Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Failure Deprivation Syndrome

I’m sitting here watching “American Idol” and marveling at the resilience of these young people who in front of millions listen to some pretty raw criticism—“That was horrible!” is a frequent Simon Cowell comment. Of course, these are the finalists; they’ve already shown their mettle against hundreds of other candidates. But I wonder what happens when they are voted off. Do they cry? Say they’ll never sing again? Resolve to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again?

Years ago, when I was a career counselor, one of my colleagues at Harvard noted that she regularly saw students who came to her devastated because they had received their first lousy grade in their lives, or some professor hadn’t liked their paper. She named this phenomenon “failure deprivation syndrome.” These young people had never failed at anything, and they didn’t have the tools to handle it.

As I thought about my own life, I realized that I, too, had not suffered big setbacks at least in terms of standard achievements by which we gauge success. I did well in school, was accepted into all the colleges and graduate schools I applied to, and generally got the jobs I wanted. Sure, I worked hard and aimed for things that were reachable given my talents. You could say I deserved my rewards. My early love life was another story, but after a slow start, I even landed the guys on whom I’d set my sights. I guess I should consider myself lucky.

And then I started writing. Let’s face it. This whole business is not for sissies. Last year, I sent off queries regarding my novel to four agents; I actually heard from three. I’m told that it’s quite common to not receive a reply. One sent a form letter saying they weren’t taking on new writers. Another took the time to write back, “I didn’t love it, and I have to love it.” And a third, with whom I had had previous contact, was even more generous with her feedback, though I didn’t understand what she was telling me to do. Later, in a one-one-one manuscript review of the first twenty pages of one of my novels, a New York agent told me she didn’t feel simpatico with my protagonist.

Recently, I entered two local short story contests—in one, the odds were about 6:1, and the other, 40:1. I thought my stories were pretty good. I wondered whether I was close to the cut or tossed out after the first read. Unfortunately, I’ll never know.

I wouldn’t say I am a sore loser. A sore loser complains, blames others, doesn’t use feedback to improve. I believe I take responsibility and listen to suggestions if they are offered. Nevertheless, I can’t say I handle rejection well. It slows me down and makes me reexamine my goals. I know that people we now think of as great authors often had their novels rejected many times, and I have a copy of Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections (Ed. Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard), itself a best seller to remind myself of the variety of viewpoints out there (and that agents, reviewers, and publishers all have bad days).

But how do you know whether for you it’s just a numbers game and that someone out there will eventually like you well enough to represent you, or that your manuscript really does need more work, or that you really don’t have the talent? The agent who gave me the feedback I didn’t quite get did say that maybe someone else would like it as it was. Was she saying, “I could see how some people might respond to this, so keep sending it out?” I stopped at four agents, and maybe I should have just kept sending out my novel. Instead, I decided to take the disparate and unclear pieces of advice and do more revision. So now having stalled on that task, I am in a nowhere land. I’ve made it convenient for myself. If I don’t get it out there again, I can’t be rejected again, can I?

All of those who write need to ask ourselves why we write; how much effort to we are willing to put into it after the first one or two drafts and the inevitable suggestions; how badly we need external affirmation for our labors, especially in the form of publication by someone other than ourselves; and how much indifference or negativity from an increasingly deluged and strapped publishing industry are we willing to endure to get to that place. But I suppose that if John Le Carre could keep going after hearing, “You’re welcome to Le Carre—he hasn’t got any future,” I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet. After all, it’s never too late to learn something new—even how to weather a little rejection.

Now didn’t I just hear about NPR’s latest 3-minute fiction contest?

Monday, March 15, 2010

On Channeling Beth

Like many sibling relationships, mine with my sister Beth was complicated. It was loving, competitive, intimate, and at times rage-inducing. Beth was a fashion designer, and not surprisingly she felt somewhat wedded to fashion trends both good and bad. I, in contrast, held a certain amount of scorn about blindly following what seemed to me arbitrary schemes by the clothing industry to shame women into throwing out their wardrobes every couple of years. On more than one occasion, we had screaming fights on this topic. No doubt we both dug in our heels more deeply than our beliefs would have dictated. I liked clothes, but I shopped with an eye to bargains rather than what was in, what suited me, or what even fitted me properly.

Sadly, Beth died seven years ago on March 16 from cancer. After her diagnosis, I promised myself that I wouldn’t start any arguments with her, especially about fashion. During those 22 months of ups and downs regarding her prognosis, our relationship was about mutual support, particularly since we had lost our last parent, our mum, just the previous year.

