Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dammit, Skywalker, Look Inside Yourself

And trust yourself. That's what I would tell Luke if I were Yoda. Or anyone's mentor, for that matter. I have been barraged lately by would-be writers coming to me or other authors or editors or agents, looking for validation. Or who have been crushed by something that a critique partner told them. Or who have posted sadly about giving up on any of the forums I occasionally poke my head into.

All of them ask the same sort of questions. They sound like so:

- should I be writing?
- will I ever be good enough?
- is this what I really ought to be doing?
- are they right when they say I should do something else?
- is it too hard to do this?
- is it time to give up?
- is it worth it?

All great questions. And you know the only person who can answer these questions for you?

Yoda.

No, I'm kidding. You. You're the only one who can answer these questions. You can ask other people these questions, of course, and everyone will answer you, usually with something exceptionally reassuring sounding, but they are all just guessing. Because you're not going to believe them. Not really. Not unless they agree with what you already secretly or subconsciously think.

The other day, someone asked me if my path to publication had been easy, and I shrugged and said, "Yeah, I guess so, comparatively." But on the plane trip back home, I started thinking about this statement. Looking at it objectively, I don't think it was that easy. I just did a quick search in my current e-mail inbox and found 95 e-queries that got rejected. That was since September of 2006. Before that, I had 40 from my previous email account, and before that, I did paper queries. I chucked most of those when I moved (I used to save them), so I only have about 25 of the rejection letters from my pre-2005 querying life. But that is only a tiny percentage.

When I finally did get editor interest on my first novel, the editor took it to the acquisitions meeting and returned with the news that he couldn't convince them to take it. I had no other leads.

And let's talk different kinds of rejections, shall we? I love to create music, create art, and write. When I was in college as a history major (because I thought teaching history would be a nice thing to do while waiting to make a living at something creative), I tried to get accepted into college piano lessons, college drawing classes, and a creative writing class. I failed to get into any of them. My piano playing wasn't good enough, the music department said, for further lessons. My art portfolio wasn't sophisticated enough, the art department decided. And I wasn't an English major and my writing just didn't show enough promise to get into a creative writing class (I fantasized for a long time about the day when I would rub these decisions in their faces)(these fantasies usually involved me springing into the Creative Writing professor's office with a copy of the latest New York Times and shouting "Oh ho ho look who is on the list and WHO ISN'T!?")(This fantasy somehow lost its appeal long before I actually made it onto the list).

Do you see what point I'm trying to get at here, with all the subtlety of a Jack Nicholson movie? I keep seeing authors and artists fall by the wayside, crushed by external forces that don't even care if the person is crushed or not. They just want said smashed person to leave them alone. None of those rejections were personal, not even the ones that said my portfolios sucked. They really just were trying to do their job and guess who had the most potential because their resources were limited.

And they guessed wrong.

And that's why you can't trust other people's judgment on your hopes and dreams, people. Only you can decide when you've had enough, if it's worth it, if you're doing the right thing. They might be able to decide when you get published, but they can't decide for you when you stop trying.

I think of myself like a deep sea fish. I mean, not regularly, but at this moment, I do. The pressure of the ocean once you are way deep down where it's cool is absolutely crushing. But deep sea fish don't get crushed. Why not? Because the pressure inside them is just as strong, pushing back on the world around them. At any point in my career -- those early nos when I was just learning how to write, or those middling nos when I just got form rejections, or those late nos, when I made it to acquisitions and then failed to get published -- I could've given up and let myself get crushed and given up.

Guess what? The world wouldn't have cared.

And I'm cool with that. My dreams are only my own. They are not anyone else's concern. I don't count on anyone else in the world to value them, other than my husband. Absolutely nobody in the world has any responsibility to ease your creative pain, make your writing journey easier, help you along the writing path, or otherwise not trample you like a bug with juicy green insides. That doesn't mean that no one will, it just means no one has to. And it means you can get by without others too, if you yourself have the tensile strength to withstand those crushing oceanic pressures of the creative life.

So here's where I go back to the Yoda part. Why are aspiring authors and artists looking to the outside world for verification of their purpose in life? Trust yourself. Trust your own instincts, your own dreams. I'm not saying trust yourself to know that your writing doesn't suck -- you can't. I'm sorry, none of us can. But you can trust yourself that you will eventually get to where it doesn't suck. And you can trust your opinion that it will be worth it when you get there. And that it is worth the hours you're logging to improve your craft and learn about the business.

And what if that voice inside you is always shouting that it isn't worth it? What if you're turning to the outside world for verification every week? Maybe it is time to quit. If writing is not making you happy, if you don't like the process, if you are crying all the time over rejections (I cannot remember crying over a single one), then why are you doing it? I think some people do it because they think the world will look at them as a quitter. Trust me, the world won't care. It sounds heartless, but they won't. The person you write for is you. And I think some people keep doing it because they've always done it and they can't imagine wasting all those hours spent trying. Nothing's a waste -- it's all character development. For you. I officially give you permission to give up if you want to give up.

But I also give you permission to shake your head indignantly at the next rejection and to use it as fuel instead of water for your fire. Mark it up as another physical example of you pursuing your goals -- an unsent query gets no rejections -- and find out how you can make the next rejection a little more personalized. All the nos in the world don't matter if you are looking inside yourself for the answers.

Seriously, Skywalker.

8 comments:

ElegantSnobbery said...

Okay, this is sort of embarrassing to admit because it is probably going to sound/look all creepy and stalkerish... so, um, sorry for that if it does... but anyway, I like to make my own planner pages since I can never find a planner that suits my needs, and I like to add quotes that inspire me on each page, to keep myself motivated... and I added a couple of quotes from you - from an old blog post you wrote on your art blog ages ago (I'm a colored pencil junkie so your old blog fascinates me) in my Fall planner.

Hahaha, weird? Probably. But anyway, this old quote from you is appropriate for this post, so I thought I'd share a picture of one of my planner pages:

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_8JgJYuDvnHw/Sr4jBm7LoLI/AAAAAAAAFm4/3cSkoqu_GaA/s1600-h/Planner2.jpg

So now I'll have to bookmark this post and print out quotes from it for my winter planner. Not creepy, just motivational, I promise.

L.J. Boldyrev said...

^ that is a very nice planner.

As always, Maggie, you inspire.

Karina@Motherhood and the Creative Life said...

Wow, such good advice! It was nice to read this in the morning. Especially as I'm about to start revising my first novel and then finally, after soooo long, start the querying process that I think I've been afraid of. :D

WildIrishRose33 said...

I really liked this entry. Very inspiring.

Crystal said...

INSPIRING! Thanks so much, Maggie, for this great reminder . . . the road to publication is not for the faint of heart. Self-confidence plays a BIG part. And we all need a kick in the pants every now & then! :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Marisa, I love your planner and I'm flattered to be in it!

Thanks, Lacey, Karina, Rose, and Crystal!!

AnneB said...

Wise this is!

Gilda said...

Maggie, this is more than helpful. Seriously.
I'm young, but I won't give up my dreams, my characters and my stories just because someone thinks I'm not good enough. I've gone too far and I don't want to go back to the start.
Never again.
Thanks for the inspiration, as always.

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