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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Few Brief Notes on Rejection

I’ve just received a mail from Georges Borchardt declining to represent my novel. It seems to be a form letter – “we do not feel quite passionate enough about the material”.

I wrote that diary entry on the 10th of June last year. After receiving the email, I did nothing about my book for several weeks. I’d had my heart set on breaking into the UK or US book market, and sent my work off ill-advisedly to an agent who did not know anything about me or my work.

Rejection is part of a writer’s life. Agents, publishers, friends, readers and reviewers are all liable to reject us. If only there were someone who would say to us very simply, genuinely: “Carry on”.

4 May 2010
I don’t know how to let myself go, to lose myself in my own book without thinking, “What if no one likes it? What if it never sees the light of day?” But I’ll try again today.

In the meantime, I have been encouraging my students, who write to me about their dashed or raised hopes, their first published poem, their writer’s block. One chap was devastated to be rejected by [-]. He sent me the rejection letter and his feelings of despair. I wrote to him suggesting a regime of reading before starting to write again, and offering to read his new poems before he submits his application again. He wrote back: “As always, you are hugely encouraging … no, downright invigorating. You have the true teacher’s ability to motivate curiosity and aspiration, and you have made me feel I can take my first deep breath for three weeks.”

Reading that made me feel strange, because right now I’m the one who needs invigoration and aspiration. Physician, heal thyself?

Maugham’s notebook has been on our shelves all my life and I have dipped into it several times. Yesterday, because P mentioned it, I took it off the shelf again. It is my mother’s copy, which she inscribed Nov 9th 1949 (Johannesburg tour of “Present Laughter”) To remind me that acting is not the only thing. Maybe that’s where I learnt to write down everything that strikes me. Maugham:

I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it. If you understand this properly, I think there is truth in it. By making a note of something that strikes you, you separate it from the incessant stream of impressions that crowd across the mental eye, and perhaps fix it in your memory. All of us have good ideas or vivid sensations that we thought would one day come in useful, but which, because we were too lazy to write them down, have entirely escaped us. When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would … The danger of using notes is that you find yourself inclined to rely on them, and so lose the even and natural flow of your writing which comes from allowing the unconscious that full activity which is somewhat pompously known as inspiration.

Maugham writes elsewhere in his Preface:

There are not enough book-buyers to go around, and the success of one author can greatly attenuate the success of another. It is a struggle to get known; it is a struggle to hold one’s place in the public esteem.

He was speaking of France. In England, Maugham believed, any writer, “if he has any gift at all, in any direction … can earn an adequate income.

I have been thinking of embarking on a search for books I consider “missing” from my collection — books I’ve always wanted but never had, classics, and favourite books lent out but never returned. What happened to my copy of Henry James’ What Maisie knew? Why don’t I have a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems? Why have I never bought a book by the world’s greatest travel writer Leigh Fermor? I would like to have a few shelves devoted to my 100 favourite books. In the meantime I am reading another of my mother’s book’s, Leon Roussouw’s biography of Eugene Marais.

5 May 2010
My revisions got back on track yesterday, and by yesterday evening were going well. But this is still the first half of the novel, which is less full of gaps and faults than the second half.

7 May 2010
Yesterday I spent a rare day in bed feeling sick. I woke up with the room spinning but thought a shower and morning coffee would sort me out. I nearly collapsed in the shower. I staggered up to bed and drank a fizzy vitamin C then tried to come downstairs again — violent vomiting. The world spun around me. I gave up and asked R to take B to school. I slept and slept. As long as I kept perfectly still, there was no dizziness. At 2.30 I was well enough to get up and have toast and marmite. I spent the rest of the day in bed in the TV room watching Bleak House (brilliant!), B and Tigger snuggled beside me. It was a horrid, rainy day, so no sacrifice.

11 May 2010
I’ve just received an email from America – the author who is kindly liaising with me says that Georges Borchardt is willing to read my manuscript.

