“Every lie breaks the world in two, it divides the narrative, and eventually I fell through a crack into the subplot, becoming a minor character in my own life. The surrendering felt much like the blackening of consciousness just before you faint, the letting go, the acceptance, and whatever was good in me turned passive and strange.”
Charles D’Ambrosio “True Believer”
While I was reading D’Ambrosio’s essay today in Tin House magazine the stars aligned and I simultaneously received an email in my inbox from the Tin House editors. Heart pumping, I scanned the missive and landed on the last few graciously worded lines (so familiar to aspiring writers everywhere):
“Unfortunately, we must pass at this time. Best of luck placing your work elsewhere.”
As a younger man these words would have skewered me, sent me into a manic-depressive tailspin, ushered me through all five stages of grief in the span of 30 seconds, ending in “the acceptance phase” in which I would have convinced myself that Tin House was not a ‘literary’ magazine at all and would better serve the planet as a rather glossy alternative to cat litter.
But that was the younger me–all
piss Robert Smith and vinegar.
The middle-aged me submitted the essay to Tin House knowing what an extreme long shot it was. I did so with a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-throw-for-lunar type optimism that has never come easy to me. Expecting nothing less than a form rejection, I made the college try–my first real foray into (not) publishing.
And what surprised me was not my shoe-gazing disappointment masked as humility, (I kneeeew I wouldn’t get in, Eyore, I just kneeeeew it) but an entirely unexpected emotion:
I was actually relieved that my piece got rejected. You can call b.s. if you want, but it’s the God-honest truth.
Relieved, yes, but not for the reasons that you might think. The fame, the fortune, the notoriety, the success (all the typical reasons why writers hole up in dark caves like Howard Hughes cradling a thesaurus in yellowing six-inch talons) yes, that fate had been successfully averted. Phew, close call there. But this brought no toweling of sweat from the forehead since I feel I’m well-built to withstand such occupational hazards. No, I was not relieved because I had evaded the desirable (since I still long for the aforementioned glory, accolades, and Faustian movie deals.)
I was relieved because in receiving the rejection it proved, at the very least to me, that I have started to tell the truth with my life. By submitting a piece of writing for publication I was making a statement about my identity–however tenuous and unproven that claim may be. In submitting a real piece of writing to a real magazine that could (or would not) publish it I had finally taken hold of the narrative–my narrative. And what a strangely euphoric feeling to be doing something one feels designed for (?) and equipped to do… (Brief pause to scan both ways for rogue semi’s or passing pterodactyls...)
Lying to oneself, on the other hand, is often the easiest kind of deal to close. I’ve been there before, too. We are the buyer and the seller in that arrangement and that makes for quick complicity. D’Ambrosio understands that when we lie to ourselves, we rend the nature of the world we live in, and open a crevasse that we must stumble into.
Maturity, I think, is finding our way up from the pit of self-deception and accepting the person that we really are–the good, the bad, and the not-overly-photogenic. This task is treacherous and can take years. For me it did and does. (If you’re considering it, I recommend a sharp pick axe and a good set of crampons.) And, I guess part of what I believe in (and love) about the (almost) good news is that through that process of becoming, through that painstaking climb out of the crack we were hurled (or hurled ourselves) into, we learn about true grace, humility and peace.
To know thyself is to split the world a time or two. After splitting it, I’d much prefer to be an authentically bad writer hurling misshapen rocks at the heavens, than to become a disingenuous saint turned all “passive and strange”. God knows crack is not the answer.