For some years prior to Beth’s illness I had been writing a screenplay with a friend, but a couple of months after Beth’s surgery, I returned to writing on my own. I wrote another screenplay based on some experiences I had had in Japan as a young woman. As it happens, Beth had spent the last decade peddling her knitwear designs in Japan, travelling there twice a year. I asked her to read my script, and she gave me some practical suggestions regarding cultural references as well as a hilarious explanation for a character’s physical condition that I incorporated. (I won’t give it away!) Beth herself was a wonderful and humorous writer with a gift for an original turn of phrase, but her literary efforts were confined to letters, then faxes, and finally emails. Had she lived, I wonder if she would have written something lengthier, perhaps a memoir of her years in the fashion industry.

For more than two years after Beth’s death, my own creativity dried up. I didn’t have the heart , nor the emotional energy to write anything, much less to complete the novelization of the screenplay. The loss of my only sibling with whom I’d been so close was devastating, and with Beth’s passing went my connection to my nuclear family and all that history it represented.

Then in 2005 two things happened within a few months of each other. I began to shop, and I began to write again. Oh, how I shopped. I began watching TLC’s “What not to Wear,” and I went through my wardrobe with a critical eye, giving away bags of ill-fitting, out-of-date, and unbecoming clothes in unflattering colors. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I followed the trends. For someone in her middle years, some of these seemed most unsuitable. Rather, I focused more on classical pieces that fit, and colorful fun pieces that I would enjoy wearing. I still looked at price tags and shopped at sales, but my sense of a reasonable cost increased from my 1970s yardstick. And, gasp, I even bought a few things at full price! At times I became obsessed with finding the right top to go with the pants I’d purchased or with one of Beth’s designs that I wore, travelling to multiple shops along the way. I felt possessed.

I am not a superstitious person. I walk under ladders, let black cats cross my path, and don’t worry about Friday the 13th. I don’t consider myself a person of great faith, or even a particularly spiritual person. But I swear that I was channeling Beth. Maybe it was her fun way of getting back at me for giving her such a hard time about her passion. But as I mentioned, I also started writing again-with a greater sense of purpose and with more regularity. I took better classes and workshops to hone my craft, and I not only completed multiple drafts of the novel about Japan, I wrote a second novel. This burst of creativity also felt like a gift from Beth, who was enormously talented and prolific. (The prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London recently took all her fashion archives—sketches, photos, costings, etc. as well as several samples from her collection.) I know there may be rational explanations for both of these phenomena; I studied psychology. I also understand that both the interest in fashion and the creativity describe my mother. But I like to believe that Beth, who had provided me some seed funds, was watching over her little sister—giving her a push.

A couple of months ago, I perused my bulging wardrobe and realized I didn’t really need anything new for the time being. Beth would have said it was about “want not need.” As a self-employed person who works at home much of the time, I only have so many occasions where something other than jeans is the appropriate attire. Oddly, during this period, I have felt less creative. Each session at the computer has felt like more of a struggle. I am not suggesting cause and effect here. Maybe I am going through an end-of-winter dry patch. Maybe I need to take a break or an inspiring course. Alternatively, maybe there is a time limit to a spirit’s assistance. Maybe Beth has moved on to more important causes. Or maybe she feels her work is done and that I can do this all by myself. Or maybe like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz I had the power all along.

In the meantime, let me honor this day and Beth’s memory with a very short story (or poem if you prefer) that I wrote for a class during my first few months of renewed creativity (and have since revised.) (Note the structure of the story. The first sentence is 10 words; the second, nine, and so forth.)

Channeling Corinne

Corinne was a clothes horse and a slave to fashion.
Her sisterly advice drove me into a rebellious rage.
“Pleated pants are so unflattering; buy something new!”
“You used to wear them,” I screamed.
“They’re no longer in,” she scoffed.
Corinne died two years ago.
I obsess over style.
Replace my wardrobe.
Corinne teases.

Beth—RIP. I love you. PS. I did just buy a cute little black jacket with white polka dots. Totally didn’t need it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

February Check-in

So February didn't seem as productive, but I guess it was okay, especially since the month was short.

1. Revised Chapter 1 several more times, chapter 2 a couple of times, chapter 3 once, and gave a cursory revision to chapter 4.
2. Wrote two short-shorts and submitted them to contests. No success.
3. Wrote two new blog entries.
4. Participated in two sessions of my writers' group.
5. Didn't do as much reading as I would have liked. Finished a couple of novels I'd started earlier and am about half-way through another.

I'm feeling a little discouraged about the whole business (see first March blog entry), but maybe it's just the winter blahs.