“My heart is sick with discouragement. It feels as though there’s only one word in the whole of the English language and that word is failure.”
This is where I’m supposed to tell you what a swell writer I am.
Humility in this context would be utterly inappropriate, because I know my devoted readers would demand a full-throated elucidation of my many literary achievements. So here goes. Four of my books have been on The New York Times best seller list (so you know that loads of people who possess basic literacy skills love my writing). Two of these made it to number one (so you know I’m the creme de la creme). And one of these remained atop the list for over a year (so you know my staying power is off the charts). The Atlantic will publish any bit of scribbling I deign to send them (so you know I’m topical), as will The Paris Review (so you know I’m cultured) and The American Scholar (so you know I’m an intellectual). I’ve won two Pulitzers (so you know you can understand my writing), and one Booker (so maybe you can’t). Occasionally, in an act so selfless it confounds even me, I send some small gem off to a literary journal that no one including me has ever heard of, like the Chattahoochee River Quarterly or the Punxsutawney Reader (so you know my philanthropy knows no bounds). I’ve been interviewed more times than I could count by Oprah and Anderson and Charlie (maybe I should stop mentioning him, do you think? Let me know, fans.) and Barbara and Ellen (so you know everybody’s talking about me). And as if that weren’t enough, there are rumors I’m on next year’s short list for both a Nobel and a MacArthur; and if the timing is right, and I snatch both in the same year—well, obviously that would be a literary coup for the ages. In short, if you’re not reading me, mesdames and messieurs, what exactly are you doing with your life?
All right, so maybe I’m overstating things a bit. If I must be scrupulous with the facts and honest to a fault, then okay, I guess my lifetime literary output is somewhat less impressive than this, amounting as it does to only two articles, both of which saw the light of day in what might generously be termed the hinterlands of American publishing (Helena, Montana and Fort Collins, Colorado, to be exact). Compensation for these articles was, shall we say, modest, and neither of them was even written to be published, they were just letters I dashed off to my family some forty years ago, and my mother, God bless her, got it into her head that somebody besides a blood relative of mine might actually want to read them. So she mailed them off (which was how manuscripts were submitted in my publishing heyday), and the next thing I knew I had attained what would turn out to be my literary apogee as these letters-cum-articles appeared in a couple of regional magazines, utterly unedited by me, and in one case absolutely riddled with typos. (None of them mine, I might add. Whatever my literary shortcomings, I do proof my work. Obsessively.)
For the last thirty-four years, however, I’ve actually been trying to get published, but in this endeavor my batting average is point zero zero zero. During this period I have made countless submissions to agents, publishers, and magazines. Not one has been accepted. I keep my rejection letters in perpetuity, like a drawer full of losing lottery tickets. In response to my submissions I have received form letter rejections, an occasional handwritten note, and sometimes, no reply at all. In this same period of time I have made not a single dollar from my writing. Not one. It is fair to say I am not a literary lion.
So I have no New York Times best seller list to crow about. No Random House, no Simon & Schuster, no Atlantic. In place of such heady accomplishments, I can only offer my own Curriculum Vitae. A poor thing, admittedly, but mine own:
Agents who have spurned me: Richard Balkin, Jeff Herman, Joan Daves, Frances Goldin, and fifty-nine more…
Large publishing houses that have snubbed me: Doubleday, Knopf, Norton, and many more…
Small presses that have given me the boot: Capra Press, Chandler & Sharp, Jeremy Tarcher…
Magazines that have tossed me on my ear: The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, Mother Jones…
Literary journals that have sent me packing: Threepenny Review, Creative Nonfiction, Iowa Review…
Many of these rejections were for my first book, or excerpts from it. I started writing A Human Sampler in 1982 and finished it two years later. Over the next decade or so, I spent another three years revising it. From 1984 to 2003, I mailed out 105 queries for my book and received 105 rejections. Those are hard numbers: 5 years of full-time writing, 19 years of queries, 105 rejections. Everything can be quantified, everything except the shriveling of hope. I stopped sending queries after that.
