I dipped another toe in the literary pool yesterday by meeting with a professional editor. Her office is on the fifth floor of a renovated Presbyterian Church in the financial district of Richmond. It was tidy with a love seat that matches our own living room furniture. My Hallmark Channel side took it as a sign I was in the right place.

Over the years I’ve had friends and family read stories I’ve written. The responses have been predictably positive because those people seem to like me for some peculiar reason. But my notion of “John Duffy-Writer” is not a popularity contest or even an ego-stroking love fest by my peoples. My goal is “John Duffy-Best Writer he can be”. My excuses–ignorance, Army, Marriage, Children, Money, Career, starting college, finishing college–were either memories, supportive, or over. In order to push that vision forward I had to endure several Negative views of my work. In a practical sense, I know Writers face rejection more than approval, meaning my history of approval was more a sign of my adolescent fears than my creative abilities.

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In the summer of 1985 I picked up a part-time job at a little restaurant in Crewe, Virginia. A now deceased friend, Timmy, was hired as well. The still living man who owned the place was showing us how to make the Pizza sauce. While half-way listening to his instructions I put in too much salt. The Dead Sea level of too much salt. Timmy laughed mentioning something about my getting fired on the first day. The man, who I still refer to as “Sir” or “Mr. Breeden”, responded with this approximate quote.
“Hey, you can’t screw up if you just stand there and watch.”
Directed at Timmy, the comment still resonates in the rubber room of my mind.

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I think Writers should focus on their thoughts, ideas, and emotions when writing. I think Editors should focus on the Reader’s thoughts, ideas, and emotions when reading. All of my submissions to magazines returned rejection letter signatures. My inquiries to Literary Agencies resulted in virtual yawns. I’ve endured impersonal, negative feedback. I wasn’t standing around watching someone else make mistakes. But those could be rationalized.
“I sent it to the wrong mag.”
“They get too many submissions to really, really, really read my stories.”

I sent a story over to the editor via email three days before the meeting. I was nervous as hell when I walked in. Part of who I am was sitting on her desk covered in penciled slashes and question marks. Great. Hand me some more salt. She was a pleasant person with a soft-spoken demeanor and shoes too big for her ankles.

We talked for two hours about my short stories, novel ideas, editing needs, and finally, the story I’d sent over. I prefer blunt realism to dulled emotionalism. Apparently, she only knows blunt realism. She was honest but not brutal.

I detached my emotions from the writing so I would avoid the histrionic responses she later told me many writers bring to editing sessions. Perhaps praise is easiest from friends and critique is easiest from strangers. I don’t know.

If you write because you can’t help it, then you need to get rejected more often. Call it the clichéd baptism by fire if you wish. There is no need for sadomasochism but let people know you want the bloodied thorns, not just the plastic roses. If all you receive are plastic roses, find different people.

When I left we had agreed to work together.
My story needed revision in several spots but overall wasn’t bad.
I hadn’t paid a dime for the bloodied thorns.
As I walked to my car holding my manuscript I got the same goofy look on my face I did when I got my rejection letters and agency responses.
It was a look of amused disapproval. I knew I was a little closer.
This was a bit more of the water in which I wanted to swim.
I thought about that day in 1985.

I’m glad I didn’t stand there and watch.

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