The End of the Way It’s Always Been

Until academia convinced me otherwise, I always thought I was pretty good writer.  I wrote a lot as I grew up and, generally speaking, I enjoyed it.  It was challenging, sure, but it was a good challenge, the kind that involved getting the right word to slot into just the right space or getting the phrasing to sing.  I wrote copiously throughout elementary, middle, and high school, and I enjoyed the (admittedly pretentious) cachet that accompanied the adolescent boast, “I’m a writer.”  The words might as well have been wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloises.

I continued to write throughout college, ten years of teaching high school English, and grad school – short stories and poetry, essays and criticism, screenplays and sketches. I’ve always been far too critical of myself to think there was anything truly inspired going on in my writing, but I enjoyed the affirmation and the creative process, and I genuinely liked sharing my work.  From my close friends and colleagues I learned how to take criticism and avoid being too precious about my writing. Especially as a fellow of the South Coast Writing Project, I saw how a trusted and impartial eye could make weak writing strong and good writing even better.  I welcomed the feedback.  Criticism wasn’t personal.  My writing wasn’t me.

Ha.

As soon as I landed a tenure-track position and writing became necessary for professional survival, everything changed. I still had things to say – at least at first – and I thought I was saying them well. Until I began sending manuscripts to reviewers.  Then the rejections started rolling in, couched in the veiled language of “revise and resubmit,” which is really just the editors saying (at least in my case it seems), “This article isn’t very good, but go ahead and spend a couple more months rewriting it so we can turn it down again.”  While I’ve managed to accumulate a modest publication record, enough to be awarded tenure anyway, the rejections are now well into the double digits and recently – at a time in my career when I thought I was supposed to have this publication thing figured out – my accomplishments have dried up completely.  As I watch my colleagues score success after success, it’s now reached the point where I can’t even get a proposal accepted at a professional conference.

The result?  The kid who adored writing, who spent long hours scratching in a notebook, has become a man who hates it. Dreads it, in fact. The net result of being told over and over again by editors and publishers that I’m apparently incapable of writing anything worth reading is a sort of compositional paralysis, a complete loss of confidence in the belief that I have anything at all to say. The mere thought of writing anything now makes me distinctly uncomfortable (even this post, which I’ve resisted writing for months), and the act of sitting in front of a blank page makes me feel the way I imagine air travel or public speaking afflicts others. In the rare instances when I do write, it’s only out of a lingering sense of guilt, the nagging suspicion that I should write, not that I want to write.

I find all of this deeply unsettling. It’s a fundamental shift in my personal identity, but it’s also made me question myself professionally as a teacher of writing.  I know most writers wrestle with self-doubt, but from the inside looking out this feels different. My insecurity isn’t situational, a matter of wrestling with a specific piece of writing that I trust I can eventually revise into submission – it’s systemic. Recurring professional rejection has caused me to doubt everything I thought I knew about myself as a writer and teacher, and I’m not sure how to take the next step, or even in which direction I should turn to look for it.

If our identities are created by an accretion of experiences, it’s interesting to consider that 25+ years of largely positive writing experiences were undone by a relatively minimal seven years spent in the machinery of academia.  The solution, I know you’re saying, is to not let it bother me so much. And you’re right.  Of course you are. I’m supposed to remember all the stories of successful authors whose early work was rejected again and again and again. I’m supposed to remind myself that rejection is just part of the process, and I can’t let it get me down.  I’m supposed to resolve to keep writing, because giving up means I’ll never get where I want to be.

I know all of that.  But rejection is so much more persuasive.