On the 250th episode of Inside the Actors’ Studio, Al Pacino talks about auditioning for admission and how being accepted — his first time out — was a defining moment. He knew then, he said, that he was an actor. Harvey Keitel talks about auditioning for ten years before he was accepted. Every time he had to return to the end of the line and wait another year. “I still have all the letters,” he said with a wry grin.
Both moments had resonance for me. A number of years ago I was mentored through the Humber School for Writers by Timothy Findley. A small Canadian press had already agreed to publish my collection of short stories, but I was convinced this was an error that, once they’d given the stories a careful read, they’d rescind. And then I received a letter from Tiff (as he preferred his friends to call him), with these words: “There is little work to be done on these stories. I’m sure you know what a wonderful accomplishment they are.” I still have that letter. Of course I do. Such praise and acceptance from a writer whose work I deeply admired was a defining moment. A few little cells turned over, from ‘hopeful, emerging writer’ to simply, ‘writer.’
So, it was not the business of writing that made me feel like a writer, it was being told by an Elder, a respected member of the community, that I belonged.
And then, years later, the publishing powers did, in fact, rescind my invitation. For one reason or another (none of which I’ve ever really understood), no one wanted to publish me. I sent in manuscripts and they were refused. Like Harvey Keitel, I had to go to the back of the line and try again next time. And the time after that. . . It broke my heart. The callousness and cruelty of some fellow writers didn’t help. Maybe they were afraid my bad luck was contagious. I don’t know. I only know it was horrible.
This was a different kind of admission to the community of writers. Up until then I had thought the difficulties of the writing life included the not-insignificant agonies of the writing process, plus the irritation, disappointment and hurt feelings surrounding the machinery of publication – the editing process, the marketing factory, the reviews, the sales. . . But I really hadn’t experienced the years of rejection so many other writers suffered. My first collection of short stories, my first novel, both were published quickly and with what I now perceive to be embarrassing ease.
Many writers (most) endure years and years of rejection and for some it never ends. There was a time when I thought my career was over, that I’d never publish again. That turned out not to be true – in fact the book that was for so long rejected, and that had very little editing, did better critically and in terms of sales than any other to date. Go figure. (And I would be remiss if I didn’t say there were writers who reached out to me during that dark time and who have become the dearest of friends as a result.) But going through that for long, excruciating years, and knowing I may very well go through it again if I choose to keep publishing, made me feel part of the community of writers just as much as that first acceptance by my mentor did.
Ah, I thought, so this is the thing I didn’t know (one of many, I’m sure). This, too, is part of the writer’s life one must accept and understand if one is to be a writer. So I did accept failure, in publishing terms, and wrote regardless, and felt myself to be a writer. I also hope it taught me to reach out to writers going through the same dreadful years of rejection I did. Maybe I needed to be taught a lesson in humility. Maybe I needed to learn not to need publishing to live my life as a writer. I still woke up every day wanting to write, regardless, so I gave into that and let the future just be the future.
To be part of any community is to be part of the joy and the sorrow, and to understand and empathize with both. If I’ve learned anything, it is to hold both the success and the failure as loosely as possible, for as the wise men say, “This, too, shall pass.” Even the time of grief. Even the time of joy. Only the writing keeps on.