The Irrational Optimism of Writers:

And why this particular form of insanity is a good thing

On a career day school visit a number of years ago—long before I was published—I described the process of becoming a writer to a group of middle-school students. When I had finished, and opened the session to questions, one young man said to me, “If I’d written that many books, and been rejected that many times, I’d quit.” To which I replied, “You’re probably smart—but you’ll never be a writer.”

The first of my novels to be published was the fifth novel I had written—by the time it sold, I was working on novel thirteen. It took me seventeen years, writing seriously, for publication, before my first sale. So when I was asked to speak at a writers’ workshop on the subject of persistence, of how I had kept myself hoping and working for so long, I should have had a better answer than, “Damned if I know.”

Yes, there are things I can say at that workshop. I can quote the keynote speaker at a long ago writers’ conference, and I praise my incredibly supportive writers’ group, but the truth is… “Damned if I know.”

If someone had told me, over twenty years ago now, that I’d write for seventeen years (and thirteen complete novels!) without even knowing whether or not I’d achieve my goal, or make any money at all, I’d have said they were crazy. I’m not a masochist—really. So why did I, and why do any of us, persist at this?

Let’s face it—once you’ve been around the field for a year or two, you know the odds. You know that of the thousands of novels submitted to publishers each year, there are only a handful—a scant handful—of places on their lists for new authors. If you hang around a few more years you learn the rest of the depressing statistics: how many novelist publish one or two books and then sink into obscurity. That it’s often harder to sell your second novel than your first. That over ninety percent of the people who list themselves as writers on their income tax returns earn an income from writing that is below the poverty level.

Maybe we are masochists.

I’d been mulling this over—I have to talk about something at that workshop, after all—then one of my writers’ group comrades made a comment… We’d been talking about rejection (with me mostly keeping my mouth shut, for once) about the grinding effort of sending something out and out and out, and slow editorial response times, and downright rude rejection letters—fortunately rare, but when we get one, we talk about it. Then my insightful friend said, “If we weren’t all irrationally optimistic, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

And I realized that she was absolutely right.

Every picture book, every novel I ever wrote, from the first to the thirteenth was The One that was going to sell. When I wrote, rewrote, and sent them out, I was absolutely certain that this one had a chance. And perhaps we shouldn’t complain so much about those long editorial response times, because by the time one novel had been rejected everywhere, the next novel was written and almost ready to try its luck. And no matter what my brain said, in my heart I knew that this would be The One.

Irrational? Absolutely.

But without that irrational, delusional optimism, I wouldn’t have five novels in print, four more delivered to my publishers and six more under contract.

Maybe writers are masochists—maybe we have to be. Because without that absurd, beat-the-odds-this-time optimism, I don’t think any of us would last long enough to get published.

Earlier, I mentioned the keynote speaker at that long ago writer’s conference who inspired me. She gave a stirring speech, with graceful, literary quotations from Goethe and the movie, Field of Dreams. Then, near the end of her speech, she said, “The ones who have been published are the ones who didn’t quit.”

I’ve long since lost my copies of the graceful, literary quotations— I only vaguely remember them. But that final stripped-down, rock-bottom statement has stuck in my head from that day to this. I offer it to you now, in the hopes it will fuel your own, irrational optimism: The ones who have been published are the ones who didn’t quit.

Winter 2004

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