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Self-Talk: Short Stories, Novellas, Rejection

So I was having a rough day the other week. I’d received a short story rejection that really stung. No matter how often you submit—no matter how thick your skin gets—there’s always the odd one that still hurts. Funnily enough, the angst hit worse a few days after the actual rejection. I’m not sure what the trigger was, but it sparked a whole slew of thoughts, which I now present in the form of a dialogue.

“The Conversation,” Eastman Johnson (1879).

ME:                 I’m never selling anything ever again.

ALSO ME:      You just sold a piece to Augur.

ME:                 But I’m not selling anything else.  I’m a has-been before I was even an is.

ALSO ME:      Why do you say that?

ME:                 Everyone else is selling short fiction.

ALSO ME:      Who’s everyone?

ME:                 People on Twitter.

ALSO ME:      So what? You’ve had a good year career-wise. You have an agent!

ME:                 Yeah. That’s good.

ALSO ME:      You had a story come out!

ME:                 Yeah.

ALSO ME:      You SOLD a story. To Augur. You love Augur.

ME:                 Yeah.

ALSO ME:      So what’s the problem?

ME:                 I don’t sell many stories.

ALSO ME:      Why is that important to you?

ME:                 Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You sell short stories, and then people start to know you, and then you sell a novel.

ALSO ME:      That’s what you’re supposed to do. I see. Says who?

ME:                 People.

ALSO ME:      Is that what [WRITER FRIEND] did?

ME:                 …no.

ALSO ME:      And is [WRITER FRIEND] still doing well?

ME:                 …yes.

ALSO ME:      Okay, what about [OTHER WRITER FRIEND]? Do they write much short fiction?

ME:                 No.

ALSO ME:      And does everyone still love them and think they’re an awesome writer?

ME:                 Yes…

ALSO ME:      So it is possible that short fiction is not an absolute prerequisite?

ME:                 Fine, yes. But what if I’m just not good enough?

ALSO ME:      (Deep breath) Okay. Look. You know that’s not the only thing. It’s budget. It’s personal taste versus the publication’s aesthetic. It’s balancing out the stories they bought three months ago. It’s balancing out the stories they’re buying three months from now. It’s publicity. It’s “OMG I love this story like I love every puppy in the shelter but I can only adopt two and my heart is breaking but I still have to leave this one behind.”

ME:                 …

ALSO ME:      Can I make an observation?

ME:                 Go for it.

ALSO ME:      Generally speaking, your writing does best when you don’t give a f*ck—when you just write whatever makes you happy. Six Stories, for example. Angst-ridden friendship and fairy tales and a ridiculous metanarrative structure? Who does that?  YOU do.

Or, okay, Beer Magic. Queer ladies—magic beer—Toronto history—you literally just combined your six favourite words and that’s what finally worked.

This is true of your short fiction, too. Most of the stories you’ve sold were about things that make you angry.

ME:                 I’m not sure I’m comfortable using anger as my main motivation.

ALSO ME:      Yeah, that’s another conversation. The point is, the stuff you feel like you “should” write? Yeah. That tends not to fly. But the stuff that matters to you…that does well.

Let me ask you a question. If you could write anything right now, what would you write?

ME:                 That Southern Gothic fairy tale novella.

ALSO ME:      Then why the f*ck are you beating your head against the wall with short stories?

ME:                I can’t just write whatever I want! I have to think about my career!

ALSO ME:      Okay, great. Think about your career. When Kim-Mei’s done with Beer Magic, then what? You’ve got to have something on deck. Why not this novella?

ME:                 Um.

ALSO ME:       It’s okay. It’s okay to focus on something else for a bit. It’s okay to explore other avenues. It keeps you nimble.

ME:                I know.

#

Then I sold a story to Lightspeed three hours later. Even so, I still want to write this novella?

Everyone says, “There’s no one way to have a writing career,” but we all have our own blocks and unconscious beliefs. Part of me feels really guilty that I haven’t written much short fiction lately…

…but where is the guilt coming from?

I’m not sure. But I think this novella’s calling louder than anything else right now. Maybe it’s time to listen.

KT

What I’m Listening to this Week

Ah, Louise Pitre, I love your music so dearly. It is sad and heartfelt and jazzy.

Let’s Talk

So. Today is Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” Day.

Mental health is important to me. That means that today, I’m going to be talking about some uncomfortable stuff. It’s uncomfortable for me, too—sharing on the great wide interwebz. If you don’t feel that this is a topic for you, this is the time to stop reading. It’s ok, I’m not offended. I’ll see you next time.

Still with me?

Ok.

This is a topic that tends to get swept under the rug, alluded to with vague euphemisms, or avoided altogether. And yet, it’s so, so important, especially for creative-types. Research shows that we are much more likely to experience mental health issues than the general population, but the fact remains that they’re prevalent even in the general population.

Issues with mental health are not a sign of weakness. They are not a sign that you are “crazy.” They are not indicative of any failing. They can and do happen to anyone.

And yet there is this stigma. While it is perhaps better than it was even earlier in my lifetime, it is nowhere near gone. And so, the majority suffer in silence. The silence makes everything worse. Trust me, it does. The lack of understanding from other people, the intense fear and shame at carrying this “secret,” the loneliness and isolation…

So, let’s talk.

