Another week, another rejection. The last one, for my essay “Dreaming of Horses” that I’d submitted to an anthology, arrived via email the other day. I was told it was in the top 100 out of 1,000 submissions. However, only 46 were selected. A friend of mine
received the same rejection; her essay also made the top 100.
The essay, which had gotten a second place in a Valley Writers contest two years ago, wasn’t that good. Maudlin and mediocre, it was about how I achieved my dream of owning a horse. Because I used several references to the movie Dreamer
, I realize the essay is now out-dated. Maybe I’ll rewrite part of it for another market; maybe I’ll just let it die.
Oddly, this rejection didn’t bother me. I've learned that being a writer means developing a thick skin. Rejections by publishers—and even by readers—are the norm. But you can’t sell work that you don’t submit. If you submit, you risk rejection.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of having a horse. Thoughts of horses galloped through my mind and even down the margins of my schoolwork. I watched every Western on TV. I idolized Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. I thought if I had a horse, all I had to do was hop on and ride off happily ever after. I didn’t know about hay, grain, vet bills, farrier bills, or riding lessons. I didn’t know that to achieve my dream I’d have to learn a lot. All I saw was myself in the saddle. Now, after three decades of horse ownership, I can look back and laugh at my childhood naiveté.
When I was in college, my friends and I would sometimes go to Up and Away Dude Ranch near Richmond. We’d rent horses and take off on the trails. I don’t think any of us really knew how to ride. Luckily the horses didn’t want to exert much effort, so we could fool ourselves into thinking we were really riding. Then, one afternoon on the trail, we came upon two impeccably attired riders on well-turned out hunters. I got my first glimpse of what real riding was.
I didn’t get an opportunity to ride for over a decade. At 32, settled into my teaching career and having some extra money available, I took riding lessons at Hunting Hills Stables. By then I knew that riding required certain skills. Unfortunately, when a lesson horse I was riding was kicked by another horse, I realized how much I didn’t know.Wow!
I thought as I looked down at how close my left leg was to the point of impact. I could have really gotten hurt!
Then I really got hurt. The gelding must have thought the kick meant for him to take off at a gallop. I’d never galloped before; my class had only just started learning how to sit the canter. We’d trotted over a few cross rails sat a foot above the ground. That was the extent of my riding knowledge. I stayed on once around the ring before I hit the ground hard. Seconds later, the gelding jumped the ring’s four-foot high fence.
There is a genuinely stupid saying about how you’re supposed to get right back on the horse when you fall off. Luckily, I didn’t heed that saying. Stupidly, I drove myself home. Even more stupidly, I thought I’d be OK by the next morning. The next day, my husband drove me to the emergency room.
I’ve still got the lump in my back where I fractured the third and fourth lumbar vertebrae. I missed a couple of months of work and wore a back brace from March until July of 1977. Two weeks out of the brace, I bought my first horse. I figured since I already owned the back brace, I was prepared.
Only I wasn’t prepared. I was still ignorant–and I was scared of what must have been world’s sweetest, kindest little black quarter horse. Private lessons from an experienced rider (I was her only adult pupil) helped. But I was still too insecure to ride outside of the ring. I had my horse, but I was too scared to do much with him.
One day, a friend of my husband came for a visit with his wife. She was a horsewoman, so she hopped on my gelding. I couldn’t believe how good she made him look. He did things I never knew he could do. Why couldn’t I ride like that? Turns out, she was a fourth level dressage rider who’d even studied in England. She had the skills I wanted; she also taught riding. I signed up.
The smartest thing I ever did was take dressage lessons. Ginny was a merciless taskmaster who cut me no slack. I’d get it right—or else. So, I learned to ride. I developed a good seat, I learned what to do with my hands to achieve communication with the horse, I learned how to use my legs effectively. And I learned to fall off without getting hurt (“Go limp and land rolling” became my mantra).
My dream would never have become a reality if I hadn’t first learned some skills. I wouldn’t have known what good riding was if I hadn’t seen those two riders on the trail, if I hadn’t seen what a skilled dressage rider could do with my little $350 gelding.
Writing is a lot like riding. To succeed, you need to acquire certain skills. For years, I fumbled around and wrote some really bad stuff. Every so often, I find one of the college lit mags that published my poetry back in the ’60s. How could I have written such crap?! I was young and naivé.
Luckily, I stopped writing until the ’90s. When I started again, I still wrote stuff that, while grammatical, was heavy on clichés and showed a definite lack of style. My poems were even published—I’m ashamed to admit—by the National Library of Poetry
, one of the early scammers where every submission is a semi-finalist. Though I’d taught English for years, had read and taught the really good stuff and knew what good writing was, I couldn’t write worth a hoot. (See! There’s a cliché.)
My interest in riding is what improved my writing. By then I was on my second horse, Cupcake (aka G's Liberated Lady), who was the opposite of what my first horse had been. When I stabled her at Hunting Hills (See how things come full circle?), some of my fellow boarders were literary folk. Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder
, for instance, was working on her first novel, Solitary Places
. Another guy wrote book reviews. Several others were avid readers. While we groomed our horses, we discussed literature.
While boarding at Hunting Hills Stable, I entered writing contests and won a little money. I entered Cupcake in horse shows and sometimes won a little money there. Not much, though. Even though I knew I’d never make it as a pro in either discipline, I nonetheless got serious about riding and writing. I knew that certain learnable skills were essential to both.
Having seen what lessons could do to improve my riding, I decided to learn what I needed to know to write well. Over a decade ago, at the luncheon for those who’d won the Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest, I sat next to the keynote speaker, Sharyn McCrumb
.* She advised me to go to writing conferences. I took her advice and started attending writing conferences. I joined a writers group and read numerous books on the craft of writing. I learned a lot.
Not all the writing books I’ve read have been helpful. In one book that’s supposed to inspire aspiring authors, a creative writing teacher advises writers to take risks by using an equine analogy: “If you’re terrified of horses,” she writes, “buy a horse and make friends with it.”
I hope she's speaking metaphorically. Otherwise, she is incredibly naivé and has no idea what horses can be like. Surely she doesn’t mean that a person who is scared of horses should spend thousands of dollars to buy a thousand pound animal that he or she has no use for and must find a place to keep (more $) in order to “make friends” with the horse and thus overcome the fear. The frightened person might have a very good reason for being frightened—perhaps a fall from a horse years ago, perhaps an allergy to horses.
If you're terrified of horses, you need to decide if this fear is something you really want to overcome. After all, do you have many opportunities to actually encounter horses up close and personal? If so—if you dream of riding, you should find a good riding instructor who has calm, steady, well-trained school horses for you to learn on. Invest in a good riding helmet and proper footwear. After you've learned to ride, then you can think about buying a well-trained horse whose personality meshes well with your own.
If you dream of being a writer, learn the craft. Go to conferences. Attend readings by best-selling authors. Talk to those who have already achieved what you want to achieve and ask how they did it. Take courses and workshops. Read. Educate yourself.
If you're terrified of writing, don’t write. We already have more writers churning out books and articles that we'll ever have time to read. Do something you enjoy!
But if you want to write, learn the skills and submit your work to publishers—don’t fear rejection. Getting over rejection is as easy as, well, falling off a horse.*The last two times I've heard Sharyn speak, she's mentioned that only 200 novelists make a living at it.
Labels: riding, writing