[This was originally posted on March 9, 2016. I felt it needed resurrecting because it’s the post that lit a fire under my ass to dust off, edit, and publish Tales from the Back of a Bus after all these years. Very satisfying. It’s available on Amazon, Indiebound.org, or Audible/iTunes as an audiobook, read by that legend in his own mind, Mason Carver.]
My filing cabinet hasn’t moved since we moved into this house in 2008. Until recently, it sat in a corner under a gilt-framed portrait of my great-grandfather and next to a radiator that I’m sure didn’t do it any good.
Like a good dog, it sat patiently next to my desk, positioned in such a way that three of the four drawers couldn’t be opened, or just barely. It’s an old wooden beast rescued from the University of Scranton Players’ office circa 1979. Heavy. Scarred. Half-stripped of multiple layers of paint. A physical embodiment of my brain. [Ouch]
Like most filing cabinets, it’s an easy place to hide crap when company shows up unexpectedly; and when you don’t know if you really really want to throw something small out–chuck it in the filing cabinet. So, again, a physical embodiment of my brain. You know, like a dumpster.
Well, I did some dumpster diving in it last night and uncovered a literal “embarrassment” of riches. Old ‘zines I helped publish in high school [those are a story unto themselves]. Old manuscripts. An entire folder of rejection letters. Hundreds of the little fuckers.
A rejection letter, children, is an actual piece of paper sent through the mail service to tell you that your work “does not meet our needs at this time.” Not the modern, more civilized standard of: “if you don’t hear from us in 6-8 weeks, you can go suck a dick.”
As you can see, I’ve been turned down by the best. The New Yorker, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Omni, Redbook [that’s REDbook, not FACEbook, kids], McCall’s, Playboy, Playgirl, Gent, Good Housekeeping —pretty much if they paid a penny a word or better, I tried to sell them something.
I kept them as an ersatz tracking system, a note on the folder when I sent out a story. A rejection slip paper clipped to the inside for when I heard back. Better than nothing. Keep in mind, this was the pre-computer age. Paper. Typewriter. Envelopes. Postage stamps.
A lot of the letters were just mass-produced boilerplate [from book publishers and magazines], just bland harbingers of doom that some mailroom drone popped into your SASE, but some were actual letters with actual advice or some meaningful commentary on your work. Thought, not just typeset blah blah blahs on a postcard.
I found two such last night, and they were a breath of fresh air amid all the faceless, reason-less rejection. They were still rejections, but positive rejections–if that makes sense.
If I’m remembering correctly [and we’re talking 30 years ago] this was in response to the manuscript for Tales from the Back of the Bus that was inspired by a cross-town jaunt on public transportation, while severely stoned on hash brownies, to see Fantasia at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Nothing to do with Rosa Parks or the civil rights movement, but a comic roman à clef that contained a serious amount of autobiographical material. [If you think I don’t feel like a pretentious ass-clown just typing roman à clef, you are very wrong.]
When you pour your blood, sweat, and tears into something, it’s at least gratifying to have someone acknowledge the fact, even as they’re telling you they don’t want it. And I was 26 at the time, so my ego needed a little boost to carry on. It still does.
Then there was this one.
Sadly, I didn’t prove him wrong. I found the manuscript in a box, in a lower drawer of the filing cabinet. I didn’t have the heart to open it. I suppose I should. If for no other reason than to see if I, like Stella, can get my groove back after letting depression and the daily grind wear down both me and my resolve. It’s not impossible to do things in the face of constant negativity from your own brain and others, but it’s not easy. Sometimes it helps to have a small, wee voice at the back of your head saying, not right for me, but keep slugging.
I really need to keep plugging away.
Thanks for letting me ramble, interwebs. Thanks for the brain fart.