I’ve written often about my publishing experience but not always about my reluctance to ‘go public’ with my fiction writing. I doubt this is an uncommon reluctance among creative writers, but to be reluctant for over half my lifetime might be a bit overdone, even for the least self-confident among us.
As I have mentioned in a previous post, I began writing one evening while still in elementary school. That story reached the hands of my teacher at them time, who graded accordingly but I have forgotten what grade I earned for that effort. I do remember the grade I received for a book report essay on Steinbeck’s The Red Pony in high school. That A+ became my motivation for holding to my dream of being a writer.
My opposition came from my mother—the person who gave me the dream in the first place by telling me stories about her childhood, her experiences in World War II, and who encouraged me to read the books she loved. “Don’t be ridiculous!” After that reaction, I kept my dream close to my heart and told her that I intended to become a journalist, a teacher—anything that satisfied her requirement for a ‘realistic’ career.
Although she was proud of the authors my family had produced in prior generations and gave me their books to read and to inspire me, having a ‘real’ career was paramount. I understood her: during her early adult years and marriage, she had raised a family without financial security. When my father moved the family to the west coast, they were able to enjoy a much more secure and monetarily successful time. However, his death ten years later brought back all her fears of poverty.
Nevertheless, I majored in Art at Junior College, English Literature in college, and Creative Writing in Graduate School. I won a few prizes and awards for my short stories, published in literary magazines and broadcast on public radio, and still collected a thick scrapbook of rejections, which dates back to my first year in Grad School.
My publishing successes were much fewer in number than the rejections. By the time my Masters Thesis (for Creative Writing that is a volume of work: a novel, a collection of poetry, or in my case, a collection of short stories) was accepted, several of my stories had been accepted for publication and I had won a subscription to Writer.
Life took over with various day jobs and a direction changing Grand Tour of the countries of Great Britain. Four years later, I met my future husband and a year after that, I sold all my worldly goods—except my notebooks & manuscripts, Shaeffer fountain pens, and my published works packed into my father’s WWII US Army trunk—and moved to Wales.
Twelve years after that, I explained to my husband that I wanted to continue my career as a writer, having amassed enough manuscripts to publish ten novels. At the same time, I prepared to teach adults to use computers. I kept writing for fun and relaxation, growing an even taller stack of unpublished/unpublishable manuscripts.
At one point, I considered throwing all of them in the fire and watching them burn. My reluctance to take my work seriously was linked to my Grad School expectations that I must, but was not, writing anything of importance. What, after all, would my professors think? I satisfied my desire to publish by editing other writers’ work with a publishing company, promoting other authors’ books to distributors and bookshops.
Ten years after that, still a closet-writer, while running my own marketing consultancy, the moment came when I knew I had to prove, one way or another, that I was a writer, regardless of the frivolity of my stories. Professors, friends, mothers, family be damned.
I wrote what was in me to write. After reading through all of those many half-completed manuscripts, I chose the one that I felt strongest and that I personally wanted to see what happened to the characters and the situation I had created purely from a combination of experience and imagination. I sent the first three chapters to an agency in London.
Above my desk, to this day, I have the agent’s response. She requested the complete manuscript which I sent after careful and thorough revision. I waited for the expected three months, four months, six months.
Ultimately, the agency rejected that manuscript, giving the reason that only another Phillippa Gregory had any chance of having an historical novel published successfully. I sent the agency the contemporary novel I had recently completed. Rejection soon followed.
Publishing is a business. Agents have to make a living. However, I had the satisfaction of having sent one of my frivolous stories and received a request for the full manuscript. In a writer’s life, those are significant, encouraging events, despite the fear of rejection, ridicule, failure.
While rejection is unpleasant, it is nothing to be feared or taken as the ultimate judgment on your work. I have known writers who received one rejection and never wrote again. I have also known others with much thicker rejection scrapbooks than mine, who write and persevere.
The day does come when we receive a request to acquire, a royalty payment, a positive review, a fan letter, or any of the hundreds of ways published writers are acknowledged for our creative fortitude. As one writer said in a speech to over 2000 writers, editors and publishers, “There is now no one standing in our way and no one to tell us what we can write.”