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Writing in the Wilderness
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Tayari Jones's work-in-progress had been rejected by a dozen publishers, but she finished the novel anyway.

About three years ago, my agent contacted me to see how things were coming along with my new novel, SILVER SPARROW. I told her that is was going well and she asked me if I had a hundred clean pages that we could submit to publishers. I was very excited. Who wouldn’t want a new contract and the security (and ego boost) that would bring? She sent the pages out and... well... the manuscript was rejected all over town.

This left me in an unpleasant predicament. I had a manuscript that was about one-third through, and was said already to be unpublishable. I wasn’t sure if I should even bother to finish the novel. For months, I wrote nothing at all. It seemed pointless. My characters which I thought were so loveable and complicated had been undressed and shamed. (Some of the rejections were so pointed that I cried. One even suggested that I didn’t “understand fiction yet.”) And this was to be my third novel. I’ll spare you the suspense by telling you that SILVER SPARROW will be published in May by Algonquin and I could not be more delighted.

I am telling you this up front because this isn’t a success story. It’s a don’t-forget-who-you-are story.

After nearly a year of not writing, I decided that this manuscript was the real litmus test of me as both the person I believe myself to be and the writer that I say I am. I didn’t know if SILVER SPARROW would ever be published or not, but I knew that I owed it to myself and my characters to finish it.

Since I am always telling people that it’s process not product that matters, I decided to address myself the way I would talk to someone seeking advice. Would I urge anyone to abandon a story because it won’t be published? I would say to that person, "Since when does a New York publishing house control your mind, imagination, muse,and vision??" Then, I gave myself some tough love I started off forcing myself to reread the poor rejected 100 pages and then I forced myself to spend an hour a day chained to my chair and pushing the story forward. I also wrote in my journal like crazy trying to remember why it was that I wanted to write this novel. It was a tricky thing because I had to think of why I wanted to actually experience it as an author, not why I thought the book needed to be in the world.

What did I hope to get out of the process? Any reward would have to be in my own heart, because I had been pretty much assured that SILVER SPARROW wouldn’t see the light of day. Oddly enough, this “guaranteed rejection” freed me up.

I remembered what it was like when I was a young writer putting words down just to satisfy my own need to write. I started feeling my momentum coming back. I started talking to my friends about the characters as though they were actual people. I woke up every morning at 5am just to jot down some more words. When I started this reconnection effort, I felt like I was writing in the wilderness-- the forrest seemed scary and loaded with stinging insects and howling animals. But as I started getting back into my novel, I was still in the wilderness, but in the sense that I was hearing a call of the wild. I was writing something that had not been domesticated or learned it's place. It was an amazing experience.

My happy ending came for me the moment I finished my book—not the moment my agent called and said that more than one publisher was interested. I wrote that last scene and proved to myself that I am still a writer, which is for me, way more important than being a “published author.”

SheWriters -- do you have a story to share about when you had to write based on nothing but your own determination?

 

 

* This post was originally published in November 2010.

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Comments
  • Anjuelle Floyd

    "Since when does a New York publishing house control your mind, imagination, muse, and vision?"
    I will never forget this line.

    Thank you, Tayari, for sharing this story.

    I am also very touched that you gave Algonquin Press the opportunity to print and publish Silver Sparrow.
    I was born and raised in North Carolina, and although I graduated Duke, met my husband at the University of Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where Algonquin press is located.

    We all, as writers, like knowing that someone beyond us loves our writing, our story, our novel.
    And yet, as I recently heard an author say, "...we must all write as if none of our work will be discovered, read and/or published until we have died."

    With this as my guide I am free, much like you, Tayari, have described. Writing from the perspective that process is what matters most, liberates me to not only try new things, but venture in regions yet discovered in my imagination and that of my soul without fear of rejection, condemnation and incredible judgment, conviction and sentencing for being the person that I am.

    Thanks, so much again, Tayari, for taking the time to share your incredible truth with us.

    Peace and Blessings.

     


  • Nina Badzin

    Wow. Thank you for this. A story every writer needs to hear (and be reminded of) over and over.

  • Erika

    Thank you for this. I have returned to important characters and revised them a great deal and I am asking friends to read. The process has been the most important journey for me, to tell you the truth. Congratulations, I look forward to seeing the book at bookstores!

  • Surviving the Draft

    Thank you everyone for your warm responses to this story. While I really really learned something important about myself from that experience, I don't think I every want to be in that place again! I don't see myself EVER sending a tender little work-in-progress out into the world like that. Next time, I will send out the manuscript when is she all finished.

    Afterall, the next step is to FINISH THE BOOK. If the manuscript had been placed under contract, I would still have to FINISH THE BOOK.