Yesterday afternoon I was in despair again about the middle section. I changed something and then took the ms to bed. Reading it lying down, I thought it read well – funny and engaging even. But now the pressure is on to clean up a final ms to post. But pressure is good, as long as it’s not in the ears.

12 May 2010
People sometimes suggest I should become a crime writer or a writer of chick-lit, but I don’t want to – I only ever want to follow my inner baton. I feel at sea when people suggest otherwise. I felt as though they’re saying: “Why don’t you write differently from the way you write?” which for me is the same as saying: Why aren’t you someone else? I would love someone to say simply, genuinely: Carry on.

14 May 2010
I’m perplexed as to why this book has been so much more difficult to write and to complete than the others. It must be because the book itself has become the baton, regularly instructing me to change things. Yesterday went well up to a point and then crash! The conductor was unhappy, and rightly so. But HOW to fix things? I have decided to sketch my problem out in summary form in longhand – look at it as a design error – before I go back.

18 May 2010
The book cost R380 to send airmail. I lay awake in the middle of the night scrolling through it in my mind. Creatively, I feel quite drained. I don’t know how I wrote three novels or any poems – that part of me seems like a miraculous visitor, now long gone.

Printing and parcelling took up the entire morning. At the last minute I changed a character’s name from Wiseman to Mandla. He doesn’t play a big part — he’s the guy behind the soundproof glass at the controls when my main character does her graveyard shift radio broadcasts. I changed his name partly because I had another minor character called Truman — it wouldn’t do.

10 June 2010
I’ve just received a mail from Georges Borchardt declining to represent my novel. It seems to be a form letter – “we do not feel quite passionate enough about the material”.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    February 14th, 2011 @12:00 #

    I have a ring binder somewhere with rejection letters from US agents. The one that said yes was one of the first that said no. It is a fickle world. Not that it made it hurt any less when I received a nasty gram.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Finuala</a>
    February 14th, 2011 @18:41 #

    Sometimes I think I'm writing these posts to myself, but then I see your name, Tiah, and it encourages me. As far as rejection is concerned, I'm most helped reading biographies of writers -- it's a compulsion. Right now I'm reading Flaubert and Madame Bovary, for instance, Francis Steegmuller's absorbing account of how Flaubert grew as a writer, actually wrote a bit of crap, before he found his voice in Madame Bovary. And before that, I read Lyndall Gordon's Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, and chuckled over Southey's rejection of her ("Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life,and it ought not to be"). Both went on to greatness, Flaubert because his friends who listened to his first, dreary and derivative work gave him great advice; Charlotte because she wanted to test the limits. So: here's to courage and good advice.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    February 14th, 2011 @19:10 #

    You are most certainly not writing these posts to yourself, Finuala, so please don't stop. I am crap at commenting and other social networking because I have a medical condition known as severe laziness.
    My daughter used to cheer me up with the tale of Laurell K Hamilton (now trillionaire best-selling author of vampire sex books - I know, hardly a comparison to Flaubert or Bronte, but as Louis so beautifully puts it, I do write schlock), anyway, Hamilton received so many rejection letters that she wallpapered her bathroom with them before she got the nod.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    February 14th, 2011 @19:15 #

    Finuala, hear this on behalf of all of us who love your clear voice and the way you see the world and the witty and intelligent way you express that vision:

    Carry on, do!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    February 14th, 2011 @19:16 #

    (print these out and paper the bathroom with them)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 14th, 2011 @20:45 #

    I've been reading these diary entries with admiration and fascination, but find myself deleting attempts at comments, which always come out sounding facile ("Yes! Yes, that's it exactly!" etc). So instead I have been referring every writer I know to them, as a record and reference. Please keep posting.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    February 15th, 2011 @06:34 #

    Writing to yourself? Oh, not hardly. I've been posting links to your series on my blog and there are even non-writers out there who have emailed me (rather than post a comment) on how much they are enjoying your series. (And not being part of BookSA, they can't comment to you directly).

    As to lack of comments, I can only speak for myself. I'm a wee bit shy. Since I adore your books and have never met you, I felt a bit silly saying much. Worried I'd sound like some dippy fan. Please keep posting!


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