That title comes from something friend and poet Cindy Beebe said to me in a recent e-mail, and it refers to the hopeful, painful process of writing and submitting work to editors, contests, and the like in hopes of publication. In another e-mail conversation about this topic, poet B.H. Fairchild once told me that sending off your poems is like sending your children to Bible camp and trying not to care very much whether or not they ever come back. Whenever I send something out, which has been a rare occurrence in the past year, what comes to mind is a scene I once saw from an episode of a Japanese game show that used to air on TV called Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, in which contestants subject themselves to physical humiliation for entertainment. I’m not sure what made me stop in my channel surfing that day (a slightly lurid, juvenile fascination, most likely), but the bit I saw was a ‘challenge’ that began with contestants having to run full tilt at a series of doorways covered in paper. Some doorways only had paper and others had solid doors behind the paper and, depending on which door they picked, the contestants either leapt successfully through to the other side or were flung back from a painful collision with a closed door.
That’s what submitting work feels like to me–running full tilt at paper covered doorways and knowing that perhaps only one of the many doorways before me is paper, while the rest have solid, unyielding wood behind their thin veneer that is going to smack me hard and send me flying back. So why run at all? This is a question I’ve had to give some serious thought to as I enter the final stretch of my novel revision and begin to contemplate beginning the process of querying agents, which will expand the number of solidly blocked doorways exponentially. On a more obvious and practical level, the answer is that it’s impossible to get published without going through this process. Nearly every time I go to a writing conference or workshop or read an interview, some successful author or poet is sharing just how often they have been rejected in the past. What is surprising is how many still get rejected currently, even with an established pedigree. The reality is that more gets written than there is room for, and editors and what they’re looking for always has an element of personal subjectivity to it. Publication isn’t just about how talented you are–it’s also a good deal about how hardy you are.
Such inescapable reality still doesn’t answer the deeper question, though. Why try for publication? Part of it is, of course, ego and vanity. We all (and this is true of every person on the planet–not just writers) think we are special in some way and long for the world to finally recognize this specialness and validate us. Part of it is also the nature of the product. If you spend a few weeks building a bookcase, at the end, you have a bookcase that’s solid, visible, and real. If you spend a few weeks or months (or years) working on a piece of writing, the product is somehow less tangible. Yes, there is a visible product, and yes you can share it with your friends and family and even post it on a blog that maybe 10 or 15 people will read. But somehow it lacks that same end-product tangibility that other endeavors have. Like the tree-falling-in-the-forest conundrum, one might ask: if a written work has no one–or only a very limited audience–to read it, does it have value?
Which leads to another part of why we introverted, overly-sensitive, risk-averse writers might still find flinging ourselves at wooden doors worthwhile–we want to tell the truth and we want others to share in that truth, however small it might be. We’ve all had those moments where we’ve read something so beautiful in its truth that it feels as though the author or poet has reached into us and plucked a string inside our heart and set it thrumming. It’s that thrill of recognition, the deep yes or amen, and the natural response for those of us who write is to try and write our own truth and hope that someone else, ideally lots of someones, will one day read it and experience that same deep resonance and response. This is true for all people, really. Everyone wants their life and work to matter and have significance. We are all longing for a chorus of amen.
But there is risk involved. There is pain and disappointment and discouragement, and what I fear most is not being able to endure long enough. That I will fling myself at only so many doors before walking away. And that is where my friend Cindy’s line is such an encouraging and important reminder. In whatever endeavor we are striving through or towards, we are not alone. We are all in this brutal dance together.