reviewed by David McDonald
Yes, it’s a how-to book all right, but not just about dealing with the rejection of a manuscript. The goal of Damn the Rejections Full Speed Ahead: The Bumpy Road to Getting Published (Stephens Press, 2008) appears to be preemptive, an instruction manual on how to write so as to minimize the chance of rejection.
That’s right: yet another tome on technique, writing dramatic scenes, developing characters, how and when to research, the do’s-and-don’ts of collaboration, writing query letters, preparing proposals, and, last but not least, marketing in all its facets, peddling to agents, publishers, self-publishing on the Internet.
But this one is different. Maralys Wills brings us in close, really hunkers down. She confides in the reader. She shares how she has learned, often the hard way, to craft a compulsive read. This type of intimacy to the fledgling (or floundering) writer is something she has in common with a fellow teacher, Stephen King. She refers with great admiration to his seemingly ubiquitous work, On Writing. But Wills does not share his attitude. She does not believe that “books about writing are filled with bullshit.”
Wills shares what works for her, and what doesn’t; how to make the most of being “in the zone”; how to deal constructively with a long hiatus or writer’s block; how to channel persistence, foster patience and build self-confidence. The familiar instructional staples on writing craft are laced liberally with anecdotes of tragedies and triumphs, both personal and professional. She offers tips that are lean, incisive and practical.
She employs by example all she has learned thus far through memoir, fiction, nonfiction, and even reportage. By way of her experience in these different genres, she ends up with an entertaining hybrid. (Incidentally, this isn’t Wills’ first “how-to”; she also wrote a party-game book that took quite a while to find a suitable publishing house.)
As a screenwriter I took particular interest when she spoke of the irony surrounding Schindler’s List and how the story was brought to light about a shop-owner, survivor of the Holocaust, a “caretaker-of-history [who] had tucked away his memorabilia in the back of his store and kept is safe…none of that would have happened without the passionate Jewish man who kept the story alive.” A weird twist of fate brought Oskar’s shrewd, courageous sacrifices to life and earned Spielberg a singular gold statuette for direction. The point is: if there is any consistent thread weaving through the thoughts, devices, tips, tricks, chidings, admonishments and encouragements that Wills lays down for her readers, it is just that: keep the story alive, even against one’s better (or worse) judgment.
Wills uses short chapters which is perfect for her style: precise, pragmatic, avoiding theories and philosophies of creativity which, admittedly, works very well for some teachers of the craft, among them John Gardner, Natalie Goldberg and Dorothea Brande. And because the writing is so spare, each chapter gives you a lot to chew on.
Yet she gives curiously casual regard to her successes, ending the book with a chapter entitled, “The Payoff,” where still she questions her efforts: “Why am I doing this?..When my writing income is about a nickel an hour…when no university is clamoring to drape me in purple and make me its commencement speaker…”
It was her zinger of an answer that spoke to me, the mantra of those of us who discover we have no choice but to write:
“I am most alive when I’m writing.”
–David McDonald is a guest reviewer this month.