As I travel around the region this year talking to people about my novel, Dove Creek, I’m often asked, “How did you persevere through 46 rejections?” Answering that question isn’t easy. And, actually, I don’t think it’s the right question. Why did I persevere through 46 rejections? And the answer to both is, I didn’t. I persevered through one rejection. Forty-six times.
What more than a few of those rejections said, however, was, “Don’t give up.” And, in between, I wrote and re-wrote. Sixteen times. Sixteen full re-writes. It helps to believe in your story.
I had a T-shirt once with a storkish-bird trying to swallow a too-big frog. The message: Never, Ever Give Up! In big letters. I may have that wrong. The frog may have been suspended above the ground trying to choke the bird. But those words, and the fact that I owned that T-shirt said something about me.
But writing isn’t like that for me, is it? Just another case of stubbornness? For four years now, since I moved in with my husband, I have conducted my writing life from the living room sofa and the breakfast table. Slowly, I work on a real writing studio upstairs, a room of my own. But in the eighteen months since I started, all I’ve done is steam off a hundred years of paper, marvel over the old-fashioned milk paint underneath and struggle to understand how to put plaster on walls. I’m obviously not in a hurry.
It’s because I’m afraid, of course. Afraid of what the room will require of me. Afraid of writing in a place that is aching to draw it out of me. A skylight. Wood floors. A wall of bookshelves. A place I dreamed of when I was in my twenties and thirties, plugged in to deformed marriages with abusive men. I sustained myself through two bad marriages by imagining myself in the very room I now possess. Writing. What happens to you when your dreams come true?
But isn’t writing another abusive relationship? Enough love just often enough to keep you hoping? Have you forgotten all that rejection? I’m a fifty-five year old overweight American female of a mixed blood background whose parents arose out of Kentucky hill country. One grandpa went to prison for incest and one didn’t. And my mother’s black leather belt. Often and a lot. For telling stories, mostly. The hillbilly word for lying. Rejection by an editor? Try being a four-year-old having to make the decision at night between the outhouse and the lidded porcelain pot in a room where a rat waits.
We have to grab what is necessary for our happiness and hang on—much like the weasel found hanging bloodless and mummified from a bald eagle in Annie Dillard’s essay “Living Like Weasels.” The weasel’s one piece of knowledge: kill or be killed.
I have been able to hold on to the writing life because of rejection. Because, in contrast, little successes—like finding small press editors who see promise in my work, like being nominated for the Pushcart, like being named writer-in-residence—are so much sweeter. And nothing changes the fact that you get to spend the time writing whatever those ignorant, blind, capitalistic bozos are rejecting.
Recently, I have been reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water. Yes, the nurse practitioner, Lydie Yuknavitch, in Dove Creek is named for Lidia. We share some of the same damage. But I can’t tell the story straight. She can. And she did so in ways that cleaved my head wide open. She made me buy vodka. I have never in my life bought a bottle of vodka. To hide from what I remembered and what I felt, what I’m still remembering and feeling. It’s why I write only fiction: to hide from all the big ITS.
Let me make it clear: I love Lidia Yuknavitch. She published my first short story and two others in her Northwest Edge series of anthologies. She and few select others believed in my ability long enough that I eventually began to quasi-believe. Then she smashed me dead with her truth. I want to call her a murderer.
Instead, I ordered a copy of her book for my sister the stripper, who I have only seen maybe twice in thirty years because I so hated her drug-addled blackout approach to life. And I plan to write her a letter. To tell her she really needs to write her story. And a copy for the dearest human ever, Ed McClanahan, who wrote wonderful things about Dove Creek, but actually said, “I keep wanting you to let go of this narrator and let us hear from you!”
And headed upstairs to finish.
Paula Coomer lives and writes in Clarkston, WA and is a part-time instructor in the English Department at Washington State University. She holds a BS in nursing from Oregon Health Sciences University (1989) and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Idaho (1999). Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in many journals, anthologies, and publications, including Gargoyle, Knock and the Northwest Edge series from Portland’s Chiasmus Press. In 2006, Coomer was a double nominee for the Pushcart Prize and a writer-in-residence for Fishtrap. Her books include the short story collection Summer of Government Cheese (2007), the poetry collection Devil at the Crossroads (2006), and Road, a single-poem chapbook (2006). A reading of her first novel, Dove Creek, aired last spring over radio station KRFP in Moscow, ID, and has enjoyed a following as a downloadable audio book.