In 2011, I received multiple major rejections related to my writing.
One was an application for a fellowship that would have allowed me to research and write a book about the slow death by the hands of testing of teaching creative arts in American public high schools. It's a book that sorely needs to be written, and I am the teacher to write it. Unfortunately, the foundation sponsoring the fellowship said I didn't qualify because my books were not peer reviewed. And, also, they were self-published by Nestucca Spit Press, a press I started in 2003 that only publishes books about Oregon and only distributes them through Oregon independent bookstores, like Powell's. I guess 10,000 books sold doesn't count as peer review.
Two more rejections came from an agent and from a national publisher considering taking on my new version of Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker, my 2010 book about my teaching career and serving as caretaker of a federal wildlife refuge for 10 years. The agent simply disappeared, apparently befogged in some New York publishing drama that brought to mind lines from "Shattered" by the Rolling Stones. The publisher rejected the book saying she couldn't sell 10,000 copies of it, which was funny since I've sold 2,000 of this title in Oregon alone, basically out of the back of my truck, and the book has gained somewhat of a cult status among teachers. One full-page ad in the National Education Association magazine alone could blow this book out. Oh, well. DIY. Punk publishing rock.
And the last one came from a New York agent who initially showed intense interest in my manuscript about the filming of Sometimes a Great Notion, the 1971 movie adapted from Ken Kesey's classic novel that starred Paul Newman and was filmed in Lincoln County on the Oregon Coast. I'm sitting on nearly 300 unique, candid photographs of cast and crew that have virtually never been seen before outside of their owners. I'm also sitting on some of the best Paul Newman and Ken Kesey stories of all time. As I said, the agent initially showed interest, and then he disappeared too, never returning emails.
What all these rejections want me to believe is: 1) I have no luck (or talent) attracting a national publisher. 2) The writing isn't good enough and my subject matter too Oregon-centric and thus unmarketable 3) You need some sort of connection to win this game.
I used to let similar literary rejections plunge me into utter despair, but a few years ago something extraordinary happened to me on my local beach that made me take stock of why I really write and why Nestucca Spit Press continues to publish Oregon-centric books. I remind myself of the story every now and then to keep me going.
For those people who have ever suffered literary rejection, or really, artistic rejection of any kind, I'd like to share the story:
One day back in late 2008, I received two letters from national publishers rejecting two different manuscripts and the news made me feel not unlike I imagine a ling cod feels when a fisherman guts him after a life of freedom in the sea. Naturally, I went to my beach to recover. The doctor was in — she always is. And she never charges me a fee or demands paperwork.
I can honestly say the availability of Oregon's publicly owned ocean beaches means more to my mental and physical well-being than the health insurance I virtually never use. I think I'd go insane without this unique Oregon outdoor custom.
After reading the second letter, the dogs and I walked to my beach at dawn. Art was on my mind, as in: What does an artist do when he submits his art to the national artistic establishment in hope of reaching a wider audience, and the establishment consistently rejects his art? Does he quit? Does he retrench and keep trying? Does he take his art in a new direction, hoping to please the establishment? Does he embrace the role of maverick and put out his art his own way?
We took our familiar path to the beach. I looked out to the ocean and noticed the tide was coming in fast, churning brown with lots of foam for extra measure. We jogged out to the sand, and I pivoted north to the Yaquina Head Lighthouse.
But the lighthouse never came into view. Instead, I beheld a series of some 50 sculptures and altars of varying size and shape, all made from driftwood, burnt or barnacled or slimy smooth, all constructed with elaborate care and artistic intent and spaced within a 40-yard stretch of sand at the base of the cliff. As I approached this marvel, I also noticed large words etched in the sand:
In all my years of rambling Oregon Coast beaches, I'd never seen anything like this, and I pretty much thought I'd seen (or done) it all. Less than 18 hours earlier, I'd visited the same spot with the dogs and nothing like this existed. Most likely, the marvel had been constructed overnight.
I moved closer to inspect. I gave a gentle kick to one of the driftwood pillars, expecting it to budge easily. It did not. It was buried three-feet deep, as were most of the other sculptures. We are talking about nearly 100 pieces of wood all firmly anchored in the sand.
Suddenly, a wave swept into the area and soaked my shoes. I didn't hear it coming. In a half hour, the incoming tide would batter the installation and, in time, collapse it. It was then I realized I might be the only person lucky enough to see this treasure of pure and undoubtedly spontaneous art. Someone didn't care if they reached a wider audience. Someone didn't care if another person saw his art. He made it because he felt like it. Or had to. Who had the time to do this? Who had this great notion?
I called out to the dogs and we started for home, but not before I took a couple of photographs to capture the moment for myself, as a reminder of why I write. To the person or persons who made this: Thank you. And I did dance.