So, last December I decided to give my writing a (real) chance. When faced with the uncomfortable question if I had tried everything in my power to become a paid writer, the unsettling answer was ‘no.’ Yes, I had applied for a writing grant from the Canada Council for the Arts four times (and had been rejected four times!) but, I hadn’t even looked into a writing grant from the Quebec Council for the Arts. Similarly, I hadn’t explored the possibilities of writing residencies and I had been slacking on my submissions to literary magazines. I told myself that I didn’t have the time. It wasn’t exactly a lie. I was busy surviving.
Anyone familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or the Yogic chakra system, would understand that as long as your basic Physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest) and need for safety and security are not met, creative pursuits, which would fall under self-actualization (self-fulfillment needs) are extremely hard, if not impossible to achieve. In the past three years as I was finishing my university degree, finalizing my divorce, and trying to stay afloat during a pandemic, my mind was preoccupied with those very basic, un-creative needs. And still, I wrote. But still – if I am absolutely honest with myself, this is not the whole truth. What kept me ‘safe’ and small was the fear of (yet another) rejection. Those grant and writing residency applications took a lot of time and effort to write, not to mention, the hope that I had attached to them. Please Universe/God, I couldn’t be more committed. Help me make this happen, I was praying silently, to find (yet another) rejection e-mail in my inbox. Another “unsuccessful” grant application, a polite rejection of a short story or poem I had submitted, or, a congratulatory email informing me how a high-profile writer won the same writing residency that I had applied for. In over two decades of showing up consistently and passionately to my writing, the universe/God kept teaching me tough lessons on resilience: Nope. Not this time. So, how much do you really want this? And still, I wanted it. Always. And wanted it badly. The idea of giving up made me lose my joie de vivre. What else would I rise up to in the morning, if not to attack the keyboard and try to make magic happen?
Rejections, of course, are part of the contract you sign with the universe when you decide to become a writer. I am not special. And, I had a wonderful acting teacher who had taught me the most valuable lessons on constructive criticism and rejection in my early twenties. I was armed with life experiences and resources to build a very tough skin. But sometimes even those with the thickest of skins get tired of being beaten. Artists are human, and every human being has the psychological need to be appreciated and validated (esteem needs). So, I did what I always do: cried, felt sorry for myself, and picked myself up. Now what? Now how? Was always the question at the forefront of my mind, propelling me to find alternative ways to support myself as I continued to write, even when I was tired, or heartbroken. Especially when I was tired and heartbroken. Because writing is not just a career path for me, a vocation, but the most effective medicine to any pain; the beauty that gives my life a purpose, and joy.
What else could I do then, but lick my wounds and carry on? I opened an account with Patreon that motivated me to post work in progress on a weekly basis, I picked up my paint brushes and went to paint staircases. And – I submitted another grant application to the Canada Council for the Arts, and another one to the Quebec Council for the Arts. Except this summer, both of these grant applications were successful. My friends were cheering me on. “Finally!” they said. “I have never seen anyone work so hard at something,” said a friend I used to live with. My daughter Celeste cried and told me that I was “just perfect,” an unimaginable compliment from a teenager.
We love success stories. We admire “genius-”es like Xavier Dolan, who wrote, directed and produced his debut film J’ai tué ma mère at the age of nineteen to great critical acclaim, and novelists like Zadie Smith whose debut novel White Teeth became an instant best-seller. We like to reward the young. What writer doesn’t dream of getting onto The New Yorker’s prestigious “20 under 40” young writers list or Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” list? These lists are inspiring, but also debilitating. Because these rare prodigies’ stories can give us the false impression that if we didn’t hit similar successes by the prehistoric age of 40, we have clearly missed the bus, so why bother trying? There are no rewards for “best new comers over 40, 50, or 60.” Our society does not celebrate late bloomers, or those who persevered despite all odds, despite all the challenges and despite all those rejections. And yet, there are plenty of success stories that come later in life. Italian writer Elena Ferrante is just one of many examples. But perhaps most important to remember is the reward that the act of writing itself, devoid of external gratification, can offer a writer. I rarely choose cheerful subjects to write about, and yet nothing makes me come alive as much as writing stories.
The writing journey is full of ups and downs. Encouraged by my recent successes, I finally mustered up the courage to query agents and publishers with my manuscript. It is the part of writing that I enjoy the least. Like many writers, I find it hard to promote myself. And then, once more, I made myself vulnerable to those rejections. Which came without fail, two days after I submitted my first query letter. It doesn’t get any easier. But I can’t give up.
Recently I caught an interview with Lady Gaga whose advise to artists was, “Remember that you are the work of art.” I smiled to myself, because twenty plus years of perseverance have taught me that what matters ultimately is what you do while you write; the life you create around you, the people whose life you impact, the people you allow to touch your life, and the ways in which this exchange happens. Ordinary moments, extraordinary moments, the hardships, the joys… these are the moments that fuel my writing, mixed in with some creative imagination. I think it is a very helpful piece of advice. I shall try to remember it when I receive another rejection e-mail, or feel that my work is worthless. I’ll hear Lady Gaga’s voice when I feel crushed, moments before I take a deep breath and ask myself, Now, what? Now, how?