This is what we do: On gatekeepers, rejection, and resilience

Once again, a writer friend has inspired this week’s post. So indebted. Many thanks.

Gatekeepers

I’m using gatekeeper in the Campbellian/Hero’s Journey sense, here: the Threshold Guardian archetype. At the point where the hero/ine stands at the threshold, ready to cross and gain the object of her or his quest, someone or something pops up and prevents the hero/ine from passing.

These gatekeepers must be defeated or circumvented, removed or converted to allies.

Mel’s note: To find out more, please read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, or all of them.

Every writer I know has at least one.

It might be a teacher who tried to shape either the young writer or her work in an inappropriate way. It might be the friend or friends who ridiculed the young writer out of jealousy. It might be the mentor who is not equipped to truly help the writer and rather than admitting his gap in knowledge or ability discourages the writer from pursuing his calling.

More insidious is the above mentioned variety of mentor who continues to encourage the writer, praises the writer’s work, but sympathetically explains that the writer’s work will never find a market. They do this as a kindness, to spare the hapless writer the agony of further rejection.

It could be an editor who likes nothing the writer submits for review. It could even be someone who sets herself up as an expert but only misguides the writer to justify the fee the writer has been charged.

This is not an exhaustive list. Explore your past and you will discover your gatekeepers.

If you’ve had to face them before you were truly prepared, you may have failed to pass the challenge and reach the threshold.

Don’t despair. You haven’t lost your chance. The door remains. The gatekeeper leaves. Another may take her place, but on the next attempt, armed with your experience, you have a better chance of succeeding.

I was turned away repeatedly as a young writer and because of my introverted nature, it took me a long time to understand the ultimate lesson of the gatekeeper.

Mel’s note: If you want to find out more about my struggles, you can read my posts under the category, My history as a so-called writer. If you go back to the earliest post, Three Blind Mice, and read forward, it will all make much more sense 😉

What is the ultimate lesson of the gatekeeper? I’m so glad you asked.

The gatekeeper only has the power we give to them. If you do as I did and internalize the lessons of the gatekeepers in your life, you become your own worst enemy, your own biggest, baddest gatekeeper.

Don’t let that happen.

Even if you retreat from the gatekeeper at the time of your confrontation, keep your eyes on your goal and the reasons it is important for you to achieve it. Yes, you’re allowed to hurt, to grieve, to lick your wounds if you need to, but don’t lose sight of your dream.

Find a true friend, you know, the kind of person who would tell you if you have spinach stuck between your teeth, or if the outfit you chose to wear was absolutely hideous? Find your person (and yes, that’s a Grey’s Anatomy reference). Tell them about your struggle and the reasons it hurts so much to have backed down.

Then, tell your person about your dream and the reasons why it’s so important to you.

Even if they just listen, you will feel so much better afterward, but you will have reminded yourself, in telling your true friend, exactly why you write in the first place and exactly why you can’t give up.

Then you pick up the pieces and try again. Because that’s what we do.

Rejection sucks

There’s no way around it. Rejection sucks.

Rejection, particularly when it arrives as a form letter, is just a specific example of a non-human form of gatekeeper. Yes, there’s a human on the other end of that letter, but you don’t know them, and they don’t know you (most of the time).

That rejection has kept you from being published or winning a contest.

And it hurts.

Another writer friend, Nina Munteanu, has just completed a two-part post on the subject of rejection. In part one, she discusses how to accept rejection, and in part two, she discusses how we can learn from rejection.

In fact, a lot of writers have posted about it. Just Google it. You’ll see. A number of them counsel the writer to develop thick skin.

I’d like to call shenanigans on that.

No offence.

Resilience, not rhino-hide

Suck it up, buttercup, they say. Really?

If it was that simple, we’d all just grow ourselves a fine second skin of rhino-hide and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune would mean nothing. Less.

Telling someone, anyone, to toughen up after suffering a loss (no matter how insignificant it might seem to others) is telling that person to shut down their feelings. That’s not a good thing. As writers, we kind of need those. Hell, as human beings we need our emotions.

We have to learn to acknowledge our feelings, to accept them, and process them. We can’t deny them. That way lies madness. Literally. It’s called depression. I know what I’m talking about here.

We have to figure out why it hurts, what’s at the root of the problem. Once we understand that, we can work, through reason and by respecting our emotional well-being, to heal the wound.

Rejection, as many writers have pointed out, isn’t personal. It’s a matter of subjectivity and timing.

Usually a rejection means not right for the publisher, for the project, for the theme of the anthology or issue, for the other stories that have already been accepted. And it means not right now. It doesn’t mean never.

Timing and subjectivity.

It’s not personal.

Why does it hurt then?

Because of how we react to it. Because of the insecurities and doubts we harbour about our ability, our craft.

The good news is this: we can control the way we react to rejection. Not right away, but with time and practice, by understanding and honouring our emotional response to rejection, it gets easier to process.

More good news: if the reason we get rejected is because our craft and skills are not at the level they need to be, we can control that too. We keep practicing, we keep learning, we keep moving forward.

That’s the real danger of rejection: that you let it stop you.

You have to continually connect with who you are as a writer and the reasons you write. You have to, at the core, be completely okay with not getting published. It’s kind of Zen. Let go of your desire.

Write because you’re a writer. Commit to being the best writer you can be. And yes, the work is hard, but you can do it if you’re a writer. You can’t not do it.

So the key is to develop, not rhino-hide, but resilience, the ability to bounce back. It’s something you can learn to do.

