Thomm Quackenbush, author

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05.26.07 10:25 a.m.

Develop the mind of equilibrium. You will always be getting praise and blame, but do not let either affect the poise of the mind: follow the calmness, the absence of pride.  

-Sutta Nipata

 




too precious for its own good

Rejection is nearly as steady as death and taxes, rejections of the mortal coil and fiscal comfort themselves. Weeks ago, Emily faced the rejection of losing at Olympic team trials. Sixteen years toward a goal vanquished in nine minutes. Yet, aside from some understandable disappointment, she has not stopped training even if she now trains only for herself.

I have begun taking writing a bit more seriously than I used to. Having finished my novel (aside from editing and revisions), the next steps of submitting it to publishers and considering getting an agent forces itself into my consciousness. As an inching toward this and in an effort to make myself more attractive, I have begun submitting my short stories to anthologies and magazines. Every credit I can claim on my resume, every bit of legitimate exposure I can claim (and Xenex does not count) has to be good. I need your kind attention as members of the paying public because it is the only way I will ever midwife my novel into the world.

I received my first real rejection last week from magazine best left anonymous, a non-paying market I imagined hungry for submissions. Truth be told, I don't actually remember why I submitted my story "Suspension". I must have felt that I would be a good fit, but I did send a lot of stories out. The email was initially generic, that they had chosen to take a pass on my story at this time. Fine, that is to be expected. However the author of the letter went on to tell me that she felt my story was "too precious for its own good." I fumed a little bit, laughed a moment later, considering it on par with the undergrad critique scrawled on a story by a classmate that "big words are dumb" or the several people in a creative writing group that suggested that I meant the nonsensical word "forment" when I wrote "foment", then searched the dictionary for a nuance of "precious" that fit. Then I started to agree. While it is "too precious" for the specific reason of its narrator's identity, this did not come across to the woman. As far as she was concerned, it was simply putting on airs of excessive refinement. Or, if that wasn't the intended definition, it was too cutesy. If I can't adequately convey my reasoning within the text of the story, I have some serious work to do. It may have impressed the heck out of college professors, but I need something more to impress publishers.

It used to be quite difficult for me not to take things personally. In tenth grade, I tried out for the fall play after having done a good job as the villain in the prior spring's production of "As You Like It". I was not selected for the large cast and felt distraught. I moped for days, even as I endured the director as my English teacher. I was, as far as I then considered, an actor. She was denying it, assaulting the very foundation of my fifteen-year-old life. If I didn't belong on the stage, just where was it I did belong? I temporarily decided I belonged as a surly and misunderstood teenager in the back of the room until she told me to, in essence, suck it up and try again for the spring play (a musical, despite that I did not sing and she knew could not dance, though I got a part anyway).

In high school, I dealt with most romantic rejections with the sort of aplomb most reserve for academic work. If one girl didn't want me, there was always another who did. Often a friend of said girl, but that is insubstantial now. Being a good lover and a decent boyfriend did not then require my having specific partner. To some thinking - not to mine even then - more girlfriends made me better at romance. The sting of romantic rejection was rare and keen - the loss of Jen to her feelings for Nick, the loss of Katie to her feelings for collegiate freedom. They wounded me, even bumped me from my path, but I didn't make me doubt who I was or what I was doing. I just knew that I wouldn't be following my path with them anymore.

I am not used to not being good enough and I will have to get over it. I was always the smart one in my family, who succeeded as long as it wasn't a mathematical field. Before I reached middle school, my teachers knew I was a writer. I was pulled from my English class in the sixth grade and asked/told to join the school's newspaper. I did not, though I submitted some editorials, but felt flattered for the attention. I joined a poetry group around the time, one full of adults who somehow indulged me, though some had grandchildren years my senior. I was never a good poet, but I stuck around because I was a writer and poetry groups were the sort of things in which writers were involved.

This comment in the rejection of my story, this suggestion that I wrote something "too precious" for their publication, won't stop me. It won't even bump me, though I can't deny that some part of my brain now scans my work a little harder for signs of excessive sophistication or tastes of saccharine.

Professional rejections are acceptable, something I must endure if I am to progress as a writer. I have certainly dealt with enough in my day job as a teacher, interviews that went nowhere or applications that I filled out if just to give the clerk in some academic bureaucracy something to toss out a decade from now. Even the romantic rejections, as stated, didn't much touch me. What I cannot stand is the subtle dig of friendships parting through distance. I find it so unbearable how I can be largely ignorant of the fact that I am being or have been rejected. When the only sign of rejection is a lack of any signs to the contrary, it is easy to fall into paranoia.

I am not speaking specifically at the moment, though I easily could. As I have stated in this column more times than my future biographers will care to count, I assume I am friends with people until informed otherwise. If there is a schism, I understand that something dramatic has happened and distance is needed to repair the rift. But I cannot be so accepting when I haven't been informed that there was a schism to begin with, when I am laboring under the apparent misapprehension that I just haven't seen someone in a little while.

I get past problems, adolescent issues with their minor slights, and am vexed when I find the other party isn't. Partly I am vexed with them, but partly myself. I liked them enough to befriend them and, even if there appears some problem, I don't stop liking them. They are the same person they were before they made a poor comment or slighted me. Professional rejections mean I need to work on my writing and that is something I feel I can do with ease. But being told by extension that I suck at maintaining interpersonal relationships strikes me as harder.

I would do it, don't get me wrong. I just don't know how.

I am in a potentially difficult position in my life at this point. I work forty-five minutes away from my nearest close friend with whom I don't also share bodily fluids. Since moving in, Zack and Cristin have visited my Anemia apartment all of once. I prefer this, actually, as Anemia is no place for civilized people. I am willing to make the effort to drive to my friends whenever I am not on overnight duty.

One of the most threatening parts of this neurosis is that I cannot be sure if someone isn't calling me because there are involved in something else and it slips their minds or because they genuinely feel my friendship is no longer worth the effort. Unlike the critic from that magazine, they aren't giving me a sentence explaining why I am not up to snuff any longer.

Soon in Xenology: Rejection.

last watched: Dead Like Me
reading: Shadow of the Giant
listening: My Better Self

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Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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