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Slush Pile Code

Warning.  This is not an inspirational post for the faint of heart.

I believe in the slush pile.  It’s one of the purest forms of meritocracy left to us.  You don’t get credit for effort.  It doesn’t count that your work shows promise.  It doesn’t matter that your teacher gave it an A or that you earned your MFA. The slush pile makes no apologies and accepts no excuses: if your manuscript isn’t good enough, it doesn’t get out of the pile.

The clear simplicity of this is not always happy to accept.  On a different snowy January night, three months before I turned 30, I hit a low point that saw me sitting on the kitchen floor, my back against the stove, crying into my snotty sleeves.  I’d been writing seriously for eight years.  I was teaching adult ed and raising kids with my husband who was then in his post-doc.  I had one romance to my publishing credit, just enough that it stuck in my relatives’ heads so they could always ask cheerily how the writing was going. I’d found an agent through a grad school connection, so I thought I was out of the slush pile, but when she sent around my literary novel for me, it was rejected.  I wrote another literary novel and she sent that one around.  That one was rejected, too.  My agent wished me the best and cut me loose.  I had wasted my twenties trying to become a writer, I thought.  I was an utter and total failure, plus my sleeves were all snotty.

Mine is not the story of the girl who persevered, redoubled her efforts, overcame all obstacles and decades later, reached her dream.  The point is, my writing wasn’t good enough, and there was no guarantee it ever would be.  It took me far, far too long to learn that I wasn’t going to earn a living as a writer or as a professor who wrote novels on the side.  Yet I did realize that happiness was in my own control.  I had a loving marriage and three great kids, and I went back to school to become a high school English teacher, which gave me meaningful work I relished and students I loved, too.  I did keep writing, but I recognized it as a hobby, an art I enjoyed, not a career path.

It’s true that now I’m out of the slush pile.  Have I told that story somewhere already?  (I can tell it next week if anyone’s interested.  (Slush Pile Part Deux.))  Having work as a writer for now, however, has not made me delude myself.  I’m aware that the publishing business is fickle, and if my agent can’t sell my next project profitably, I’ll look for a new teaching position, which will be totally fine.  Happiness is still in my control, and nobody else’s.  That’s what the slush pile, in code, was really telling me.

I’m writing this today because I wish I’d known, that night on the kitchen floor, that I was going to end up happy.  I wish someone had written a blog back then to tell me this.  If your writing is making you miserable, if you’re submitting stuff regularly and it isn’t getting picked up for publication, if you’re stuck in the slush pile, it’s all right to accept what it really means: your writing isn’t good enough.  It might not ever be.  Go discover something else that makes you happy and do it.  You deserve to be happy.

8 Responses to Slush Pile Code

  • This is amazing. Love you, Mrs. O’Brien <3

  • Come teach us again! 🙂

  • Also, I agree with Birdie.
    It’s very inspiring too.

  • Dear Caragh,

    Did you watch American Idol this week or ever? There are so many people pursuing dreams that really ought to find other ways to make themselves happy. This lesson applies to all kinds of professions or artistic dreams. I, myself, had to face the truth that I wasn’t going to be an arts administrator, and as soon as I decided to try finance I got a job. We are in control of our own happiness. If our heads hurt from slamming them against walls so often, we are the only ones who can decide to stop slamming them against the walls. Thanks for writing so well about this very common experience.

  • I would be greatly interested in Part Deux.
    And it’s so funny that you wrote this post. I’ve been writing seriously for three years and have had my manuscript out in cyberspace for six months. I’ve been working on a new WIP but I’m not giving up on the first.
    I’m mostly getting form letters back but I’ve had two full requests, one came back quickly with a “no” and the other one is still out there.
    I don’t want to give up, but I also need to remember that maybe, it just isn’t good enough and move on.
    Thanks for this post.
    At least I learned A LOT with my first novel.

  • Birdie ~ “Never give up. Never surrender.”
    Katie ~ Aww! You don’t need me. You have Mr. C.
    LOBS ~ I can’t resist, sister: you’d be great on American Idol. You know would, and you know you want to do it.
    Kelly ~ I can tell it’s all making you happy, and that’s what counts!
    All best,
    Caragh

  • when I gave up writing fiction because I wasn’t good enough and I couldn’t stand the thought of all that work no one would ever see,I began making quilts. Eventually,I found myself looking at old embroidery in ruined table cloths and making new compositions of them. And that led me back to my first love, poetry.
    Keep all doors ajar and don’t be afraid of those different paths. I don’t make a living in the arts, but my heart is happy.

  • Kathleen ~
    That’s just lovely.
    Caragh

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