Since the late 1990s I’ve been working on a second book, vs., a collection of personal and philosophical essays. I made dozens of submissions to magazines and literary journals, all of which were rejected. An essay without readers—is that really even an essay, or just the scribblings of a mad hermit? I don’t know, but as I moved into my fifties I didn’t have a lot of free time, and who knew how many good years, sharp years, I had left, and it just seemed to me that whatever time I had, I could spend it writing or I could spend it querying, but I had to choose. I could try to create new works or I could try to sell the old ones, but I couldn’t do both. I had neither the time nor the emotional energy for that. I knew how it felt to be pummeled by rejections, being hit by one after another after another, coming at me with a grim inevitability. I couldn’t write like that, it was too dispiriting. But I had to write, I still had things to say—or I thought I did anyway, even if nobody else agreed. In a way that was probably delusional and possibly megalomaniacal, I thought I owed it to the world to get what was inside of me down on paper. So I kept writing essays in my slow, painful, laborious way, but I stopped making submissions. I just didn’t see the point.
The Unpublishable Writer
I am an unpublishable writer. Not just unpublished—unpublishable. How I wish I were merely unpublished: that would imply there’s still hope, the tide can turn. For someone who, throughout his adult life, has thought of himself as a writer, being unpublishable is so much worse. To be unpublished is a temporary state; to be unpublishable, a permanent condition. The former can be attributed to external forces—bad timing, short-sighted editors, a lack of professional contacts—while the latter is a failure of the self. A writer who is unpublishable has some indefinable but deep-seated shortcoming, some intrinsic deficiency that neither time nor effort can remedy. Clearly there is something in my writing—either how I write or what I write about, or both—that nobody wants to read.
This realization preys upon me incessantly. Why are so many other writers worth reading, while I, obviously, am not? In the publishing world there is more than a consensus on this—there is absolute unanimity. I keep asking myself, what talent or skills or intelligence do published writers possess that I so evidently lack? Why are they so full of insights, and I so devoid of them? Why do their sentences flow like butter, while mine are confusing and clumsy and just plain nasty? Why is it worthwhile for readers to spend an hour in their company, but not in mine? Why am I a leper in the world of letters?
But suppose my whole premise is wrong. Perhaps I’m not unpublishable; perhaps I’m confusing the long-lasting with the unchangeable. Back and forth I go on this, emotional vacillations so frequent and so extreme that I fear for my stability: hopeful then hopeless, buoyant then depressed, manically optimistic then listless and low. It is a dance I know well, this dance of hope. Hope and hopelessness are an old couple locked in an eternal embrace. First one leads, then the other. In those moments when the embers of hope are glowing, I sometimes wonder if I might yet be admitted (however provisionally, however marginally) to the ranks of the worth-reading. If so, will I still have enough brain cells left to understand and appreciate my long-delayed admission? Or by then will I be so deeply sunk in the predatory clutches of a brain tumor (like my father) or dementia (like my mother) that the event washes by me unnoticed? Or will it come later still, a posthumous triumph for a no-longer-existent consciousness? Or will it never come, with no more reality than a fable, a fantasy, a fairy tale, existing only in some alternate universe of my own devising? The smart money, I think, is on this one.
