The only truly useful advice I ever got on writing was from my friend, the writer Melanie Rae Thon, who once told me to look at each rejection I got merely as a matter of used stamps. "Just invest in stamps," she said, "and that way you won't run out of them." This was before email, of course. But it's still good advice and it changed my attitude about the returned SASEs that came—and continue to come—flopping through my mail slot, sometimes at alarming rates. Damn, I think. There goes another $1.23 worth of stamps!
But I will add two more pearls of wisdom that aren't particularly original, but which nevertheless I have had to learn for myself. First: if you want to write well, you have to read well. That means reading all the time, with passion and attention and alertness, and shunning crap. No People magazine or the latest chick-lit or tell-all movie star biography. Second: you have to show up at work if you want the work to get done.
Actually, there is a third thing about writing that I want to share—and it's something that I myself just recently became aware of, even though I'd been practicing it, on and off, for years. And it's this: allow the story that you are supposed to be writing to flow through you and out your hands in the form of typed, written words. Chances are that if you struggle, over-think, ruminate, and lose sleep over a project, it's not really meant to be—or at least not supposed to be in the way you are going at it. None of which means that you aren't going to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. It just means that when you rewrite, you're going to have help.
It's like what the Talmud says about the birth of each child: "There are partners in the molding of every human being: God, the father and the mother." (Nidah: 31). I mean, get real: you think that Henry James or Edith Wharton or Leo Tolstoy or Alice Adams wrote all those great books by themselves? Call it what you will—creative inspiration, God, Jesus, Buddha, the muses, Satan, flow, presence, or Zen—but the great stuff always comes out only when "you" get out of the way and allow it to come.
Rejection sucks, but for almost everyone it is the price you pay for the extreme privilege of putting pen to paper in the first place. I could tell you stories, like the one about my own short story "Girls Like You" that was rejected by God knows how many magazines before being picked up by Ontario Review and then winning a Pushcart Prize. Or the one about the story that was rejected by no fewer than 19 literary magazines before finally finding a home at Antioch Review. Or the novel that I'd been working on for forever that my own agent didn't like. (I ended up going back to the novel, which I'm still working on, and switching agents, too.) Or the stories that I wrote in one ecstatic sitting---stories that, at least in my opinion, shine with humor and aliveness---that still haven't found homes. And how about the fact that, at my age (48) I'm still at it, every day, working my little tuchis off and occasionally fantasizing about getting a call from Oprah. "Hello, Jennifer Anne? This is Oprah Winfrey, and we'd like you to come on up to Chicago to talk about your book on my television show. How's next week for you?" Actually, I like Oprah. I just don't watch her much. Who has time? Plus, I'd rather read.
The central question you have to ask yourself isn't-what will I do if I never get published? Or even: how do I get published? It's: can I live, can I be happy, if I don't write? If the answer is "no," then you really don't have a choice, do you?