Rejection is hard to take. Let's face it, no one likes to be rejected. But there's something worse. And that's the look on your kid's face when they've been rejected, they've not got the part in the school play or they've not been picked as class monitor or Belinda has decided she'd rather go out with Gary. It really doesn't matter what the situation is, you feel for them.
My dad used to collect me at the end of the day and drive me home from school – Primary School – and one day I had a falling out with my best friend who wanted to fight me and, not wanting to fight him, I fled to the back gate and the safety of my dad's car. The crowd that followed were suitably disappointed especially when my father, being who he was, decided to lecture the assembled mob about the wrongs of fighting. Embarrassing? Tell me about it. But there was worse. After said lecture did he not kick me out of the back of the car to fight my best friend just to show I wasn't a coward. My best friend, for the record, was built like a rake and I was by far the biggest and strongest kid in my class so all I did was stop him hitting me for five minutes before my dad broke up the sad excuse for a fight and drove me home.
If your house was on fire, what would you run in to save? Luckily my daughter doesn't live with me although I miss her terribly (now we'll see if she really reads my blog) so I wouldn't have to rush in to save her but I would run back into a burning building to try and save my writing.
Consider what these various writers have said about their work:
Kurt Cobain: All my songs are like my children, all have different personalities and characteristics
Kate DiCamillo: My books are like my children. I see them as deeply flawed, but loveable anyway. I can’t pick a favourite. I love them differently, but equally.
Maria Elyse: I realized that my poems are like my children. (Not that I have any children…but say if I did.) When it comes down to it, I love them because they are a part of me. However, like children, they definitely have their moments when they: annoy, upset, embarrass, anger and torture me.
Adrienne Rich: My poems are like children; you have them and you’re working on them, and then they go out into the world and they’re themselves and they’re not you anymore.
All this started me thinking about people and their relationship to their writing.
On the now defunct BBC Get Writing website I ran across this by a writer I can only identify as fayween:
I have been unlucky in my life, as I have no children to grieve my passing when it comes. Perhaps my poems are my children. A tribute to the fact that I have lived. A sad tribute indeed but proof that once I walked upon this earth. The fickle heart soon forgets and moves to other thoughts. Memories fade into the sameness of oblivion. If I could just write one poem or piece of prose that captures the mind and the imagination of men perhaps in this I can live on. If not I will be fodder for others poems, for future flowers and unwept tears.
It's quite poetic on its own I have to say but it's interesting to compare this to what the redoubtable – and also childless – Dolly Parton has to say about her songs:
Yeah. I grew up hard but I think people appreciate that you love your parents and you love your family. I do and I’ve been very blessed. So that’s that little song but they’re all special. I always say they’re like my children and I expect them to support me when I’m old — and some of them are. – Dolly Parton, The Sun, 13th Dec 2007
Sadly not all children survive. Teachers talk about "killing your babies" which is a gruesome image but I suppose it's meant to underline how hard it can be to let go of those cool lines or plot twists. In an article appropriately entitled "Kill Your Babies", Sallyann Keith references author Tony D’Souza:
“Kill your babies” Don’t become infatuated with something you have written. “A writer’s greatest tool is the waste basket.” Let the story be what it needs to be, not what you need to make it. Let it go. – Writers Forum
It's hard. I have so many cool quotes that I could've put in this article but how many are really needed for you to get my point?
I, of course, have been writing poetry long enough that it was only a matter of time before I wrote about this:
The poem came back today.
"Why won't you write me ?"
"What use am I in your head ?
"They won't start to like you
even if you hide me, besides,
I'll glare out of your eyes
"And what'll you do then ?
"I will be born.
One way or another.
And you will love me."
Finally I gave in
and wrote the poem too soon
and it lay on the page
twisted and malformed.
"Dad - help me," it cried
and I went to tear it up.
But I couldn't do it.
"What sex am I ?"
the poem asked.
"You are a boy."
"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."
My poem came home today.
"Dad - nobody understands me.
I don't think they even like me."
"Don't worry son -
they don't understand me either."
30 March 1989
When an editor rejects your submission who exactly are they rejecting? Talking about your work as your offspring is one thing but it does also distance you from the work. They're rejecting the work, not me. It's like when you say to a disobedient child: "I don't hate you, I hate the things you do." But is there a difference in a kid's head?
We think about our writing as something that's come out of us and kids come out of us, right? So does pee and poo and sweat and tears and pus and sputum and sebum and earwax and dander. We shout at our kids and our wives, our dogs and the TV and our words won't come back, they're gone, out there, we can't take them back any more than we can reattach our hair or toenail clippings.
Part of me thinks of my writing as something that gets discarded or shed on the way. A lot of work usually goes into ridding myself of it – it can be a painful process – and when I'm done I don't need to go back and re-examine those issues. Let me illustrate.
Several times in my life I've found myself working on sequences of poems. The reason for this is that I've not been able to fully express or explore the issue in the first poem. One of these sequences was 'The Drowning Man' poems. The first poem in the sequence is 'White Light':
Did you ever think you might have
done it because you wanted to?
she said after.
No need to apologize.
Drowning inside I close my
eyes allowing such feelings
to cover me as will.
Unaware of their names I
open my mouth to the waters.
19 June 1985
Now, it would take too long to explain all the events that led up to me writing this poem (and I'm not sure I want to anyway), but after I'd finished it I knew I'd opened a whole can of worms. I realised that there was in effect a side of me that was struggling with certain emotions, literally drowning in them but never actually drowning.
Over the next five years I chipped away at this problem until I finally reached my Ziggy Stardust moment:
THE DROWNED MAN
He is undead.
He comes from within
and his name is Hunger.
I bring him women
to help feed him
because their feelings are the strongest.
They give him guilt
and pain -
now there's a feeling
to sink your teeth into.
25 June 1989
The thing is, now I'm done with all that. The poems have served their purpose. I've worked out what was bothering me and moved on. It's the same with my prose writing. When I was editing my book a few months back I couldn't help but wonder who the guy was that wrote it. I'm not him any more. I've rejected him.
The point I'm making is about the difference between a writer's perceptions of his work than the reader's. I know who I was when I wrote 'White Light' and I can remember roughly what happened in the intervening years. I say 'roughly' because I don't think about that time in my life any more. It's done. I've moved so on since then.
A lot of people will disagree with me. And that's fine. I'm not trying to convert anyone but – as always – I'm hoping what I write will cause people to take a step back and think about they're relationship to their writing. I'm not suggesting for a minute that you burn all the poems you've ever written or flush them down the lavvy pan because they've served their purpose because other people can make something out of them that has nothing to do with you.
I returned to the poem-as-child metaphor a few years ago. A very different poem to 'Sons'. And this is where I'll leave you.
After many years the words returned
bitter at being forgotten so long.
They forced me to write down angry things.
I imagine it must have amused them.
They gutted truth with a single line
and left the corpse for me to dispose of.
And I was actually grateful.
The poem lay dead but I was alive.
There will always be other poems.
5 July 2003