An Aging Writer
Sometimes I’ll be thumbing through a magazine like Writer’s Digest or The Writer and I’ll notice their breathless articles for what they call new writers: Write Your Novel in 30 Days! Land a Top-Flight Literary Agent! Write a Sure-Fire Query Letter! And I’m thinking, my God, are they talking about me? Given my publishing record, or rather non-record, is that what I am—a new writer? Geez, you wouldn’t think so, I’m sixty-eight years old and I’ve been doing this for decades, but on the other hand every real writer my age has a shelfful of books or a file cabinet full of articles he or she has published, but me I’ve got nothing, nothing to show for my labors. The realization that the legions of “new writers” I’m competing with are probably half my age only intensifies my distress. All my competitors undoubtedly have their hair and their hormones and their posture intact, while me, I’m tap-tap-tapping my way to my mailbox with my wooden cane, all hunched over, mostly bald and virtually sexless…
An Obscure Writer
I used to tell people I was a free-lance writer (until the weight of accumulated rejections grew so great that the claim became laughable), and occasionally someone would wonder aloud if she might have read anything I’d written, and I’d be thinking, “Not unless you’ve broken into my house and rummaged through my attic.”
A Writer without Readers
A writer rereads his work endlessly—each sentence, each paragraph—once, twice, a hundred times, trying to see “how it reads,” how it would strike someone coming to it fresh, how it would strike him if he came to it as a stranger. He hopes and expects that his words will be read, and that expectation both shapes and justifies his labors, his fumbling but ceaseless efforts to take all his inchoate neural activity, all the short-lived emanations of his brain, and turn them into something solid and comprehensible. The thoughts he struggles so hard to express, the tales he struggles to tell—he is determined to make these live in the minds of others, as vividly as they live in his. The written word is a miraculous device for the transmission of human thought, but what if the wires are cut and there is no transmission? Without readers, a writer’s words are dead things, meaningless bits of ink locked away in a drawer—and he himself, just an old guy hunched over a desk, wrapped in a robe, mumbling to himself.
A Resentful Writer
Every book I see in a bookstore, every article I read online, is like a personal rebuke. They all have the same byline: Not by Glenn Gladfelder. My life as an unpublishable writer has turned the pleasurable experience of reading into one tinged with envy. Can a writer who (evidently) is not worth reading read a writer who (evidently) is worth reading without a tincture of bitterness? I hear interviews on public radio with this writer and that writer, their works celebrated, recognized, discussed—and some of them weren’t even born when I started peddling my words thirty-some years ago. And now they’re part of the public discourse and I’m—not. This is not a good place for my head to be, I know that, resentment can only pull me down, but I can’t say it doesn’t sting. “Hey buddy, they made it, you didn’t—get over it!” Sometimes publishing feels like a party that everyone was invited to except me.
A Writer on the Verge of Despair
Late at night, lying in bed, unable to sleep. Earlier that day I received another rejection letter. “It’ll be okay,” I say. “Take slow, shallow breaths.” If I inhale too deeply I feel a sharp, jabbing pain, like there’s a stiletto in my chest. I’ve gotten so many of these letters you’d think I’d be inured to them, but each one leaves me thoroughly deflated. What a letdown. How can something so predictable be so unexpected? Why in the name of God did I think this time would be different? Once again my hopes have been exposed as the gossamer delusions they are. Once again I’ve been yanked away from my caffeine-fed fantasies about being a wonderful writer and slammed against the wall of reality, my reality, as every rejection rams home to me the central fact of my life: Nobody. Wants. My. Work.
I try to talk myself out of it, step back from the edge, extricate myself from the talons of hopelessness, at least enough so I can drift off into oblivion. “You’re doing good work,” I tell myself. “Your day will come.” Over and over I say it, night after night, year after year. Your day will come. If it doesn’t—well, at least that hope, however delusional, has helped keep despair at bay.
The Writer Who Became a Querier
Tucked away in an upstairs alcove, stuffed in clearly marked envelopes, are all my old writing receipts. Writing Expenses 1984, Writing Expenses 1985, Writing Expenses 1986… They’re dry scraps of paper now, some written by hand on carbon paper, others spewed out by little printing-tape machines. Much of the ink is faded to illegibility. They are tangible reminders of my multi-decade odyssey through the publishing world. For example, I paid $60.25 on 6/8/1984 for maintenance on my green Hermes typewriter—this in preparation for typing A Human Sampler, which I had written first in pencil, then in ink, over the previous two years. Two months later I paid $231.94 for copies of my now typed manuscript, so I’d be ready to mail them at a moment’s notice when agents and publishers started clamoring for them. But in the ensuing months it was rejections, not requests, that started rolling in. So I paid $11.50 for The Writing Business, a book that gave me lots of tips on how to successfully market my work.