I have anxiety.

That probably surprises a grand total of absolutely no one. While I manage it a lot better than I used to, I’m sure everyone at school and work has seen me in the grip of an anxious flare-up at least once—those few moments of sheer panic before I can get things under control again. Or, they’ve seen the more subtle manifestations. For as long as I can remember, my biggest issue in social situations has been initiating contact. As my family puts it, I can’t say, “Can I play, too?” I find it very, very difficult to say, “Hey, can I get a ride?” “Hey, wanna grab coffee?” “Hey, let’s catch a movie.” Even if I know the person well. Even if I know the answer is likely to be “yes” (this is where I really appreciate my friends who understand my quirks…and then make me get over them).

I have had depression.

For years, I suffered largely in silence. Hapax was essentially me clawing my way out of the darkness. I needed to prove to myself that light could win, that the rigid, self-loathing thoughts were wrong. I needed to see that the Seraph could beat the Angel.

And she does. Repeatedly.

Am I better? Yes. Yes, I am better, and I know I would not be without a metric shit-tonne of hard work on my part, and even more understanding, love, and support from the people around me.

Am I cured?

No. The anxiety is just part of day-to-day life. I’m aware of it, aware of the need to manage it. It’s almost like asthma: knowing you should carry a puffer and avoid triggers. As for the depression…I view it as being “in remission.” Just like cancer, you can be symptom-free and utterly functional, with no trace of the disease left in your body.

Except you always know it might come back.

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you had the one bout, and that’s it.

But you always know it might come back, and so you monitor it for the rest of your life.

Now one other thing: and this makes people really uncomfortable.

Grief.

Grief is hard. There’s no way around that one. Grief is hard, and not just on the person experiencing it. Like ripples in a pond, it affects people across that person’s life. People never know how to respond to it. If I had a penny for every time someone’s told me, “I don’t know what to say,” I would have a very large pile of useless metal.

Here’s the thing, though. There is no right or wrong answer in grief. Ok, the cop telling me, “Oh, you’re so young!” at the hospital, steps away from the gurney, was not terribly helpful. Neither was the person who cheerfully asked me at the visitation if I was “on Christmas vacation yet?”

Aside from those things: love, really, is all that matters. Anything said with love is helpful. Anything done with love is helpful. Some people simply texted, “Thinking of you.” I have a wonderful card filled with variations on, “I’m sorry.” Simple, simple messages, but each one was like a hug. Each one reminded me that people care.

Grief doesn’t make sense. It isn’t logical. It has no set pattern. Emotions swing wildly minute to minute. What was triggering today is comforting tomorrow, and vice versa. It takes time. And yes, all of that is hard on the people surrounding the bereaved. After all, the grieving person is volatile, irrational, preoccupied. Supporting them as they work through it requires so much patience and strength. Believe me, I know, and I am so grateful for everyone who’s stood by me.

Too often, I think, we shut down negative emotions. We try to keep them inside, for fear of being a burden, or for fear that people will grow tired of us. Certainly, I’ve noticed that tendency in myself. This is the most I’ve talked about it in a long, long time. At the same time, I don’t want my sadness and my tragedy to be the defining characteristic of me and my interactions with people. That’s not fair to them (I sometimes wonder if people are themselves grieving, mourning the old, pre-loss Katie), and it’s not healthy for me.

And yes, there have been people who have been unable to cope. I have lost friends through this. I don’t think there’s much that hurts worse. Someone you valued so much, turning their back in your most vulnerable moment, partly because it’s your most vulnerable moment…it hurts so very much, because it’s just loss heaped up on loss. (Please don’t freak out and wonder if I’m talking about you. If you’re reading this right now, I can almost guarantee it’s NOT you.)

But it just makes us treasure those who remain even more highly. Again, all things done with love. Sitting with someone. Going for coffee. Talking and laughing and pretending things are normal for a few hours. Even folding laundry and grocery shopping.

None of it—grief, depression, anxiety—are really comprehensible, not if you haven’t experienced it, and often not to the person in the midst of it. But in the end, what matters is that we have compassion. We hope for the strength to speak, and listen, and love. My own personal reserves of emotion are very low right now. But they won’t be forever, and I pray that in future, I can show the same love to others that has been shown to me.

That can’t happen in silence. This is about reaching out. Reach out to me, to friends, to family, to professionals. Accept that it doesn’t make sense, and that there might not be an answer. Have faith that eventually, it will get better.

And love. That’s the most important thing of all.

I’m glad we talked.

– KT

PS. LINKS

Kids Help Phone: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx

Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/find-help/

Centre for Suicide Prevention: http://suicideinfo.ca/

Mental Health America: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/help

American Crisis Hotlines: http://suicidehotlines.com/national.html

British Mental Health Infoline: http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines

Mental Health Council of Australia Helplines: http://www.mhca.org.au/index.php/help

New Zealand Ministry of Health: http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics/health-care-services/mental-health-services

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand Resource Finder: http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/resourcefinder/listings/resource/73/support-groups/#content-222