All Write Now: persistence and lightbulbs
By MELISSA D. SULLIVAN
For Montclair Local
All Write Now” reflects the writing life. Melissa D. Sullivan is an attorney by day, writer by night, mother of two, and recipient of the 2016 Parent-Writer Fellowship in Fiction from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Melissa splits her time between Montclair, NJ and Bucks County, PA. You can learn more at melissadsullivan.wordpress.com.
In an interview for Success magazine in 1898, journalist Theodore Dreiser asked Thomas Edison if his discoveries were brilliant intuitions, coming to him suddenly in his sleep. By then, Edison was 51 and had already invented the telegraph, patented the incandescent light bulb and formed the company that would become General Electric.
“I never did anything worth doing by accident,” Edison replied, maybe leaning forward across his desk, his intense gray eyes focused on the nervous journalist. “Nor did any of my inventions come indirectly through accident, except the phonograph. No, when I have fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go about it, and make trial after trial, until it comes.”
First of all, you have to love the shameless self promotion. Reading the interview, I could easily picture Edison as a late 19th century Steve Jobs, talking about this little thing he invented called the iPod.
But second, and maybe most importantly, Edison was upfront that his successes only came at the expense of countless trials and, one must surmise, failures.
While Edison wasn’t a fiction writer, the idea of continuously trying to achieve a result worth getting strikes me as directly comparable.
Like many short story writers trying to establish themselves, I am continuously submitting my short stories to various literary magazines. As unsolicited submissions, these stories end up in what is aptly referred to as the “slush pile.” My story will then sit there, sometimes for months, until some editor starts to weed through the thousands of submissions, looking for something that might speak to a journal’s particular ethos. My hope as a writer is that my snappy opening or finely drawn characters will make the editor pause, just for a moment, before adding my story to the small pile of “maybes” to pass on to their colleagues for further consideration.
As the months drag on and no word is heard regarding my submission, I start to dream that my story is being passed from editor to editor, each remarking over its nuance, its lyricism, and its searing vision of the human experience.
“We must offer her a book contract today!” my imaginary editors say to themselves as they sip sherry in their grand offices. The word “genius” is murmured, with reverence and awe.
And then the rejection letter comes. And it isn’t even a personal rejection. Merely an email, addressed to “Dear Writer.” It is usually very polite, thanking me for my interest in their publication, but goes on to unequivocally say “Thanks, but no thanks.”
So I am bummed. Though I know that in general only one percent of all slush pile submissions are accepted for publication, with one form email, all of my hopes and dreams of instant fame and validation are dashed. Alone at my desk, I sip a consoling bottle of room temperature domestic beer, because only heartless editors can afford sherry.
And then I submit again and start the whole process all over. Why?
Let me let Thomas Edison tell you.
“You do something all day long, don’t you?” he told Theodore, knocking the ash off his imaginary cigar. “Everyone does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at 11, you have put in 16 good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing or thinking. The trouble is that they do it about a great many things, and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such an application.”
So though it seems hopeless, I will keep submitting my stories with one object: to be successful as a writer because, to paraphrase my good friend Tom, life is short, and I’ve only got 16 hours in a day.