Originally published: April 12, 2006
Rain spatters the windscreen, giving everything a pixilated look – as though Photoshop has run amok through the world outside my car. I’m going over, yet again, a phone conversation from four weeks ago while my kids practice on the soccer field, their running forms indistinct through the ripple of water on the glass.
I like it, the editor had said, and the two of you had a spirited talk about the topic almost as equals, and like colleagues, she told you she’d given the proposal the thumbs up – all she needed was the official green light from her fellow editors. Proposal meetings were on Mondays, only four days away. She’d call you. This will be for the August issue so start taking notes, she said. People will really relate to this, she said.
Then followed a month of gaping silence, which slowly filled – like the tank of an old toilet - with your rising insecurities. Your mind rolled film on what must have happened:
Around a long table stained with hundreds of concentric coffee rings sits the casually au currant group gazing coolly at your editor. “What were you thinking?” The hippest, youngest one cocks his shaved head and blinks through rectangular frames. An angular woman with dreads sheaths her pen with an irritable click. “Her? Again? Haven’t we thrown her enough bones?” Your editor laughs in a self-deprecating sort of way, and apologizes. She’ll extricate herself somehow – after all no promises were made. Later she’ll slouch back to her desk, knowing she’ll never make the phone call. Just let it die a natural death; just please, let the writer stop sending her these inane pitches. Yes, she thinks, silence is best in this case. Then she’ll shrug her jacket onto the back of her chair, get out her blue pen and carefully peel the lid off her skim half-caff latte so as not to spatter the piece on her desk, the one submitted by an actual writer, the cover story for an issue next month… ah, real writing!
That the language of rejection is so often no language at all is the sad reality of the freelance writer. Of course, not all freelancers become as paranoid as I do in the face of editorial aphasia. Certainly there are thousands out there, installed at their favorite tables in coffee shops across the land, who have their self esteem well insulated, their rubber egos barely vibrating at rejection, mute or otherwise. With a stout well, your loss, they rebound to the next submission, the next sellable idea. I often think it would be nice to be that writer - a hey, we’ll get ‘em next time, sort of writer.
Instead, I’m slumped here this particular afternoon, the rain tapping annoyingly on the roof of my car. I am wondering why no one seems to be on my page - and I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing. Freelance writing is a life of launching your ideas into open space in the unlikely hopes they might sally forth and be sucked into the orbit of some planet 3 million light years away. Freelance writing is like regularly charging out your front door naked, running down the sidewalk waving your arms and shouting in the hopes that one of the many horrified passers-by will throw a robe over your shoulders and take you inside. It is like being the pimply little twerp who sits alone at lunch, asking each of the popular kids in turn out on a date in the hopes that one of them will eventually feel enough pity to say yes.
How do they do it, these people who write? Why does anyone write? God, why does anyone write?
To be fair, writing is not precisely the problem. It’s the sending it out part that takes an iron stomach. In the last year, I have had so many rejections - written, verbal and horribly mute - I have almost forgotten how to handle an acceptance. Does a simple thank you suffice, of should flowers and a bottle of wine follow?
And yet, for a glorious few months some years ago, I took acceptance practically as a matter of course. The first piece I published was damn near miraculous in the world of the freelance writer. Not only was it the first piece I had ever submitted for publication, it was accepted in the Sunday magazine of a very prominent newspaper. The truly amazing thing is, I had utterly botched my query letter, making a garbled mess of the proposal. Equally amazing, was that the editor wrote back, on letterhead notepaper (the exercise not quite meriting full-sized letter paper). He answered my query in firm blue felt tip, all capitals. Here are the germane excerpts:
…IT IS NOT CLEAR TO ME FROM YOUR LETTER …
… I CANNOT IMAGINE THE … MAGAZINE BEING INTERESTED IN SUCH AN ARTICLE…
…I CAN SCARCELY IMAGINE A CIRCUMSTANCE IN WHICH WE WOULD PUBLISH …
P.S. THANK YOU FOR THINKING OF US, HOWEVER.
After a day of self-flagellation (from which I still bear the mental scars), I did the unthinkable– I wrote back to him. In a groveling half-page, I apologized for my lack of clarity and then explained myself, point by point. It was a stupid, desperate thing to do. I at least had the decency not to expect a reply.
But 7 months after that, my story was published in that same magazine. It remains the most lightly edited piece I have ever published (a claim I never expect to replicate). To this day I am aghast at my own temerity and at that editor’s benevolent willingness to have a second look.
So I clearly had a fortuitous start as a writer and despite my occasional histrionics, it is not always bleak. I have published several more pieces with that same magazine and they have been kind and generous to me. I have no real reason to gripe – my myriad rejections from other magazines and contests not withstanding. But, my mind whispers urgently, shouldn’t any respectable freelancer be spreading his or her seed, so to speak? Wouldn’t one ultimately look more attractive if one were more widely published? And wouldn’t it prove one to be more- I don’t know –relevant? Adaptable? Hip? Roll film, again:
Two well-heeled generic publisher types, a woman and a man, in a trendy restaurant:
“ Of course I saw her bit in the New Yorker! Delicious – and the Leibowitz photo reflected just the right tone, don’t you think? Did you catch her latest in Harper’s? Brilliance! I cried - absolutely wept, I tell you! Shall we see if we could get her for that little piece on Mike Nichols? Yes, I know we promised Updike, but I’m sure we could wriggle out if that. I mean, he’s a huge fan of hers!”
The truth is, I realize, shivering in my car and watching the progress of a rivulet of water running down the side mirror, that I don’t know what I want. To get published more, but not to have to sell myself. To have the camaraderie of a work place but the flexibility to work from home. To write better but retain my own voice. To be around brilliant, creative people and not feel like an idiot. To belong yet maintain a comfortable separateness. And to hear less and less silence.
That is the recurring dream of the lonely freelance writer. And so she sings this desire into the air, into space and an orbit 3 million light years away, past the naked person running, past the pimply outcast. She leans over the edge, the pages of her spiral notepad flapping wildly in the wind, her ears ringing as she hits the send button and listens hard into the void.