Every Monday during the month of July we will share our pages with Kerri Majors, author of This is Not a Writing Manual; Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World, and Editor of YARN, an award-winning literary journal of short-form YA writing. This first post is a complete excerpt from her newly published book exclusively for Polyphony H.S.
This is Not a Writing Manual is now available in print and ebook formats from amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes. To find out more about Kerri, click here.
In Fact, Sometimes it Will Downright Suck
By the time I was a senior in high school, I thought of myself as something of a writing stud. Though I still played flute in the band, I’d basically given up practicing, devoting the time I’d once spent on music to words. I was Editor-in-Chief of the school paper, a position for which I wrote articles and editorials, and I had friends who actually wanted to read my stuff, people who thought of me as “the writer.” I aced the classes that required papers. But the main reason for my high opinion of myself was my track record in Speech and Debate, specifically OPP (Original Prose and Poetry).
What I didn’t mention in my Speech primer in “Feedback” is that the OPPers were always a motley crew, full of speechies who performed in other categories as well, largely because you could only compete in OPP in the state of California, and you couldn’t advance to Nationals in it. In OPP, you’d find suited debaters with a penchant for stand-up comedy, Dramatic Interpreters (DIers) who aspired to write movies, and artistes like me who wanted to be novelists when they grew up. As a result, you found every kind of writing in OPP—funny, sad, purple, boring—which was a point of much discussion among my peers and me. How could the judges (mostly parents and locals who volunteered their time on Saturdays) possibly compare a sad tale of abuse or short-lived romance to the hilarious adventures of a talking refrigerator? Humor almost always won the day.
This made my own success with non-funny stories all the more impressive, if I do say so myself. In my three best years, I wrote about a girl who has to choose between a bullied male friend and a love interest, a boy who brings paintings to life, and a shadow that talks to a girl in a forest.
It all started my freshman year, when I placed with the top OPPers in my region, my ticket to the state tournament. This was a big deal. Few freshmen in any category got to State, and I knew I’d booted out some upperclassmen to get where I was going. I did reasonably well at State, but for me that year, it wasn’t about how well I did once I was there, it was about just being there—partly because I’d had to convince my parents to let me go at all. They didn’t love the idea of little fourteen-year-old me going anywhere where senior boys would be present, let alone college boys. But my coach did a great job of convincing them that he’d take good care of me, and I went. What I mainly remember from those spring days was floating around in a state of hoarse-throated euphoria, performing my own story and talking to other OPPers about writing and college and movies.
My sophomore year…I can’t remember. How strange. You probably won’t remember sophomore year, either. You’re not a freshman anymore, but you’re also not a junior or senior. You’re sort of nobody. Let’s skip ahead. Speech-wise, I know I did well, though better with oratory than with OPP, I think.
My junior year, I was hot stuff. On fire, really. I placed in the top of almost every competition with my story of a boy who brought paintings to life. Every year in each speech category, there is a Force to Be Reckoned With. That year, it was me. I went to State—of course. And at State, I went all the way to the semifinal round, where, I would later discover, I almost made it into the finals.
Still. People talked about my writing that year. When I wasn’t around, people were saying things like, “Did you hear the one about the boy and the paintings? It’s good. Watch out. Hope you don’t get in a round with her.” Of course, I also had critics, those who didn’t like my use of the supernatural or thought my presentation was a bit flat. But whether I was receiving praise or criticism, people were talking. I had an audience.
And okay, I didn’t make it to the final round of State that year. But I had one year left. Senior year. The year I was going to get what was coming to me.
I had a bumpy start with a story I knew wasn’t as good as the previous one. But then I wrote The Story, a fairy tale about a girl who befriends a shadow in a forest.
You know that tingle you get in your back when you’re writing something you know is really good?
Yeah, well. I tingled the whole time I wrote that one.
My OPP friends from other schools brushed tears from their eyes when they first heard me perform it.
I had State in the bag. I was The Force.
I’m sure you know what’s coming. Want to check the title of this chapter again?
I didn’t even place in the finals at State qualifications.
The results were always tacked up on a wall where everyone goes to check them, in varying states of trepidation. I was a little nervous, but nothing like previous years when I’d been less sure of my talent.
Then I read the list.
And I read it again.
My friends looked from me to the list in disbelief.
A hot flush of tears rushed to my eyes.
My coach swooped over and pulled me aside.
“You have to put on a good face for the little ones,” he said. “They are going to look to you to be happy for them and also show them how to be gracious.”
Yeah, a gracious loser.
Suffice it to say, I was not at all concerned about the little ones.
I managed to give the requisite congratulatory hugs and receive the perfunctory condolences and outrage (“The judges were really stupid this year, you wouldn’t believe who made it in DI,” etc., etc., etc.). And then I broke away and found a sunny spot on the playing fields, and cried.
My first real rejection. A rejection of something I loved, that I believed in and had worked hard for. This was worse than the time I lost a middle school short story competition to a peer who actually used the phrase “like a cheetah about to pounce on its prey,” (which I knew even then was hackneyed and cliché), because—wait for it—the judges suspected that I might not have written my own story. Which, of course, I had.
Had I been overconfident in my four years of OPP?
Had I not been sensitive enough to the little ones?
Had I deserved to win?
But. I had gone to State as a freshman and a junior. I had been The Force. Those things were still true.
Was I still mad? Hurt? Angry?
Did I spend the next months cursing those judges?
Was I bitter for a long time?
Oh, yeah. (It’s almost twenty years later—don’t you hear the bitterness?)
Did I hate every moment of clapping for my friends at the awards ceremony later that day?
Hate, hate, hate!
Would I go back and change the outcome if I could?
This was the moment I learned that writers rarely get what they deserve, a lesson I’m so glad I learned early because it meant that I would be able to put all the rejections and disappointments that laid ahead into perspective.
Do you know how many rejections I’ve withstood since then day? Hundreds. Rejections from literary journals for stories that I’d written, workshopped, and rewritten multiple times. Rejections from agents and editors for novels I’d spent years writing. The only writing rejection that’s ever rivaled that one my senior year was when an editor at a big publishing house met with me in person, asked for a revision of my novel, and then rejected the revision.
Surviving that first huge disappointment braced me. Not only have all the subsequent rejections stung a little less (being rejected is a little like getting dumped in that way—the first time is often the worst), time has shown me that life, and writing, goes on.
I know, I’m starting to sound all goopy and spiritual, and I promised I wasn’t going to do that. But I’m not making this up. And remember—I still haven’t published a novel, so I know what I’m talking about when it comes to rejection. I still suffer from rejection, but I have a little perspective now: Birds still sing, coffee still tastes good, great books and movies still thrill me, and I still have more stories inside me waiting to be told.
The first time it happens to you, go ahead and wallow in it. Eat the ice cream, throw the darts, scream in your room. Nothing I say is going to make it hurt any less. Then, take this book off your shelf, reread this chapter, and pat yourself on the back.
You’re a member of the club, Writer. Don’t let the haters get you down. Remember how you got into this mess in the first place: Writing is the only thing you can imagine yourself doing.
Go do it.
As Dorothy Parker put it, “Writing well is the best revenge.”