Dear Courtney of November 2013,
Hi. This is Future Courtney. I can’t quote exactly when/where I’m writing from, but I wanted to drop you a line. You’re five days into this month and have received rejection notes from three literary magazines, one residency, and one grant.
You’re a really good cheerleader. I watch you all the time, sending encouraging notes to writer friends, giving virtual internet high fives when friends get good news, and constantly telling everyone you know: Keep going! Have faith! Rejection means you’re closer to acceptance! Don’t give up!
I’m writing to you because while you’re a great cheerleader for others, you find it really hard–painful, even–to cheer for yourself.
In fact, sitting at your fold out Ikea desk in a frumpy sweater after working all day, with the daylight fading before 5PM, you feel despondent. It’s just a few rejections, you’re thinking, what the eff are you so sad about? I mean, you’re right, they hate you. And they really hate your writing. How could you have sent that out into the world?! That was dumb. This is all dumb. You’re probably just meant to be an editor, not a writer. This won’t ever work out.
You can stop right there. I mean, negative thinking, self-doubt, blah blah blah, you’ll never really conquer it. But I thought I’d give you some cheerleading. I thought you might like to know what the future is like.
First off, in the future, there’s a lot more rejection. So much more rejection. The residencies you’ve always dreamed of, the literary magazines you most respect, the fellowships you picture yourself winning — they’re not gonna happen. But something else will. Acceptance will come other ways. You’ll go to residencies, they’re in your future, in ways you haven’t yet thought about. You’ll win one grant, just once, and it will be incredible. The literary magazines and editors who publish your work are out there — maybe not right now, maybe not at this time, but they are. You will publish your first book, and then another. (Maybe more — I’m only Future Courtney, not Know It All Courtney).
I can’t tell you about these books, because you’re still writing them, and true writing means allowing the end result to be more magnificent than the pea-sized idea you started out with. It takes humility, yes, but above all it takes perseverance. Remember the story you wrote when you were eighteen? How different that was from the one you first published when you were twenty four? And how that one was so different than the stories you sent with your graduate school applications? And how far from those stories the one you published this year was?
This cycle is still unfolding. The pattern that’s always been true — writing and hard work lead to better writing and more hard work — is still true. It’s true here in the future. It’s true at that small desk where I’m watching you write right now.
Your first book? It’s received the way you imagine it will be — the most heartfelt love coming from the family and friends who have always believed in you. The magic will be that it’ll be your hard work, your name, your words made of ink pressed to pages. Who cares when it happens? As your future self, I can only disclose that it’s coming to you.
Recently you wrote a letter to a writer friend who’s living abroad, and in it, you drew him a little map of his writing life line. It’s high time someone drew one of these for you, love. Here:
True, you’re still beginning. And the beginning is the worst. The beginning is so crazy. And one of the worst traps of the beginning is Other People’s Success. At a wedding recently someone said, “Can you imagine being thirty three with two books and a baby?” And you wore a big grin, but your heart crumpled and you thought, Oh dear lord, I’m thirty one, this is a terrible idea and I will never have two books, or one, or even a Pushcart nomination — I don’t even want a baby!
They were just making conversation, Courtney. Everyone loves you as you are, admires the success you’ve had so far, and have faith in what you do. This faith is your best defense. This faith is your magic elixir. Drink it up. Borrow some of mine. Borrow someone else’s on evenings like this one, when it is dark out and all you can think of is rejection. Clutch faith like a talisman.
Just for fun, here are some of your favorite examples of faith:
When Mary Karr said she threw out two 500-page drafts of Lit, with the faith that she could write a better one
When Tayari Jones shared of the five year period when she received no positive reinforcement for her work, but kept writing anyway
When Marie Helene Bertino said at a reading that of her award winning debut story collection Safe As Houses, one story was rejected fifty times, and another story was rejected thirty five times before being published and winning a Pushcart
When Stephen King admits that he originally threw his first draft of Carrie in the trash (his awesome wife Tabitha King fished it out and told him it was worth writing)
When Junot Diaz said, “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”
When Cheryl Strayed wrote “Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.”
Go ahead. Wallow in faith. I mean, you’re right that writing is crazy. You’re correct that you’re far from the finish line. It’s not going the way you planned. But do you know why it’s not going as planned?
Because the way it’s unfolding is better than what you can imagine.
Chin up. Do the work. Shake it off. I’ll be here anytime you need me, pom poms waving.
Love and faith,
4 thoughts on “pep talk”
Your writing is wonderful, Courtney. This piece will resonate with many people. I can envision it published in “O” magazine followed by your appearance on “Super Soul Sunday”. Hang in there. You have the goods.
Sometimes our own advice is the hardest to take ourselves, isn’t it? I love this so much — and thank you for being a cheerleader for a stranger and coming out when her (my!) first book was on the indie bookstore shelves at last:-)
This made me cry. I really have no words yet except that this was amazing and inspiring and just downright wonderful.
I don’t know how I ran into this but it’s strange how badly I needed to read this today. As always, thank you.