your work not being good enough than with it just not being, in an editor or collective’s subjective opinion, the absolute best work received during a given submission period. Like it or not, writers are in a competitive environment; I’m thankful I don’t know any that compete in the way Darwin meant it.
Hungry or otherwise, the three writers around that table that night are all around the same age, and, then as now, in similar places in our careers as well as our lives: we’ve each begun by publishing a book of short stories; two of us (not me) have an agent; two of us have published a second book; two of us have gotten married; one of us has a child and one of us is expecting.
The only notable difference between me and the other two is that I don’t have a graduate-level degree in creative writing; I do, however, have a graduate-level degree in a different field, and if I didn’t pick up a fear of rejection, I definitely felt a similar one, that of failure. Thankfully, nothing hanging in the frame on my wall details how I limped across the finish line by turning in a medieval studies term paper mostly about The Godfather and another that included almost no secondary sources, or how I was emotionally and financially incapable of taking up that pre-acceptance into the Ph. D. program.
I found graduate school to be very tense: sometimes you have to pay for it yourself, but often you’re given some kind of funding, or a stipend—don’t call it a salary—to complete a teaching assistantship. It’s not a lot of money—I didn’t even have a TA-ship, so I worked nearly full-time hours at a call centre in addition to my course work—but the country and the province (indirectly) and the university (directly) do invest in the student.
If the student should fail, it was once explained to me, the student doesn’t look as bad as the institution, as the university’s ability to keep getting funding, top rankings in Macleans, etc. wouldn’t be helped by betting on too many horses that, to stretch a metaphor, run off the track entirely. This never made the feeling of having failed go away, though. And if I say “competitive” in relation to my grad school experience, I may mean it in the Darwinian sense: I was only there a year, but getting one of the few available SSHRC grants seemed to matter a lot more than any work a student wanted to do; it was plainly visible who had been anointed as the very best. Maybe this is also the case in creative writing programs, or maybe it isn’t; I don’t know because I haven’t done one, and I’m sure cultures vary by program. I do remember the feeling, though, of having this huge opportunity handed to me, and institutions invested in my success, and the terror of screwing it up, of having been admitted by mistake or something—classic Imposter Syndrome, in other words.
To title this post, I almost borrowed from Bob Dylan—“When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose”—but I’m more of a Bruce Springsteen guy. From “Something in the Night”, off Darkness on the Edge of Town, these lines have always given me chills:
“You’re born with nothing, and better off that way
Soon as you’ve got something they find someone to try to take it away.”
It made a lot of sense to someone who grew up in a small town, and even more once I’d been admitted to the academic life that at the time was everything I wanted.
The fact that I didn’t begin writing in earnest until the wheels had come off my academic dreams leaves me with a scary thought: what if my writing had been my academic dream? What if I had come into it with this fear I shouldn’t be there, or fallen out of it in the same way I fell out of my degree? It’s hard to find good, recent numbers, but I’ve read that anywhere from 25 to 90 per cent of writing students don’t publish a word after they graduate.
Would I have ever talked myself into writing again?
Would I have stayed hungry, like the Boss told me to in “Dancin’ in the Dark”, and started bombing out stories to magazines all over Canada and the world?
Would I have hung that Saul Bellow quote above my desk: “Rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you’”?
I hope so, but I’m not sure.
I do know that when I “emerged” as a writer, I was strangely prepared to just get my work out there, shake off rejections and then submit somewhere else. It helped that some magazines, like The Fiddlehead, tell submitters up front that they accept barely two per cent of submissions, meaning I could take my own self-worth out of the equation entirely. I always stayed professional, but I aggressively pursued publication: I pressed publishers for follow-ups, violated simultaneous submission interdictions and, once the contract for Nobody Looks That Young Here was signed, did what (I think) an agent would do and tried to use that cred to get Hamburger published as soon as possible. (I still joke that my first publisher called my bluff when they accepted Hamburger.)
Since my books have come out, though, I’ve also come to understand my more tentative colleagues. I’ve now had publishers invest in me, meaning that indirectly, provincial and federal governments have invested, too; it’s led to some great opportunities, including this one right here, publishing these posts on Open Book. I’m happy to be where I am, with few to no regrets, but yeah: when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. These days it’s harder to keep up the nerve I had back when I was hungry.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Daniel Perry’s first short fiction collection, Hamburger, was published in 2016. His stories have been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize and appeared in publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and the Czech Republic. He has lived in Toronto since 2006. Nobody Looks That Young Here, a collection of linked stories, is his second book.