Whenever anyone asks me how I got my start writing, it comes out that I went to an arts high school. It wasn’t strictly a performing arts school, although all the rich old ladies who donated money seemed to want it to be. No, in addition to music, theatre, and dance, we had the counterculture Visual Arts department and the somewhat less glamorous Communication Arts.
I loved my time in high school, as I’ve mentioned before, and I can’t imagine spending my formative teen years anywhere else. I graduated as a veritable poster child for my department, and went on to a career directly shaped by my instruction there.
But here’s a little secret:
The first time I auditioned for the school, I was rejected.
Yes, I remember it well… it was seventh grade, and I was trying out for the visual arts and communication arts departments.
As for the visual, well… I’m a passable artist. I do very well at Pictionary, and I think I have a pretty good sense of visual balance. But as for a destiny as a fine artist, perhaps not. It seems that not only my talents but my temperament were aiming me elsewhere. All I remember from the audition is drawing the still life in the center of the room, finishing early, getting bored, and deciding to color it in gray and then make the background rainbow stripes. So.
Where were we? Ah, yes. My communications audition. See, this is where my heart really lay anyhow. I had started writing not just one, but two books, at some point in seventh grade. One was a Star Trek-inspired space epic about a girl named Kayli (and I seriously thought I had invented that name, by the way) who finds herself in all sorts of trouble. At the same time, I was writing a sort of Gossip Girl thing about the actors who played the roles of all the people in my other book on a show–like Star Trek! Get it? The whole thing was very existential. Poor Kayli never knew she was just a primetime character.
I’m getting to my point, I swear. I wrote hundreds of pages, longhand, in these books–filling tiny flimsy notebook after notebook, and as a way to show my dedication to my art, I decided to turn in the notebooks as part of my portfolio.
I guess I had a vision of myself dumping the books on the table and watching the awed reactions of the selection panel as they raised their arms to the heavens and shouted, “Yes! Yes! At last!”
Well, not so much. We had to turn our portfolios in early, so what I did was, I took my precious notebooks (just the Kayli story–which I probably called something like Space Journey) and dumped them into a duffel bag. Then I turned the duffel bag in as my portfolio, along with two short stories I’d written–one of which ended with, “It was all a dream!” and the other of which was about a mafia hitman named Marty Gelding who gets double-crossed at the end and dies.
So, shock of all shocks, the rainbow still life and the duffel bag full of notebooks failed to impress, and I was resoundingly rejected.
I had dealt with rejection before in my life–never did get a speaking part in the school plays, was the 16th-best girl at tryouts for the 15-player basketball team, and so on and so on.
But this rejection was different.
Because I wanted this. Some part of me knew I wanted to be a writer.
So I spent the next year working on my school’s literary magazine, writing up a storm (a typhoon of bad poetry and a maelstrom of questionable fiction), and preparing for the next year’s audition.
This time, I didn’t rest on my desire as a means of getting in. I actually did a little research. When I went for the audition, I had a tidy binder of well-written material, including an essay on how to care for your eyes and a short story about recycling written in second-person. I recited “America the Beautiful” and told the selection panel I wanted to be a writer.
(I also re-auditioned for Visual, though when, in the interview, they asked if I had done any modeling, I didn’t realize they meant “clay” and answered with something about getting brochures for the Barbizon School. I also auditioned for theatre that year, and failed to impress with my soulful monologue about a down-and-out jazz singer.)
But those rejections (do I need to say they were rejections? They were.), it turns out, didn’t bug me, because I made it into the Communications Department.
The moral of my story applies to writing thusly:
It’s not enough to want something badly. That is a wonderful start, but you have to make yourself into somebody who is ready for success.
Sometimes writers get excited about first drafts and send off queries before they’ve done enough revising (=notebooks). Sometimes writers don’t follow the submissions guidelines (=notebooks in a duffel bag). Sometimes writers try too hard to write in a genre or category that doesn’t suit them, because they think it’s what editors want to read (=jazzy monologue). And sometimes a book just isn’t what anybody is looking for (=still life à la rainbow), and the writer needs to put it in a drawer and get to work on something else.
But the important thing is, the initial rejection didn’t keep me from cleaning up my act and getting back in the game. What’s more, I learned a lot by going to my same old junior high for one more year. That one year probably influences more of my writing than any other time period.
So put yourself out there, put your best work out there. And if they knock you down, get back up and try again. But don’t forget to take a good, honest look at yourself between tries.
~ Katie Alender
PS – One day in eleventh grade, during lunch, I was called to the office, where I was presented with my duffel bag full of binders, which had been living at the school for four years! I’m not sure I remember what I did with them after that. But wherever she is, I hope Kayli never figured out that it was all a dream.
