The Cruelest Rejection of All
By Dick Cummins
Dick is a 1970 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in San Diego. This is an excerpt from a work in progress.
I quit writing cold turkey in 1979; laid down my Ticonderoga Yellow Barrel #2’s and pawned the old Underwood.
It was the day my agent dumped me.
I was at the University of Montana by then, my agent having called breathless months before to say that my screenplay was now “tentatively” optioned by ABC’s “Movie of the Week”— the TV producer was an old friend of his he said. Every producer was an old friend of his.
There was that little “tentatively” thing he conceded, which was that ABC would put up a half mil if another production company, one with a solid track record and director, would match the deal with another half mil. Not a problem, just a matter of time; ABC would sign he said, money would change hands, a check would be in mail (minus his commission) and I would be the hot property “he’d always known I would be.”
“Atta boy kid.” They can be encouraging like that. Until they aren’t.
Weeks passed, then months, until one day I came home from classes and found a UPS box on my welcome mat. It was stuffed with all the manuscripts I’d sent to my agent. No signature required, not even insured, a casket of Hot Properties, forget the liver temp. Inside I found a note clipped to the dog-eared copy of my screenplay, a brown coffee cup ring on the front page where it had been appreciated as a coaster.
This is to inform you that I must now make room in my stable for new writers. I need to say also that the chapters about your mother’s nervous breakdown are just too dark and depressing. Take my advice—I know what sells.
Build yourself a writing ‘brand;’ get your name associated with entertainment, something marketable; pick a genre—non-fiction is hot right now— any genre except ‘literary.’ No money there, unless you’re lucky—or die by your own hand. The posthumous angle works of course, but don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting. Besides, you’re too young—need a large body of unpublished stuff to work that angle.
If you want to be a commercial success, make your readers laugh or smile. Hating a character or two is fine and necessary—but experience some emotion other than, well ‘despondency.’ Magazines don’t want tragedy. Your ‘New Pay T.V. in Every Room’ is evocative and well-written, New Yorker stuff, except the ending is just woeful! Forget those shock treatments, can’t you?
Why don’t you try writing humor? I’ve seen it in your cover letters. Write something that leaves your readers uplifted, smiling, optimistic about the future, not twisting from your story rafters, their will to live choking away!
Well, good luck in the future Dick, with whatever you decide to do. Cheers! KB”
“. . . Posthumous angle?” – “. . . Their will to live choking away?” “Cheers?!”
The screenplay WAS commercial, you asshole, a piggyback on Butch Cassidy. YOU told me it was a good idea. Write it up you said! Take three weeks and make us some money. And it had a socially redeeming element, too. Turn of the century discrimination against Mexican Americans. An exposé, not just Mexploitation as I was worried.
But the stories and chapters based on family were not written for commerce butthole— they were matters of the heart on paper. Forget “business” for a minute KB; I’d go public domain if someone, anyone, would consider the material worth publishing, just to get it out there. Let it find an audience—seek its own level, like water, or other liquids, whatever. Bet there are thousands of potential readers that have had mental health problems in their families too. I know they’re out there.
Crestfallen, I sit staring at the kiss-off and realize this is a struggling writer’s gut check. Dumped by your agent? The ultimate rejection. Sure, I could get mad and work harder—the “I’ll show ’em right stuff’—or take it to heart, get failed-writer drunk and just quit the disappointment business.
Keeping busy, I take out the trash and notice a Tree Sweet apple crate in the dumpster. The breakage happens in an instant. I’ve been struggling with writing “tactics,” the deliverables for years. Time to go “strategic”—stand back and look at the big picture. Not pretty.
In the front room, fortifying myself with another tumbler of Easy Nights (fortified in its own right and conveniently priced), I empty out my file cabinet archive of stories and chapters. The folder marked “Revise or Kill” is fat. So many unfinished. At the top of pages: “Poor ending; does not sing!,” ‘Too sentimental—rewrite,” “No dénouement—cardiac arrest?,” “Where the hell is the tension?,” “Architecture—compression and tension—where?,” “This is crap!”
Just can’t finish sometimes. Just not a closer. The problem is perfectionism—like chasing the horizon. Easier to start a new story than to finish the one at hand.
Well here’s some closure. I shoehorn all the finished and unfinished into the crate. No traces of humiliation will remain. I even peel my alter ego rejection slip collage off the wall, fold neatly and stuff in beside the manuscripts.
An edge sticks out and I tear it off. It’s the note from a magazine editor my ex-agent sent along—as what, encouragement?
“Perhaps you should inform your client that not everyone finds the events of his life as fascinating as he does.”
I think about putting a bullet through my head—but my body of unpublished work is not yet sufficient for the posthumous angle. You heartless bastard, KB.
* * *
It was March in Montana, cold and blustery when I pushed the apple crate out into the Clark’s Fork, resisting an urge to fill my pockets with stream stones and wade out after it. Knee deep, icy water piling against the back of my legs, I watched my still-born writing dreams bob and swirl away downstream out of sight.
Chyron credits roll, The Beatles’ Paperback Writer theme over — fade to black — The End.
I shiver home thinking of Chief Joseph’s surrender speech: “I’m tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Several weeks later I was writing again, but this time something useful, no imagery or plot, no figurative or emotional language, no chance of a personal rejection, just the matter of fact expository of a federal grant proposal to fund a reading and writing lab for the university.
I larded it up with lots of money for Apple II personal computers, the latest thing. These wedge-shaped microcomputers (the Computer Science Department told me they were just toys) had software that did something called “word processing” (Only Wang did that then). But what I was really after was the spell-checking feature, as I had to repeat second grade because I could not read, spell, or even cipher due to “lefty” perception problems.
Finishing the grant, I celebrated through happy hour and came buzzing back to my apartment, reconciled that—as long as the self-medication was circulating—it was okay that my creative writing aspirations were history. And I was okay too. Life goes on.
Well not quite, because there on my welcome mat was the sodden reliquary of my writing dreams, the ones I’d tried to drown like a basket of runts.
“Think this stuff must have fallen off your truck or something,” a note pinned to the top story said. “Your return address was on that one about your poor mother. Interesting story—but that ending is way too sad.”
This is piling on. A negative review by insensitive samaritan bastard that pulled my crate of two-headed puppies out of the bulrushes? Better take it as a sign.
Pulling the swelled crate inside, I take a hike up to Stockman’s and close the place down. In the wee hours, sodden manuscripts spread on the floor, I unsteadily slash red X’s over every query page. This time the crate will stay gone, my first-borns correctly marked for that remainder bin in the sky, biblically consecrated, ablutions performed, prayers prayed.
“So let it be written, so let it be done” – Yul Brenner. Just a little drunk here.
Shivering, I slosh back up to the apartment, thinking of Vonnegut reading the 80-Yard Run Shaw story to us in class. I’m Darling, the second-string halfback who makes that brilliant 80-yard touchdown run—IN A PRACTICE GAME. Looking back over the last ten years, I have one unearned writing run from The New Yorker, a few hundred strikeouts and a close call screenplay rainout. Bottom line: a decade of hard writing, butt-on-the-chair-time hasn’t produced. Face it, that phone call to The Show probably ain’t comin’ so get over it.
Holden, my imaginary writing friend, the only kid that never tried to beat the shit out of me on the playground, just moved away.
Strategy: Get out of the disappointment business before KB calls to see if I’ve accumulated a “larger body of unpublished material.”
Thankfully, Dick’s strategy didn’t work. Check back tomorrow for the dénoument.