I read this story recently in Poets & Writers. It may be a parable about stick-to-it-iveness, or perhaps it’s an invitation to apply the vision of hindsight to our current ambitions. Bear with me.
Daniel Wallace, the author of six novels including a New York Times bestseller, has tried for more than thirty years to publish in The New Yorker. When he first began submitting work there in 1984, The New Yorker defined literary success for him. His stories landed on the desk of the fiction editor, Daniel Menacer, who eventually began jotting “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 the first six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal and encouraging. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He actually invited Wallace to continue submitting. Writers call such comments “good rejections.”
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. Over that time Wallace continued submitting stories, over fifty of them, and receiving rejections. Then, on a recent whim, Wallace looked Menaker 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 readers. “After a lifetime of rejection, I had been accepted. I had made a friend.”
I’m not entirely sure what moral Wallace wants us to take away from his story, but it makes me think about how readily we writers—and humans in general—allow ambition to limit our imagination. We dream of success (and what could be more successful for a writer than being published in The New Yorker?), but when we don’t attain it, or even when we do, we’re blinded to other possibilities of what might be created–what might come alive.
What if the new life we look for (in publication, in success) might also be found elsewhere? I don’t want to discourage writers from publishing so much as encourage all of us to experiment with not being enslaved to our ambition. What freedom is then possible? What else that’s truly new might happen? It’s worth a try. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Second Friday spiritual memoir drop-in series at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality:
3/9: Writing as Exercising Forgiveness
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
6/8: Adding by Subtraction
Living A Legacy: Passing On Faith by Writing Your Faith Story
Tuesday, April 17, 1:30-3 p.m at Easter Lutheran Church.