A few months ago, I finished writing a manuscript and began sending query letters to agents for representation. After receiving my first rejection letter, I wondered how many of these a beginning writer should expect to endure. The answer that I found, straight from agents themselves, was one hundred.
Since I had already sent one off, that left ninety-nine, which reminded me of the song “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” And that gave me an idea: if I stuck my rejection letters on the wall, at least I wouldn’t need to buy wallpaper anytime soon.
Adding to the masochism of the endeavor is the fact that everyone and their dog have written a book, so that agents are now swamped to the point that many don’t send rejection emails at all. The writer is forced to stew in silence, trusting that the digital pipeline delivered his or her query email to the appropriate inbox and that it was scanned by human eyes and a brain. Ironically, this situation makes the act of receiving an actual rejection letter quite rewarding, and if it happens to be accompanied by a personalized suggestion or positive comment, downright exhilarating! (Thank you agent #30).
The futility of it all reminds me of a “hands-on” marathon I participated in about ten years ago. Twenty contestants were chosen to stand around in a circle with our hands touching a car in the middle, and the last person remaining vertical would win the car or $10,000. A local radio station picked me based on the fact that I had sailed a boat single-handed across the Gulf Stream, which turned into a 36-hour misadventure, but at least I had remained semi-conscious.
Back then, my boyfriend and I were preparing to build our own home. After using an online cost estimator, I came up with a budget of $40,000 for the whole project (which underestimated the cost by a hilarious amount, but I digress). Going into the marathon, I dreamed that I could win a quarter of our future house in one sitting. Of course, I imagined a good quarter, not the one with the utility room and the bathroom. I believed that the odds of winning the contest were in my favor. I was young and physically fit. I had good planning skills. I brought a kitchen timer so that I could sleep during the rest periods they were required to give us to conform to OSHA standards. I selected snacks that promoted digestive contentment and healthful standing.
The contest started at the Mitsubishi dealership in West Palm Beach on a Friday afternoon at the start of Labor Day weekend. It was sweltering, but the heat didn’t bother me because I hadn’t lived with air conditioning for the previous year anyway. As Friday night wore on into Saturday, the contestants dropped out one by one, including a woman who overdosed on some sort of recreational drug and went a little….aggro. My regimen of sleeping and eating during the breaks was working out, but standing up for such long periods of time proved more challenging than I had anticipated. My legs ached and they started to lose circulation to the point that I spent part of my break jogging around the parking lot, which made them feel better. Soon five of us remained, and the car salesmen started a betting pool on who would win. Whenever I looked in the direction of my “supporter,” he waved and gave me a thumbs-up.
When Sunday rolled around, the field of contestants had been whittled down to just me and a woman in her late thirties who was a nurse. By noon she started to worry that she’d have to forfeit because she had to work on Monday. I thought that my victory was sealed because I had nowhere to be on Monday. Since I was living in my truck, I could have camped in that parking lot indefinitely. Later in the afternoon, Mark drove up from the Keys to cheer me on. The sun was unrelenting, and the contest organizers assembled a tarp to give us shade. Time seemed to slow down to jello speed, and the air shimmered outside our little perimeter of shade. The judge sat under the tarp with us and didn’t take her eyes off our hands, which had to remain touching the car at all times. Keep touching…keep touching…keep touching…wow, wouldn’t sleep be nice right now, I thought.
The wind came up and stirred the almost-empty coffee cup sitting on the roof of the car. Before I even realized what was happening, I reflexively lifted my hand off the car to grab the cup before it fell off.
“Off!” yelled the judge, pointing at my hand. I was stunned. She couldn’t be talking to me. Then I looked down at my hand. It was indeed not touching the car. My god, what had I just done?
When reality set in that I’d be leaving the contest with a consolation prize of a boom box and $50, I was devastated. How could I have made it so far, only to f-ck up so horribly from something as stupid as a momentary lapse of concentration? I had just lost a quarter of my yet-to-be-built house. I felt like I had disappointed Mark, and I was pissed at myself. When the newspaper tried to interview me, I was so tired and choked up that I refused to budge out of my truck.
What made the loss even more agonizing was the damn coffee cup. It wasn’t even mine; it was the nurse’s.
In the grand scheme of things, though, the defeat didn’t matter one bit. Sure, it hurt like crap. Yes, winning the dough would have helped out tremendously. But it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, because ultimately, we still built our house. And this is just like the rejection letters. If you want something badly enough, and if it is meaningful enough, then you will push through the defeat and the obstacles and the feeling-like-crap to keep trying. That could mean self-publishing on Amazon, working on getting smaller publication credits, or joining a writing group. The important thing is not to lose sight of the larger goal.
At least, that is what I tell myself as I sip beer #54 while admiring my new wallpaper.