Monday, September 6, 2010

Can Schizophrenics drive in the carpool lane? (dealing with rejection slips)

“But officer, Gertrude is right there. Can’t you see her?”

Many years ago, I worked in the mental health field. I will never forget one time when I was running a group therapy for schizophrenics. A patient proclaimed that he was Jesus and he promised to save everyone in the room. Another patient with the same delusion objected, insisting that HE was the only true savior. I braced for a Jesus fight. Instead, the first patient sat down passively and listened to the other man’s rant for most of the session.

After the group session ended, I took the first guy aside and told him how proud I was of him for letting go of his delusion, for allowing the other guy to make that claim. He replied, “It’s okay. He’s mentally ill, and I’m not going to tell him that he can’t be me.”

It occurred to me in later years that perhaps we are all a bit schizophrenic. We cling to little fictions that we come to believe as truth. This seems especially common with writers as we delude ourselves about the quality of our stories, or we attempt to assuage the sting of rejection slips.

“I can’t believe I’ve gotten thirty-eight rejections on America’s next great Fantasy story. What’s wrong with those agents?”

Maybe, just maybe, writers are like the hallucinating woman telling the carpool lane cop to say hello to her imaginary friend. She believes with all her heart that Gertrude exists, but the cop makes the final decision about driving in the carpool lane. Are we writers guilty of similar self-deception? When others fail to see attributes in our story that we believe are present, are we denying reality? What conclusions should aspiring authors derive from dozens of rejection slips by literary agents?

Here are some of my delusions associated with rejection slips.

- The agent’s fault: The greedy agent only cares about money and rejects first-time authors in favor of proven successes. Shame on them for seeking profit. Of course, there is always the crowning delusion--how could any agent fail to recognize the next Tom Clancy or JK Rowling?

- My fault: Is my manuscript really so rotten that two dozen agents saw no potential? Maybe my query letter or synopsis sucks big time. I’ll bet if I re-write the first three chapters to create a better hook, they’ll bite. Or, another favorite, I can’t believe that agent specializes in sci-fi and won’t read my romance novel.

- Publishing industry fault: Major publishing houses must have all the authors they need. They are just not looking for any more. Or, how about this one, my story of vampires falling in love with Vestal Virgins comes at a time when the industry is saturated with vampire tales. Maybe I should swap gay cowboys for the vampires and replace the Virgins with love-starved trolls. Yeah, that’s it, I haven’t seen any gay cowboy/loving troll books. I think I’m onto something!

While delusions might protect writers from depression and feelings of failure that inevitably accompany rejection slips, they also deflect attention from the more important truth. Writing is subjective. One person’s page-turner is another person’s outhouse paper supply. Authors should write stories they love, submit them to agents who share a love for that genre and treat the submission process as a business. The rest will take care of itself.

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