Each query package that I sent included a letter about my book and a few sample chapters. I wrote checks to cover the costs—maybe $5 for copies, $2 for mailers, and $4 for postage. I saved all my receipts, no matter how small, so I could use them for tax deductions once I got the advance on my book.
It makes me wistful now, seeing all these meager little checks and knowing how much heart, and how much hope, lay behind them. I agonized over my query packages. I tinkered endlessly with the cover letter, trying to make it absolutely perfect. With each tiny improvement in phraseology I saw success as not only certain but imminent. I typed the letter on my faithful Hermes 3000, then proofed and reproofed it word by word. Sometimes I changed which chapters I included in the package, thinking that would make the difference. “That’s it!” I said to myself, rereading the newly selected chapter, delighting over it. “Why didn’t I include this before? No editor could resist it!” I enclosed a neatly folded self-addressed stamped envelope with each query. I wrote the agent’s or publisher’s name and address on the tan padded mailer in bold, clean capital letters with a black Sharpie. I doted on each query, treating it like a cherished child about to embark on a great journey. “Godspeed to you, my beloved query package! I know you’ll make me proud!” After I sent my package off, the heretofore unnoticed comings and goings of our mailman acquired a heightened significance, becoming the emotional center of my day. Every afternoon I sat by the window, eagerly watching for his arrival. As soon as he left, I hurried out to the mailbox. Usually there was nothing. But eventually, a week later or a month later, I’d find another of my self-addressed stamped envelopes in the box. Immediately my heart sank. Weeks of irrational optimism turned instantly into dread. Even before carefully slicing open the top edge of the envelope, I knew what was inside.
Years later it was my essays I was sending out. I look now at my log sheet with dates of submission and rejection, and beneath that dry list of dates I see my emotional vacillations and the different kinds of queries they generated. There was the pop-right-back-up query, sent literally within hours of receiving my latest rejection. I would put the package together quickly and hyper-efficiently so as to get to the post office before it closed. Sometimes I was energized by righteous indignation: “You bastards think you can stop me? Think again!” Other times I was infused with a sort of spunky optimism: “Not to worry—just another speed bump on the road to success. You’re almost there!” Then there was the deep-funk query, in which, after receiving another rejection letter, months would pass before I could summon the will to try again. “I can’t keep doing this,” I’d tell myself. “It’s tearing me up.” But gradually that immobilizing discouragement would loosen its hold on me. I’d reread the essay, my belief in it would be restored, and I’d send it out again. Inevitably though, at some point, there was a final query, although I would learn of it only in retrospect. After a sufficient passage of time, a quiet recognition would settle in: this essay is a thing of the past; I’ve moved on to other things. This is a common experience, I think: often our choices, even important ones, are made not so much by a deliberate act of will as by the mere accretion of days. There’s something we intend to do, but we don’t do it today or tomorrow or next month or next year, and eventually we realize we’re not going to do it at all. It’s not a decision in the usual sense of the word; it’s more decision by inertia. Action by inaction. So it was with me. I never said to myself, “I’m not sending this essay out again.” I just didn’t.
No child growing up ever said, “Some day I want to be a querier.” There’s no glory in it, and certainly no money, but somehow that’s what I became. It’s not a vocation I’d recommend, however, nor one we should encourage our children to aspire to. The querier, after all, is a cipher, a nonentity. He accomplishes nothing but the accumulation of No’s. He is a waste of time and space, a waste of skin and bone. He won’t face facts. He won’t move on. He clings to his pipe dreams like some delusional drunkard in The Iceman Cometh.
