When Writers Get Dumped

James Scott Bell

In December I got to spend a few weeks in paradise.
My lovely wife got the idea some time ago of renting a beach house for a month. I could use it for writing and recharging, she’d use it for de-stressing and reading, and we could have our kids come visit for eating and game playing.
The house was forty-five minutes from our home in LA, which is just about right. I had a couple of meetings in town to dash to, but I could dash right back up to the beach. The weather was incredible. I love New York in June, but December in Southern California is amazing. Sunshine and seventies this year.
In the mornings I’d wake up, make the coffee, get to the keyboard. I like to start the day when it’s dark. Then the sun would come up and I’d walk down to the beach and look at the sea. I grew up with it–summers at the beach, body surfing, playing Frisbee and football on the sand. The Pacific Ocean has a rejuvenating effect that’s hard to describe. 
One afternoon I was sitting on a beach chair gazing at the suds. The waves were high, and a few surfers were out.
In front of me was a guy in a kayak. He was having the time of his life riding the waves. He’d paddle out, catch a swell, manipulate his position with the double-blade paddle and then ride the curling break to the wet sand of the shore.
One time he caught a big one, and let out a whoop of absolute elation. It sounded a little like Slim Pickens riding the hydrogen bomb in Dr. Strangelove. My kayaking friend was in a moment of pure joy made up of water, speed and emotion.
But two seconds later the wave turned him over like a mad baker slapping bread dough on a board. The churning waters took the kayak all the way to shore, dumping it upside down on the sand. The kayaker slogged his way back to the boat, turned it over, grabbed the nose rope and pulled it back out to the water. He jumped in and started paddling out to do the whole thing over again.
And I thought, this is the writing life, isn’t it?
I mean, you know what it’s like when you catch a wave in your story, when you get a scene idea that jazzes your fibers, or when a character starts surprising you in absolutely pleasing ways. When that emotional moment comes alive inside you. When that dialogue hums. When a twist pops into your head, or that perfect chapter ending sneaks up from your subconscious basement and plugs right into your text.
You whoop inside your writer’s soul, don’t you? You are that kayaker. You are riding a wave.
But then, somewhere along the way, you get dumped.
Could be a rejection. Or a negative review.
Maybe it’s the tyranny of unmet expectations. Or some know-it-all in your critique group telling you there’s backstory on page two, so you’re a hack.
For some writers it might be a royalty statement with no royalties. Or a traditional publishing house that decides to cut you loose.
Sometimes it’s a family member or friend who looks at you with a pitying half smile that calls you a fool. 
Maybe it’s just a day when the words don’t come, when the kayak is stuck in a kelp bed and you’re just slapping the water with the paddle.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Not if you’re willing to grab the nose rope again and charge right back into the blue. Because you know that nothing, nothing, matches the feeling of catching a wave—or a wave catching you.
If you want to write, and make something resembling a career out of it, you’re going to get wet.  You’re going to get dumped. Lots. You’re going to get sand in your swim suit. You’re going to swallow salt water from time to time.
But you are going to ride. For a true writer, that joy is unmatched. It’s what keeps you coming back to the page. Even with all the churning and overturning, all the wet and upside-downness, let me ask you this: would you have it any other way? Would you sacrifice the elation of creating worlds and people and dreams? Would you give up the ecstasy of art for the sodden sameness of imitation, just because the latter isn’t so painful?
Are you content to put on water wings and float in the shallow end?
Or do you keep heading out into the surf, no matter how many people scream at you to come back in and stop acting so foolish?
How is it with you? 

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30 thoughts on “When Writers Get Dumped

  1. I always just picture the triumphant moment at the end, when all the “nay-sayers” will be “hey-sayers” instead.

    As in the now: “No way, buddy. You keep trying but you are wasting your time.”

    Vs. the later: “Hey yeah I know him real well. Best buds since middle-school. Heck, I gave him half the ideas in his books!”

    One of these days, it’ll hit, in the meantime I don’t mind rollin’ in the surf a bit.

