If you read my first post on this blog, you know that I spent most of college in some sort of purgatory between English and Creative Writing. I took many, many English classes and I took a lot of creative writing classes (it was a much smaller department and the classes didn’t count toward many English requirements).
I’m not going to rehash the background more than this bare-bones summation: I went to a college where everyone had to spend a year writing an undergraduate thesis and anybody wishing to write one in a creative capacity had to be approved by a committee. I did not get approved.
Before I continue, everything worked out fine. I liked working on my analytical thesis. I got a lot of praise for it, which I embrace to varying degrees because of my staggering inferiority complex (which could be a whole whiny memoir unto itself, so I will spare you). I had a fabulous thesis adviser. I even got grant money to go to a literary conference in Texas.
The day Renegade Word went live, Julie and I were promoting my first article and she came up with the tagline “Lauren on post-traumatic thesis disorder.” Our shared reaction was, “WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THIS BEFORE??” One of my friends offered that he had also heard the post-graduation inability to read called “thesis post-partum.” I definitely had Post-Partum Thesis Depression. But I feel more lasting effects from the specter of the unrealized creative thesis. I can enjoy and finish novels again. Writing fiction is still hard for me and I’m going to open the wound.
September 2010: One of my very good friends did get approved that year (and when she read her amazing work at the end of the year, people were moved to tears). She called me out of the library to check my email since she had heard of her own approval. I used her computer to check my email. After twenty minutes and approximately four thousand refreshes, we went to my mailbox, where I found my rejection letter.
I did not take the rejection well. I Kübler-Ross’d hardcore. Every stage of the process involved me crying. I cried in front of my boss, who happened to be in the hallway where the mailboxes are. My friend immediately whisked me away to a poorly-lit bar where I continued to cry all afternoon (I am infinitely grateful for that, by the way). I cried to my friends and to my mother and I wouldn’t get out of bed for all of Labor Day weekend. I emailed my creative writing professor (had he not been on sabbatical, I may have gotten what I’d worked for), a high school teacher, and the creative writing mentor from my teen years. I got a tarot reading over Gchat. I cast the Yi Ching. Both said I’d get through it and have a positive experience no matter what. The only goal I’d worked toward for my entire college career had been denied just days before, so of course I thought, Thanks for nothing, supernatural forces.
When I had my first meeting with my thesis adviser, I met one of my professors in the hallway and started to cry when I told her what had happened. I took breaks during my first week of school to leave the library and cry in my car. It was not dignified.
The committee allowed appeals, which are granted even less often than creative theses. I appealed partially hoping they would sincerely give me another fair chance but mostly just to waste as much of their time as possible. Others like me also appealed. The committee didn’t budge on any decisions. One committee member told me in an email something like “living well is the best revenge!” or even worse “writing well is the best revenge!” I was sure I’d preserved the email, but I cannot find it. No matter what it said or where it is, I still want to punch this email in the face.
Obviously, to not embrace the “acceptance” phase of the Kübler-Ross Model would have involved creating a very elaborate psychic delusion. Even if I’d wanted to do this, I did not have time to. I threw myself into my work and uneasily accepted my fate. I had a job as a cashier in the campus bookstore, so I would have to sell things to creative thesis committee members. If I managed eye contact, I certainly couldn’t smile. When they’d say, “I have books for pick-up,” I wanted to say, “Oh yeah? Tough shit.”
Most of the time, I don’t even mention my dalliance with Creative Thesis. I’m still embarrassed. I have a line that usually closes the subject: “Well, I had to pay the same tuition as everybody else, I just didn’t get to write the thesis I wanted to write.” I’m not proud of the residual bitterness. But in my mind, it will always be a lost opportunity. It will be a year of my life where I did not get the chance to do creative work in a one-on-one environment. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was the only dream I had.
I didn’t write creatively for a whole year in school. I have also never finished any fiction since my application was rejected. I have ideas, but when I try to follow them I think about how trivial they sound or how I’m not good enough to pull them off. I remember the email. I remember that I couldn’t even get four people interested in what I might have to write. I remember I’m a year behind—no wait, I’m two years behind. I think of rejection letters that say “writing well is the best revenge.” I stop working.
I read that James Joyce did not write a word for a full year after finishing Ulysses. I take comfort in this until I remember that he is James Joyce and I am not. Or, as Eric Bulson writes in The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce:
When Joyce finished writing Ulysses, he was not sure what to do next. He had exhausted the English language, revolutionized the form of the novel, and inserted himself forcefully into the annals of literary history. (91)
In other words, the comparison between me and James Joyce ends at “did not write a word for a full year.”
I know rejection is a part of the writing process. I feel like a wimp for letting it bother me so much. I think that if I fall apart like that every time I have a submission rejected, maybe my skin isn’t thick enough to take writing seriously. Maybe I don’t take it seriously. But it’s the only thing I’ve ever stuck with besides reading, for better or for worse, for hobby or for ambition. I keep trying anyway, and I will keep trying until I get sick of it. Or until I have a breakthrough and I won’t have to try anymore. Then I’ll just do it. (Evidently, Yoda was not a writer of fiction.)
Author’s note: I wrote this piece in August or September and since that time I have managed to finish a draft of a piece of fiction I had been working on intermittently all summer. I still have a long way to go, but it is getting better!
Share your creative slumps here. Are you still slumped? Did you vanquish it? How? Fair warning: I may try to steal your vanquishing strategies.