The querier thinks his day will come. Ten thousand days later, he still thinks it will come. On his deathbed, he still thinks it will come. Stories of posthumous recognition sweeten his nights and days.
The Writer Who Became a Failure
Another rejection comes in the mail, another thank-you-for-thinking-of-us letter. “Give it up!” it says. “Your writing isn’t good enough, it will never be good enough. Do something productive with your life, get a real job, make some money.” My heart is sick with discouragement. It feels as though there’s only one word in the whole of the English language and that word is failure. When life becomes nothing but a succession of failures, they start soaking into your soul. They deaden the spirit; they cast a pall over everything. The days become unrelievedly gray. I can’t write, I can barely even think. I’m paralyzed, up to my neck in quicksand, I can’t move my limbs, I’m going down.
Failure starts out small, and for a while you can cordon it off: this approach didn’t work; that effort didn’t succeed. But as the failures accumulate, they stop being isolated and become the norm. Failure gradually shifts from being an attribute of actions to being an attribute of you. Not, this was a failure or that was a failure, but you are a failure. It becomes your identity, your defining characteristic.
So that’s what I became—a failure. To be a failure is to be aware at every moment (I never shake the thought completely) that there is an immense and ineradicable gap between what I am and what I should have been. It means I took what I was given and did nothing with it. Nothing. My life has been a squandering.
A Dead Writer
Here is a preview of my obituary (assuming it’s honest and candid, which obituaries almost never are):
Glenn Gladfelder, who died last Sunday night, was a failure. Which is a shame, because he showed such promise. From junior high school (one of 39 Top Scholars, winner of the Faraday Lecture Note-Taking Contest) through high school (academic GPA 4.0, Honor Society every semester, all advanced classes, captain of the debate team, Most Outstanding Speaker award in his junior year [unprecedented], National Merit Scholarship finalist, winner of the Harvard Book award) through college (winner of the Best Annual Essay award) through graduate school, Master’s degrees in both creative writing (GPA 3.9) and philosophy (only student with a GPA of 4.0, based largely on the quality of his papers, selected as the most outstanding philosophy student in only his second year [unprecedented], best graduate student in the department in the last ten years, professors said)—the point is, he showed so much bloody potential, then let it all go to waste. All that ability, yet he never amounted to anything. He piddled his life away thinking of himself as a goddamn writer, which he manifestly was not. Had a bunch of low-level jobs, made a meager contribution to the household income, then spent his off-time peddling his wares, always one damn piece of writing or another, knocking on the doors of publishers and magazines for decades. Pointless. Pathetic. Delusional. What was it about “Go away!” that he couldn’t understand? Sad, sad tale. Anyway, he died last week of natural causes. On his deathbed, feverish, flushed, semi-delirious, his wide-open eyes darting frantically from one family member to another, he kept asking if his ship had come in, whatever the hell that meant. A scene best forgotten, and a fitting ending to an eminently forgettable life.
A Writer Releases His Words
Suddenly the world changed. Another pathway opened up, another way of joining writers and readers. Seeing that pathway, I felt the faint stirrings of hope once again. I found myself listening to its familiar words and being lured by its intoxicating promises. Perhaps this hope will prove as illusory as its predecessors—one last exercise in self-delusion. Or perhaps not. Whichever it is, I’ll give it a shot. Because now you can get your writing out there even if nobody thinks it’s worth reading. Even if the publishing industry wants nothing to do with it. It doesn’t matter if no one believes in you, as long as you still have a glimmer of belief in yourself.
So I’m taking hammer and nails, walking out the door, and posting my writing in the public square. Perhaps someone will find it of value. All the words that have been shuttered for so long, I’m setting them free. I’ve tended to them for years, nurtured them as best I could, but now I’m letting them go. Let them wend their way through the world, if they can. The world will decide if they live or die.[Spring 2018]
Typewriter image: AVA Bitter/Shutterstock.com
Book image: Amili/Shutterstock.com