  2. I believe bad experiences as just as important as good ones, they’re all pieces of the puzzle, all part of who we become. Without the contrast, there’s nothing to tell the good moments apart and “force” us to internalize them and fight for them. 😉

  3. Terrific inspirational message, Jim. And Joe H. is right, your post should contain the instructions: “apply as needed” to any part of our lives. Surf’s up!

  4. Jim, Great visual of the writing life. I thought that my experience in medicine would prepare me for rejection. I had over a hundred papers published in professional journals, but probably had that many and more rejected. I used to joke that I’d been turned down more times than a Holiday Inn bedspread.
    But non-medical writing was a different animal, and you’ve captured the ups and downs of it quite well. Rejection hurts, but it’s a significant part of the life. And if you’re serious about traveling the road to writing, you make up your mind to endure the potholes and dead ends, focusing on the great scenery you sometimes come upon.
    Thanks for your post, and for your example.

  5. I agree with Veronica. I think the bad experiences are part of the process.

    Not that we should go look for it, or ignore it when it’s here, but pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong.

    Whenever the writing life dumps me into the water, I swim to the surface and try to figure out how to avoid that next time. 😀

  6. Love this bit! Never having watched kayakers before, I would never have thought of the comparison, but you’re right.

    I, for one, would like to catch one of those waves. I’ve been spending a bit too much time wallowing in the drink. But I keep plugging along!

  7. Great post, as always. I do feel like that sometimes. Getting back on that board is a hell of a fight, but once you are back there, it feels even greater than before!

    Thank you,


  8. First, let me express my loathing and unabashed envy of your beach reprieve.

    Your post reminded me of a quote making the rounds on Facebook:

    “I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions, the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses, and the constant fear that we’re witless frauds who are speeding toward epic failure.” -Scott Lynch

    Great post! Terri

  9. Thanks for all the great thoughts. You are all an inspiration to me as well. We should all go out on our kayaks and surfboards sometime, then have a barbecue on the beach!

  10. I have had to just have to spit out the water and keep paddling – knowing that only if I keep going can I ever get the triumphant feeling of succeeding once more. Far too often I see writers choke at the first obstacle and I have to remind them – this wasn’t meant to be easy!

  11. Great post, Jim! It’s all about weathering the storm and continuing on. I don’t know any writer who hasn’t gone through that. I’ll be posting a complementary blog tomorrow on a similar subject.

  12. Great blog and super reminder of why we write…

    And really it’s the threat of the thumping that makes catching a wave so exciting, right? 🙂

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    Lisa 🙂

  13. I think the best part about this post is the reality of it, and the fact it applies to all aspects of life. How can you know the level of joy from catching that wave if you haven’t snorted a little salt-water? I know the first time I got a short accepted for pub, I gave a little whoop that scared the hell outta my wife. It was exactly as you describe, that moment when you’ve spent so many times tipping, and yet THIS ONE is gonna be a solid ride! Just that one makes you happy to go through some more tips and wipeouts in search of the next one.

    Great analogy!

  14. You have to keep going. If you’re doing what you love, there is no other choice. I’m riding a wave right now. I have three books coming out in the fall, and just got my pub dates. Woohoo!! But not in CA, the water’s too cold.

  15. Sometimes it feels like your paddling alone on a featureless ocean, or upstream against a wicked current. Sometimes the water is full of sharks or gators, and sometimes you just imagine it is.

    Some friends will admire you for getting in the kayak to begin with, while others think you’re crazy for staying in so long.

  16. I was just discussing this with my husband today. I have decided the writers who succeed are those who just keep surfing no many how many huge waves they eat:) I think when you reach that point where the surf, the swell, the rush of it all, is just louder than all the other stuff, its something to celebrate!

  17. I was cut by one of the best agents in the business and a big publishing house, but it wasn’t my own doing. The buyer backed out and decided not to take my book. I have since earned more than my whole advance in a 3-month period. Now, I thank God for being dumped.

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