I’m still unpacking Annie Dillard’s statement that a “complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Why? It seems to me that creative people value our work almost exclusively with external measures—the fact of being published, sales numbers, reviews, literary recognition, etc. Sometimes we’re wise enough to value the process over the product; sometimes we orient our hearts toward how our stories impact the internal lives of our readers. But when it comes to feeling like our work matters, most often we lean on external measures for validation.
Dillard says that on some subterranean level, a fully developed but unread creative work makes a metaphysical difference in creation. Okay. Do we writers need to take this on faith? Or can we find concrete evidence?
Here’s the latest bit of evidence I’ve dug up. A few issues ago, Poets and Writers magazine published an intriguing article by novelist Daniel Wallace. Wallace has written six novels, including a New York Times bestseller. In other words, he’s “made it” as a writer. Thirty years ago, he began submitting his short stories to The New Yorker. He, like many writers, considered publication in The New Yorker to be the pinnacle of literary success. His stories landed on the desk of Daniel Menacer, who repeatedly rejected them. Eventually Menacer jotted “a little something” on the rejected pages. “I had no idea who this person was,” Wallace writes. “And it didn’t really matter because at that time in my life, editors were all-powerful demigods whose approval would allow me entry into the world I hungrily watched from afar.” Over six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal—an encouraging sign in the publishing world. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He invited Wallace to continue submitting—the best kind of rejection possible.
Over thirty years, Wallace submitted more than fifty stories. None was published. Eventually Menaker left The New Yorker to become executive editor (and later editor-in-chief) at Random House; he now writes novels and teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook. Recently, on a whim, Wallace looked him up. Menaker remembered him and agreed to meet over a meal, which turned out to be ordinary, connective, and lovely. They’ve been in touch ever since.
“Do you see what just happened?” Wallace asks us. “After a lifetime of rejection, I had been accepted. I had made a friend.”
What I find remarkable about Wallace’s story is how he saw creative potential within a relationship comprised of rejections. Sure, this wasn’t the outcome he’d initially hoped for. But those unpublished stories had done good work opening up a connection between the two men. Wallace found a spark of life underneath decades of seeming failures and he kept it moving. He’d found a tiny bit of “order” his stories had added to the universe’s order. Isn’t a new friendship an ultimately worthy outcome? –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
What a whirlwind fall! Only three offerings remaining before winter:
November 9, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.
November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.
December 14, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.