Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No Means...Keep Writing?

Another day, another rejection letter.

To outsiders, writers may seem masochistic. Not only do we spend hours and hours working on material, we then send it out into the world to be criticized and rejected. Sometimes it’s sucked into a void and you never hear from the recipient. Ever. You wonder…did this theater even receive my play? Did their Literary Manager suddenly die? Did they hate my play so much there are no words that can be put into a letter or email?

I’ve worked in literary offices, one of them a well-respected and quite busy Off-Broadway house, so I know that sometimes it takes up to six or eight months to respond. This is not unusual. However, there are some theatres where it’s been a year and a half before I heard anything. By that time, what’s the point of sending a letter? I got over the rejection six months ago and then suddenly I get this letter that says, “Hey, just in case you didn’t figure out by now…we don’t want your play…” Gee, thanks.

This past week I have gotten not one, but three letters of rejection. One of them was from my blind submission to a theatre company in Berkeley, another was from a friend running a short play festival in Cleveland (and believe it or not it was more impersonal then the one in Berkeley…) and the other was the Bluecat Screenwriting Competition. Now, the latter wasn’t really a rejection as much as my script didn’t move on past the 10% to the semifinalist circle.

When I worked at this highly-respected Off-Broadway theater, one of my jobs was to write three different yet distinctly pleasant rejection letters that said:

1) Please don’t ever send us anything again…ever
2) Please understand your play is good but won’t work for us and we hope you keep writing
3) Please forgive us for not doing this play now but keep sending us more of your work.

You may notice there’s no letter saying, “Please let us do your play”. That’s because this was a member theater company which did only so many shows a year, many of the slots filled by the ensemble members (of which there were over a hundred or so, including several recognized and brilliant playwrights). There were many wonderful plays that we just couldn’t do. Sometimes we could squeeze people in for a staged reading, but not often.

This is not rare in the theatre world, especially with companies doing new work, and it gives me perspective on the whole rejection thing. I know that it is not a reflection on my talent, on the play, or on the theater company’s tastes. There are many factors involved. Literary Managers are usually swamped and under-staffed (as well as under-paid). And they don’t make final decisions of who does what plays—that job goes to the Artistic Director who may just want to do Hamlet so he can cast his new young girlfriend as Ophelia. It’s just like auditioning—sometimes the best actor in the world is still wrong for the part. An actor perfect for Stanley Kowalski is probably not right for King Lear.

But still…when I see my name and the words “not at this time” or “sorry, but…”…it messes with me. It jabs at my psyche and pokes at my confidence. Just ask my wife, Lisa, who must deal with my ups and downs of acceptance/rejection. I start to feel like the only person I’m writing plays for is my self. Of course, this isn’t true. I have had many productions, won awards, and been published. People have read or seen my plays and told me they’ve liked them and I have no reason to believe they were lying. But these successes disappear under the shadow of a rejection. I mean, seriously, why can’t everyone like my work? I tell myself not everyone likes Samuel Beckett. Not everyone gets Pinter. Some people can’t watch Chekhov or Shakespeare. I tell myself that Van Gogh never sold a painting. This, however, does not comfort me because I don’t like being poor. Besides, I don’t want to be Van Gogh. I want to be a writer who gets produced and possibly paid once in awhile, not when I’m dead, but now, while I’m still alive to enjoy some of the royalties. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

So I mope. And I mope some more. Sometimes I even do say, “no one understands my work…” But luckily I don’t mope for too long…well, not forever, that is…I probably wouldn’t mope as long as I do if my wife wasn’t so pleasantly understanding. She really should just slap me and say, “Dennis, stop being a crybaby, just shut up and deal with it”. Gary Garrison, a great writer and teacher was at a party once and complaining to some old lesbian all his woes and she quickly retorted, “Honey, no one asked you to be a writer”. I love that. This is my choice. I don’t have to write (and trust me, I have thought about quitting many, many times…). Ultimately, this idea hits me and I get back to work. This past weekend I wrote two short plays for a Mamet competition for a local theater. They’re very fun and funny (I think so, anyway). But I know this theater company is looking for a late night mix of short plays—will my plays fit into the mix? I have no idea. I can’t know. But I was glad to write them nonetheless. I’ll send it off and wait to hear from them. Maybe they’ll get back to me. Maybe not. I keep working just the same.

Craig Lucas said “the act of writing is an act of hope”. Writers are about nurturing potential. Every person we meet is a potential character. Every idea is a potential play. Every play sent out is a potential opportunity. And every rejection letter is a potential contact to which you should submit again.

So I save my rejection letters in a little pile and I notate it in my spreadsheet which tracks what I’ve sent out and to who. Then I keep writing.

Because that’s what I do…I’m a writer.

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