humility of writing

the atlantic was chock full of writerly articles today and two in particular caught my eye. the first poses an important question that many of us who must write — either because our work requires it or because we have pursued work that allows us (pushes us?) to write — have asked ourselves more than once: When does a writer become a writer?

In it, Betsy Morais recounts the experiences of various writers, both contemporary and historical mainstays, to muse about when it is that one who writes can and does declare herself a writer. What does it mean to continue in one’s current form of non-writing employment after one has “made it” with writing, presumably after something is published and has earned revenue? She begins her piece with the story of Alexis Jenni, a French high-school biology teacher who, at the age of 48, recently won the Prix Goncourt and in so doing joined the ranks of previous winners such as Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir. After surveying the rise to fame of other writers, including T.S. Eliot who continued to work his day job after becoming financially stable through his published writing, she concludes her piece with wise musings about the affordances and constraints of “making it” as a writer:

And in spite of the anxious determination of those who work to write, or the casual persistence of the Sunday writers, there is something “very liberating” in having yet to be discovered, Von Arbin Ahlander remarked. “Okay, you haven’t gotten recognition. But at the same time, you don’t have expectations.”

While reading this piece, another title caught my eye under the inset and customized menu that floated in the middle of the webpage: Famous Author’s Harshest Rejection Letters. I swear this isn’t schadenfreud, but I admit to a feeling of delighted solidarity when, while looking through the embedded slideshow of some of these rejection letters, I saw letters received by Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabakov, and Jack Kerouac. About a manuscript submitted by Ursula Le Guin, the editor had written “The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable.” Is it wrong, too, to aspire to have all future rejections that come my way to be on the basis of my “endlessly complicated” narrative and abundance of “reference and information”? I would especially take those over these two choice excerpts from reviews of an article of mine that was summarily rejected by a special issue of a journal for which I was invited to submit a piece. I did so reluctantly and only because at the time (two and half years ago) I was still trying to fit into one definition of the field to which I and my program colleagues purportedly belong. Hint: it’s not anthropology.

Review 1 excerpt:
“The language is very very difficult to follow. I think this is a very interesting opinion article; would make a great piece, with photos, for something like the Sunday New York Times Magazine.”

Review 2 excerpt:
“As is, though, the article includes the current thinking and analysis of a thoughtful individual, but one that is limited to telling a story and interpreting events that occurred in a workshop.”
This reviewer also had something to say about my writing, suggesting that the piece might be rewritten and “framed for teacher educators who may be less familiar or comfortable with some of the rhetoric employed” [and then cited the 2nd sentence of the submitted manuscript.]

Admittedly, the piece, which was later published in another journal, did benefit from revision and additional space — 8000 words instead of the original 4500 word limit — and even now, going back to these reviews, which I had initially met with laughter that was saturated in the delirium of my penultimate pre-tenure year, I see the value in having work read by non-kindred spirits. Rejections are humbling, but just as important as these lessons in humility, it seems, are spaces in which writing kindreds can bring out that which may remain hidden or unspoken. So in a continued spirit of gratitude, I am thankful for the critical reviews of strangers, the encouraging insights of critical friends, and the seemingly endless patience of true friends and colleagues in conversation with whom thinking, musings, ruminations and writing are made ever better.

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