Ways to deal with rejection
1. Cry. (But preferably not in front of the rejecter.)
2. Pull weeds in the garden.
4. Play Wii boxing, and make a little avatar for the rejecter.
5. Read one-star Amazon reviews of any book ever connected with the rejecter.
6. Get angry and write long profanity-laden journal entries, rant to close friends and family (but STEP AWAY FROM THE BLOG.)
7. Treat yourself kindly, via bubblebath, wine, ice cream, or whatever indulgence fits within your budgetary and chemical tolerances.
8. Realize that the above things are petty and not at all helpful in the large scheme of things, but they don’t hurt anybody (providing number seven is performed in moderation) and a little spleen-venting is probably necessary.
And then? Get to work.
Nothing kills a writing project like a lack of momentum, and although a rejection will knock you off stride for a day or so, GET BACK TO WORK. The only thing worse than rejection on the way to publication is rejection on the way to giving up.
– Deb Kristina (whose favorite method is number seven, in the shiraz-and-dark chocolate variety)
Deb Meredith has an interview Tuesday March 31st at 11 AM ET with Crazy Dougie on WANB in Waynesburg Pennsylvania. Then Meredith goes to Reston, Virginia to the Barnes and Noble (1851 Fountain Drive) at 2 PM for a reading and signing for POSED FOR MURDER. Then on Sunday, she’ll be signing at the Borders at Reagan Airport at noon.
Deb Eve’s FIRST COMES LOVE, THEN COMES MALARIA got a nice review and write-up on page 108 of April’s issue of body+soul magazine!
There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.
That’s what it says on the Brian Andreas’ Story People print on the left. The one I had copied onto a tile and permanently set into the backsplash behind my stove. Because that’s how I feel about cooking and about life.
I will admit here that I enjoy cooking. Not every day. Not when I have a million other things to get done. But cooking for me, is another creative outlet and the truth is, I really enjoy sharing food. I volunteer every week at a food pantry; I’m the one always bringing meals to the sick, the injured and the bereaved. I firmly believe that I make the world’s best ruggelach and it’s my (not-so-secret anymore) ministry to share them with people in need of cheering up.
One of my sweetest and most fulfilling memories of living abroad – and specifically in northern Uganda – was finally mastering the art of cooking – fine meals – up in the bush. Living 500 kilometers on unpaved road from any major city, we certainly didn’t have supermarkets, bakeries, gourmet specialty grocery stores to supply us. Most shops in our area didn’t even have refrigeration. Like it or not, we were forced to eat locally and fresh.
After a cranky and hungry beginning, this turned out to be great fun. When I had a hankering for beef and scallion rolls in Teriyaki sauce, I figured out how to make them (including the Teriyaki sauce). When I saw something that resembled jalapenos in the market, I taught myself how to make fried stuffed jalapenos. Just when I thought I would kill for some good chocolate, my Dutch friend taught me to make my own chocolate truffles (mind you, we had to make our own butter first). We made wonderful bread, pizzas, ice cream, pasta, yogurt. I experimented until I’d figured out how to make fried green tomatoes and I learned how to make the world’s richest chocolate cake. (Later, when I was pregnant and whining for bagels and lox, we never did quite manage the lox – but I know how to make a bagel!) It sounds kind of odd, but there we were living in this rural Ugandan outpost, sometimes under difficult and even dangerous circumstances, having these amazing dinner parties!
I still enjoy cooking – when I have the time. But I have to admit, cooking in America – with my easy access to whatever I might need – has never been as much fun as cooking in the bush. At first it was wonderful, having everything I could need – or want – at my fingertips. But now, there’s just no challenge in it. I mean, anyone can make a fine meal with reliable water, gas and electricity in their kitchen and a mega supermarket down the street. But where’s the fun in that?
I did get a little charge while I was working at the food pantry last week. A client came in, looked wistfully at the cornmeal and said he’d wished he could bake some cornbread but didn’t have an oven. Ah, I told him, all excited, and proceeded to teach him how to build what we called in the Peace Corps, a “campo oven” so he could bake on top of a hot plate! Who knows, maybe soon I’ll be giving courses on how to decorate cakes with edible flowers while avoiding landmines and the latest ebola outbreak!
A friend pointed out when we met recently that there’s something about Russian women and their kitchens. They’re happiest in them.
I was like, “Wait, I’m like that!” Okay, I’m half Ukrainian, not Russian, but when it comes down to it, there’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather be than home on a Saturday, cooking up something for a bunch of friends for dinner.
I have a great kitchen, even though it’s not so fancy. There’s no sub-Zero or Viking range. I don’t have high-end faucets, and the lamp over the kitchen table is actually pretty ugly in a 1980s kind of way.
But it’s still a great kitchen. Big, for starters. I’ve got the kind of table that’s as perfect for arts and crafts as it is for casual suppers. The view is fantastic over the hills, and there’s loads of counter space.
