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The Courage to Say Yes
Recently an article by sff writer Nisi Shawl in Cascadia Subduction Zone, titled “Unqualified,” inspired writer Rose Lemberg to muse on Twitter about ways in which writers, and specifically marginalized writers, self-reject. On reading through and contributing to this #dontselfreject hashtag, author Malinda Lo wrote a post “On Self Rejection and Writing From A Marginalized Perspective.”
Among other things, Shawl discusses her experience at the University of Michigan, where she received no mentoring and no information about grants, fellowships, prizes, or awards. She adds, “It was all right to be ignorant of them, because they were obviously intended for good writers.”
This familiar form of self rejection (which I call “those other people are obviously good but maybe/probably I am not or at any rate other people don’t believe I am”) is neatly summed up by Lemberg:
“Self-rejection is a huge issue. Self-rejection not just from sending out, but from writing itself, from creating. From fear that what you have to say is hopeless/irrelevant/not good enough to make it as a marginalized person.”
Lo’s long and eloquent post about her own writing journey also discusses self rejection:
“Yes: I still struggle with self-rejection. Maybe it seems strange, because I’ve had four novels published by a big publisher. Maybe it seems as if I must lack some basic self-confidence, but if you know me, you know that’s not true. I believe in myself; I believe I’m a good writer.”
When does one become successful enough that self-rejection falls by the wayside?
I’m fairly sure certain people rarely have trouble with or never succumb to self-rejection, but for some of us this struggle–these wild swings between fragility and assurance–never ends.
I consider myself primarily a novelist. The long form–and especially the multi-volume form–appeals strongly to the way my mind builds story. So while I have written short fiction, I have written it sporadically, usually in response to direct requests for shorter pieces by editors. If you ask me to give you an example of my work, if you ask me “what of yours should I read?” I will reflexively suggest one of my novels.
It therefore came as a surprise to me when Jacob Weisman and Jill Roberts of Tachyon Publications asked if we could have lunch in June 2013 when I was passing through San Francisco to read and sign at Borderlands Bookstore in support of the publication of Cold Steel (the third volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy).
Tachyon Publications is an excellent small press that specializes in science fiction and fantasy collections, anthologies, and novellas. He asked me if I would consider publishing a short fiction collection in their THE VERY BEST OF series (which has included collections by Charles de Lint, Tad Williams, and the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction).
I listened. I nodded politely. I asked the sorts of professional and production questions a writer needs to ask to determine if the deal would be mutually productive and successful.
In fact, I was deeply flattered to be asked, and rather shocked anyone would think such a collection to be worthwhile. I have never received plaudits for my short fiction; many people do not know I write it.
The truth is: my first reaction was to self reject, to say “no.”
More than that: I struggled mightily with the idea that I OUGHT to say no. That it would be for the best for them and for me and for everyone, really. The WHOLE WORLD would be better off (my fragile self rejecting voice gibbered) if no short fiction collection by me ever saw the light of day.
At the time I temporized by telling Jacob and Jill that I would get more information, talk to my agent, and get back to them. It was a good way to delay saying no.
You may ask yourself: How did I get to a head-space where I even for a moment considered turning down a chance to have a respected and professional small press publish my collected short stories?
I have published twenty-one novels. My twenty-second and twenty-third novels are coming out later this year. By any measure I am an experienced and successful writer. Of course publication is no guarantor of quality. I might have published twenty-one mediocre or awful novels, and certainly there are some readers who, having read one or two of my books, would heartily subscribe to that theory.
Yet here’s another question: Why do I even say that? Why do I feel obliged to qualify the idea that I might be a good writer with the idea that I might be a bad writer?
Who am I talking to when I make a comment like that? To satisfy a hyper-critical aspect of myself? As an act of appeasement toward people who wish me ill or don’t respect my work? To apologize to people who don’t think about me at all (in which case why bother to address them when they aren’t listening anyway)?
Obviously my qualifications aren’t directed to people who wish me well. Such people (those who wish me well) may or may not enjoy everything I write but they would be the last to think it shouldn’t be published or that I should apologize for it. You don’t have to love every single thing a writer has written to wish them success in their writing endeavors.
In that moment of irrational anxiety as I contemplated a short fiction collection, it seemed wiser and safer to reject myself rather than to face the prospect of someone (who?) rejecting me. Yet ironically rejection is the risk every writer (and artist) takes every time we cast our creations into the public view. We don’t control the response of the audience; nor should we. Once the work is out of our hands, people will respond to it on their own terms.
Writers are far more likely to have to deal with invisibility and disinterest than outright rejection, but the voice of self rejection often plays to the fears of being judged, found wanting, ridiculed, condescended to, told what you write is trivial or unnecessary or done with the wrong words or the wrong aesthetic. That publication is hopeless, irrelevant, something meant for “good writers” who (by some definitions) can never be “us” but only ever someone who fits the description better, whatever that description might be.
As I considered Tachyon’s proposal and examined my own reaction to what any rational analysis would call a no-brainer, what really struck me is how much courage it takes to say yes, especially when you are already starting from a fragile place. I admit I was in a particularly fragile space when Tachyon approached me, mostly unrelated to writing and publishing (it didn’t help that my rib was broken and that we were waiting to hear if my father’s cancer had returned, as indeed it turned out that it had).
But because of that fragility I had to dig down and find the determination to not self reject despite my track record of multiple novel publications, of award nominations, reviews, sales. I had to fall back on the stubbornness that has gotten me this far because this is a career that benefits from a personality that takes stubbornness and persistence to the extreme sports level.
I write these words to let people know that many more writers and artists than you may realize struggle with self rejection. It isn’t just you. It isn’t just a few.
Did I do the right thing by signing on for the short fiction collection?
Of course I did. My experience working with Tachyon Publications has been professional, pleasant, and stellar. Publishers Weekly gave the collection a starred review. As for readers, I hope they will enjoy it. That’s all I can do: write as best as I know how to write and dig deep enough to find my courage.
It’s what I hope for those of you struggling with self rejection. Be bold. Say yes.
Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. She now writes fantasy, steampunk, science fiction, and YA.
The collection The Very Best of Kate Elliott comes out on February 10 and will be reviewed here on the 5th.