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.