In the year since we’ve lived here I’ve made:
homemade pizzas on Fridays
a Valentine’s supper for friends with fried oysters that I still dream about (must make those again)
a birthday supper for my son, for, oh, about twenty-five family members and a few more friends
An Indian supper for my dad’s birthday
salads for potlucks, pancakes for Shrove Tuesday, cookies with my kids, birthday muffins for a one daughter’s class, and Christmas dinner.
My husband and I have discussed finances at the table, watched our kids argue and make up, then argued and made up ourselves. We’ve stepped around each other in the mornings, and drunk wine in the evenings, laughed with friends, and gathered with family.
Can you tell the kitchen is my world? My fortieth birthday is coming up soon, and for a while I thought maybe I’d have some blow-out party, but you know, that’s just not me. Instead, I’m thinking of hanging lights in the back yard, draping some pretty tulle around, and hosting a long and relaxed, garden supper. Cooked by yours truly, of course, and probably including a few of those fried oysters. Bon Vivant, folks.
This deb married a man who could cook for a reason. Cooking is a chore I’d like to avoid most of the time. Unless, of course, I have a deadline. Then I become quite excited by the idea of making six different kinds of Christmas cookies. I think of all kinds of complicated recipes I could make, and spend lots of time reading recipes on-line.
But cooking can sometimes be like writing a book. There are the interesting parts and then there are the parts that are pure drudgery. But you have to do everything if you want a gourmet meal or a great book.
I enjoy shopping, and list making—it’s kind of like outlining. Your mind flows free. You’re open to possibilities, and ingredients. The eggplant looks good, so you start thinking about curries, Italian dishes, what else you have in the house. You consider spices and what else you need to collect. Or, if it’s your book, what the ramifications of making one of your characters a man or a woman might be.
Writing the novel itself is more stressful. Now the decisions you made in your outline start to take on a life of their own. You make some good and bad discoveries. (Oh, no—my onions are all rotten! Can I still make the dish without onions? Can I use lots of garlic instead?) Deadlines loom. Dinner guests are arriving in 15 minutes, and you still haven’t gotten dressed.
And then after you write the end, or take your casserole out the oven, it’s still not done. You need to arrange it on the plates in a way that looks good and appetizing. Or check for spelling and consistency. And hope your critics/dinner guests think it’s wonderful. And then you have a glass of wine and try to enjoy the fruits of your labor, too.
So I enjoy cooking… but I also like to eat a dish that someone else has prepared. Just like I have to sometimes tell myself to put down a book I’m enjoying and get back to work on my manuscript!
Our topic this week is “in the kitchen,” but to be honest, my best relationship with the kitchen is one where I wander through to get the portable phone to place a delivery order for Chinese food. Or I dash in, pour myself a glass of wine, and dash out before the kitchen knows I’m there.
For someone with such a healthy interest in eating, I have an underdeveloped interest in the culinary arts. I’ve heard that, traditionally, chefs were men, and when you think of all the chopping, mashing, and setting things on fire that are involved, it kind of makes sense. It’s certainly how things work in my house, anyway. The husb is the cooker, and I am the cleaner.
(Of course, on those rare occasions I do cook something—which only happens when a specific recipe catches my fancy—I somehow also find myself being the cleaner.)
It’s not that I don’t have a fairly solid foundation. As a child, I had to cook dinner for my family once a week. My mother and stepmother are both talented cooks (and my father can barbecue like a champ). When my friends and I moved to California, we had weekly “family dinners,” and it wasn’t unusual to spend a whole Sunday in the kitchen, preparing your dish—often basically from scratch. And, like I said, I am a big proponent of good cooking when I’m on the consuming side of things.
So why has cookery become a lost art in my life?
If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because I’ve found so many other arts to occupy my time. If I’m not writing, I’m quilting. If I’m not quilting, I’m reading a book, or blogging, or working on my website. If I’m not doing that, it’s laundry, or working out, or tidying up, or spending quality time with TiVo.
At some point, you start to feel like one of those kids whose parents force them to take piano lessons, ballet, soccer, basketball, pottery, karate, and ballroom dance. And something’s gotta give.
So in my life, my relationship with the pots and pans and sea salt and extra virgin olive oil was the first thing to go.
If I weren’t married to a man with significant skills in the culinary realm, I might have had to make time for cooking. But as it is, I read debut novels, not cookbooks, and I slice and dice and chop and mash words instead of vegetables.
I think one of the hardest things about writing is finding that you have to juggle your priorities a little. And often, giving themselves permission to underperform in one area makes people uncomfortable. But for me (and a lot of us, I suspect), balance is a crucial ingredient of the writing life.
Speaking of that, I’m smack in the middle of cooking up a work in progress, so I’d better get going before it reduces to nothing!
~ Katie Alender
PS – Have you seen the Bad Girls Don’t Die book trailer yet?