This might help. Or not.

This is going to sound like cheese. Like some really old, smelly cheese, like Limburger, or Roquefort.

Writing is like falling in love.

See, the biggest risk of falling in love is that you open yourself up and you become vulnerable. You risk getting hurt. But that’s the only way to love is with your whole heart plastered on your sleeve. It’s the only way love becomes anything lasting or good or true.

Writing’s like that.

Writing is that.

So just like you know that any relationship requires work, and sacrifice, and time, know that the thing you love to do requires the same.

You’ll get your heart broken, sure, but breaks heal.

The other great thing is that every great protagonist is wounded. Pour your learned experience into your writing. It will be amazing.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” ~~Hemingway.

Weirdmaste (the weirdo in me recognizes the weirdo in you), writing geeks.

Now go hug your words. Get romantic with your words. Create beautiful bouncing baby words.

Because this is what we do.

Muse-inks

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CanWrite! The Canadian Authors Association 2011 Conference

May 2-6, 2011.

Yes, I finally did it.  I managed to do something entirely nourishing to my writer’s soul.

I’d determined that I wanted to go to at least one conference week-long workshop last year and when the announcement went out in November 2010, I signed up right away.  Barbara Kyle, one of the workshop presenters, was also offering 20-page critiques for a nominal fee.  Again, I was in.

My next challenge was how to pay for the venture.  I applied for a Northern Arts Grant for professional development from the Ontario Arts Council, but was not accepted.  So, credit it was.  As far as conferences go, the CAA conference wasn’t expensive.  Even with my day job, I don’t make enough money to drop a thou and not feel it.  Still, it was time and long past that I made a substantial investment in my creative self.

Throughout February, March, and April the CAA conference organizers held little writing contests to get participants in the creative frame of mind.  I submitted to two of the three and though I didn’t even manage an honourable mention, they were interesting exercises and did serve to build a lovely feeling of anticipation.

I made my leave request at work as soon as I could, but operational requirements made it seems unlikely that it would be approved.  As the date of the conference approached, I began to worry that I’d have to withdraw.

Then my father passed away, April 9, 2011 and thoughts of the conference vanished.  For the week previous, Mom, a family friend, and I took turns watching vigil.  Dad had originally gone into the hospital March 18, 2010, and though he never recovered sufficiently to come home, his final illness and his ensuing struggle were completely unexpected.  Needless to say, Mom and I were devastated.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump: that’s all I have to say about that.

In the dizzying days following, my leave was miraculously approved.  Now the conference had a second purpose: I needed to get away and do something that did not involve Dad, his funeral arrangements, or my mom’s uncertain financial situation, all of which were consuming my life in large, ragged mouthfuls.

The drive to Grand Bend from Sudbury, though long, was relaxing.  There’s some beautiful country in Bruce and Gray counties, and now, there are lovely windmills and solar panels dotting the landscape.  I don’t understand the public resistance to wind and solar.  They’re some of the cleanest, greenest sources of energy around, and I didn’t find them ugly at all.  I rather thought them graceful, alien guardians, standing sentinel over the people and the land.  In any case, I arrived at the Pinedale Motor Inn in time for the evening meet and greet, and welcome barbeque.

I discovered that that year’s conference was a departure from previous years.  It was set up as a writers’ retreat with workshops and events, but with the afternoons off to enjoy the town and to write.  No maddened dash to attend competing workshops, this.  Never having attended any conference before, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but it seemed like exactly what I needed.

I won a bottle of wine in a raffle.  We were off to a good start

The first workshop presenter was Sandy Plewis.  Her session was highly interactive with lots of writing exercises, but she depended heavily on secondary sources in her lectures.  She seemed pleasantly surprised at the willingness of the conference attendees to dig deep and write.  There was not a still pen in the house when it came time to complete an exercise.

Then came time for my critique with Barbara Kyle.

Globally, she was complementary.  My characters were interesting, their conflicts dynamic and immediate, but then, as the critique commenced, the shortcomings emerged: the pacing was too fast, my scenes lacked a sense of place, and I didn’t go deep enough into my characters’ hearts and minds.  And I was too subtle.  While I got a lot of good advice from Barbara, by the end of it, I was dizzy, hardly able to breathe.  I think it was a panic attack.  I wasn’t able to think about things clearly until much later in the day.

Barbara’s workshops, one based on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and the other on her own experiences as a first draft survivor, were illuminating.  Though not heavy on the writing, they were professional, and informative.  I had a revelation.

I’d read Vogler’s book, and its inspiration, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.  The guardian at the gates has been a repeated part of my development as a writer, and my past experiences with those guardians informed my inner critic, the biggest, baddest guardian of them all.  That’s what happened in the critique session.  Though intellectually, I knew that Barbara was giving me exactly what I needed to head into the next revision of my novel, to make it stronger, and better, emotionally, every negative that emerged seemed a confirmation of my worthlessness.

So … I confessed.  Spastically and awkwardly–which is the only way I can confess the deeply embarrassing–I told everyone about my struggle.

That afternoon, Lightning Strikes, a series of mini-workshops, took place, and in the evening, at the Mock Awards Ceremony, I received the “Best Attempt to Make Us Cry” award.

Even the annual general meeting was interesting.  As a professional member, I had a vote.

Overall, the CAA conference was a very rewarding experience, and one I hope to repeat.

Conferences can be fertile experiences.  Have you made a breakthrough at one?  New friends?  Networked connections?