November 8, 2017 § 28 Comments
by Peter Gajdics
I don’t like to tell anyone that my recently published book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, was rejected by over 400 agents and publishers. While working on the Acknowledgements page, in the months leading up to publication, I did ask my publisher if I could include a line thanking “the 350+ literary agents and 50+ publishers who said ‘no,’” since they “taught me to persevere.” My publisher cautioned me against adding such a line, since (as she wrote back), “normal folks don’t really understand that great stuff gets rejected for any number of reasons all the time, and that all writers have experienced rejection. They may wonder, ‘What is wrong with this guy? With his story? And they might start looking skeptically at the book or at you. I understand what you are saying here—but I think it might be revealing too much.”
I took my publisher’s point and removed the line from the Acknowledgements. But it never stopped me from feeling thankful to the hundreds of agents and publishers who all said “no.” Oh sure: with each early rejection over the years I did feel devastated. One quite menacing rejection, in which the (esteemed) editor emailed that “books like yours don’t get published anymore,” left me feeling sucker punched, as if my life itself was now obsolete. I read the rejection on my iPhone while walking home from my day job, and by the time I arrived back to my apartment I was sobbing. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I thought afterward. Why do I keep submitting this book, year in and year out, even after so many rejections? I must be crazy.
Such internal dialogues typically continued after each harsh rejection, followed by weeks of numbed confusion, then I was off to the races again: researching more agents; locating other independent presses that accepted unagented submissions; polishing my query letter; tracking all outgoing and incoming correspondence on my spreadsheet; continuing to edit the manuscript; even (sometimes against my better judgment) praying to a God I didn’t know existed anymore. Thoughts that I could not quite imagine my book never finding a home were often interrupted by the paranoia that I had all along just deluded myself—my book was completely unworthy; I was not a good enough person, certainly not a talented enough writer, to ever get published. With each passing “rejection”—or worse: long stretches of silence and then never even hearing back from particular agents or publishers—the cycle continued: internal homicidal dialogues questioning not only the book’s quality but my existence as a viable human being.
My family never wanted me to publish my memoir. At one point, amidst my querying, my older brother threatened to sue me “on behalf of the family” if I continued with the book. No one in my family had ever read my manuscript, but they did seem to know that I’d been writing “something” about having felt estranged from the family as a young (gay) man, my six years in (conversion) “therapy,” during which time my former psychiatrist had tried to “cure” me, the medical malpractice suit I’d later filed against the doctor for treating my homosexuality as a disease—even (or maybe especially), the fact that I’d included aspects about our parents’ traumatic histories in Europe, post World War II. I knew they knew that I’d been writing “something” about all of this—but we did not discuss it. My family’s silences had always been palpable: a white elephant in the room of our shared history.
Rejections from agents and publishers were one thing, but threats from my family eventually all helped sharpen my reasons for continuing with the memoir, from polishing the manuscript, to pitching it to industry folks. At some point along the way, between the tears and bouts of depression, I stopped viewing this influx of information about my book as a direct reflection of my value as a human being and writer, and considered it as helpful advice. Writing a memoir—writing this memoir—has been a journey that changed me from the inside out. I’d always believed in my story, that there was value in sharing it with the world in order to help prevent similar events from recurring again in the future, particularly for young LGBT people, but if enough agents or publishers told me the same thing about one section of the book, then that was helpful advice I needed to address substantively. Maybe I also needed to actually “throw the baby out with the bathwater”—consider the source, and “move on”; not take it all so personally. If my family’s fear was so great as to threaten me with a lawsuit, then that was advice that I needed to use in order to question my personal motives for actually writing the book, as well as my level of healing.
Some very famous memoirists have suggested that writers should always provide their memoir manuscripts to their families before publication, perhaps to ask for “permission.” Unfortunately, after years of scrutiny, I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t think this is always possible, or plausible, even advisable: in some cases, such as for those writing about trauma, especially a history of familial trauma, I think it could even add to the trauma. What this means for the writer is that they are often faced with confronting very difficult questions themselves. Friends can help, but even they can never replace our own conscience. Questions of ethical and moral responsibility, like when is it appropriate to include aspects of someone else’s life without their actual content or knowledge, become crucial. Just because someone says they don’t want you to include aspects from their life in a book you’re writing about your own doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do it—but “how” to do it, and “why” it should still be done, may need to be addressed.
I struggled with all of this while working on my book. The payoff, I would like to believe, helped me create a more universal product, because the process itself forced me to grow and become not only a better writer, but more objective and thoughtful in my approach. Industry rejections, I now understand, were never a reflection of my value as a person, but they certainly have been useful in the execution of a final manuscript—or at least they were once I used them to my advantage, and stopped taking them all so personally.
Peter Gajdics’ essays, short memoir and poetry have been published in The Advocate, New York Tyrant, The Gay and Lesbian Review / Worldwide, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Opium, where he won their 500-word memoir contest. He is a recipient of writers’ grants from Canada Council for the Arts, a fellowship from The Summer Literary Seminars, and an alumni of Lambda Literary Foundation’s “Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.” Peter’s first book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, was published by Brown Paper Press on May 16, 2017. Peter lives in Vancouver, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @HungarianWriter.