    Getting those harsh responses to a half-finished book was a uniquely ouchie experience. I almost killed my SILVER SPARROW and I don't know why I was so hell bent on getting a contact. I am NOT a full time writer. I have a job that pays my basic bills and stuff. I think I was just happy with the 100 pages and wanted a pat on the head from The Industry.

    Silly silly rabbit.

    Never again.

  • Nonqaba waka Msimang

    Xenia second novel? Will i ever get there? Good luck. I hope publishers like it.
    www.sweetnessthenovel.com

  • Karima Grant

    Am in this right now, and you Tayari Jones are a Godsend. My internal critic IS/are all those naysayer publishers and whatnot, but the beat of the story I am writing is about me and what i believe. Feeling you on that happy moment as well. Headed down the last pages of the draft and I am in euphoria because it is my story.

  • Nonqaba waka Msimang

    Rejected? No problem Tayari. It's an occupational hazard! It's all about you and what you believe in.
    www.sweetnessthenovel.com

  • Miriam Ferguson

    Great timing, since this summer I've come to realize it is the process. Thanks again, let me delete that cute little quote (ugh), it wasn't in the process.....Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Marwa Elnaggar

    Beautiful story, Tayari. Right now I'm in the middle (ok, well, first 20%) of my first novel, and the thing I look forward to is the next scene, the next chapter, the climax, the ending. If I finish this story, which has been blooming and blossoming in my mind for a year and a half now, I will be happy. Actually, I'll be deliriously happy. What's more fulfilling and satisfying than writing your heart out and telling the stories inside you?

  • Linda Chavis

    I look forward to reading the book !

  • Karen Burns

    Wow. Really an amazing story. I tell writer friends all the time that it's "process not product" but have never been sure if they, or I, really believed it. You showed that it's not just something we tell ourselves so we can get out of bed in the morning. It's real. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • XENIA RUIZ

    Your words came at the moment I needed them as I wait anxiously to hear from 2 publishers about my 2nd novel...I'm worrying they're going to say, "it's a midlist book at best" (which the first publishers said years ago when my agent first submitted it...I didn't even know what that meant, but I knew it didn't mean bestseller)...or they may tell me to revise it, as one publisher suggested & I refused, knowing it would alter the whole story...my happy ending came when I e-mailed it off with a prayer...publishing is just icing on the cake.

  • M. Carlson Davis

    Thanks for writing this story. I'm collecting rejections on my YA novel, even though one editor said it "left her breathless" and pitched it to her team who passed because they believed it to be too "introspective." I still believe in it and my agent believes in it, but it is hard to keep going and to keep working on my next novel when so many people are saying "no." I'll watch for Silver Sparrow!

  • Trelawney Goodell Fulton

    I'm going to bookmark this for when I start sending out my writing. Right now, it is all for me. But the thought of trying to get published looms up ahead. I love the insight of your experience. And the reminder that writers write because we have something to express - not because we are able to write something that is marketable.

  • Amy Ferris

    oh.....wow. amazing. HAPPY THANKSGIVING. thank you for sharing this! how powerful & glorious & a reminder - a huge reminder - to be women of unlimited self-esteem.
    THANK YOU TAYARI!

  • Michelle Wonsley

    Thank you so much for reminding us of the difference between 'writing' and 'publishing'. "Without vision, the people perish." Write on, Ms. Jones and happy thanksgiving.

  • As with cooking, the joy is as much in the preparation as in the eating!

  • Jacquette M. Timmons

    Many thanks for sharing a piece of your journey, and for the reminder: It's about the process! Have a great Thanksgiving!

  • Patricia A. McGoldrick

    Well Tayari, the timing couldn't be better. I just found out that my poetry chapbook manuscript has been rejected after 6 months. Your article is encouraging to keep on trying!
    Patricia

  • Carleen

    I'm in a very similar boat now Tayari, so a profound thank-you for this! And I know many others are facing a similar situation. Most think that once you get published the road clears for you in a way that it just does not for most of us. Getting published is one thing. Staying published is another. But writing, telling the story I want to tell, should always be the goal. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Eugenia Kim

    This bit of wisdom is absolutely perfect timing for me. Thank you.

  • Teri Carter

    Thanks, Tayari, for the inspiration! I wish more published writers would share this kind of real-life story. I had a similar experience this year. I've been working on a book for 4 years that I swore I would finish by this Fall. Come July, I still --- STILL! --- only had 25K words! So I forgot it was summer and stuck myself into a corner cubicle of the local library every single day until October. It worked. The book is finished. And most of all, I proved to myself that I could do it.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Precious Williams

    What an utterly wonderful piece! I am really looking forward to reading "Silver Sparrow"