I meet a lot of young writers. At just about every book festival and in almost every bookstore where I’ve signed or spoken, there’s always at least one young writer with questions. I help a lot with the parents’ group at the school of the arts where my daughter is a creative writing major. So I’ve grown used to those perky questions from young people who are close to embarking on a college or career path.
But I surprised myself the other night. Some students came to a board meeting and we were discussing school events of the almost-finished year. One 15-year-old writer mentioned respect. “We are the red-headed stepchild in this school,” she complained. I fully understood. All the other arts disciplines have the advantage of performance—dance, theater, vocals, instrumentals. And the television majors at least are able to stand back and watch their films in a sort of performance-by-proxy mode. The writers do get to read several times a year, but only twice to a school-wide audience. The student added a few more comments about the plight of the writers and waited intently for my answer.
“Writing is all about rejection,” I said. I wanted to choose my words carefully. Here was a fertile young brain just waiting to soak up wisdom from one who writes every day and somehow ekes out a modest income. “You have to really be tough, because the business itself is so tough.” And I felt myself becoming more intense. “You almost have to embrace rejection, pull it to you, and realize that what’s important is the writing. Nothing else.”
The next morning in my email I found a letter from a poet. She writes lovely lyric poetry, formal mostly. She wanted me to see some of her poems to see if they live up to my expectations. I thought about that for a moment and wrote her, saying my expectations don’t matter. I explained that the writer’s own expectations count—does your work satisfy you?
I have hundreds of poems and essays and pieces of short stories in this house. I won’t show them to anyone. They don’t measure up to my own expectations. They’re incomplete. Sometimes I’ll take a piece out of my self-slushed pile and manage to redeem it. But often they lay in their folders like mute, abandoned puppies, never to see their mother again. Such is the nature of this art that captures us.
As I grow older, the expectations of others matter less. In my youth, I could not see that development ahead. From point A to point B, I have experienced rejection, dismay, depression, disappointment and failure at times. Yet I would not trade it for the single moment of joy experienced when a work does meet my expectations.
Well, to be truthful, when it almost meets my expectations. Because nothing ever does that completely. And that is the nature of this art.