68: Dear John

68: Dear John

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers

Dear John

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.

~Aldous Huxley

I’ve been writing and publishing my work for more than fifteen years, and I hope to go on writing and publishing for many more. But there was a time back at the beginning when I reached a crossroads and had to decide just how much I wanted to be a writer.

I got the writing bug very young. I was writing stories back when I was in my teens. I wrote a lot of fiction, stories about people and places and plots that were sure to dazzle and delight my readers, who at the time consisted of my brother and sister and dog. But I learned about how to submit to magazines and journals, and I decided I was going to be that rarest kind of writer: a published one.

It was no trick writing enough stories to send out to the editors and publishers whom I was sure would buy my stuff. I mean, I’d been writing by then for about a year, so surely I knew all there was to know about telling a good story. I had the drive. I had the imagination. I had a typewriter and the addresses of the editors of my favorite magazines. I was ready to go.

Or so I thought. The rejections came fast and hard and endlessly. I would go out to the mailbox every day, pull open the door and peer into the darkness, hoping to find an envelope with the official return address of one of the magazines to which I was submitting my stories. I’d rip open the envelope to find a letter thanking me for the fantastic story accompanied by a fat check. A little later, I’d receive a complimentary copy of the magazine with my story in it that I could add to the ever-growing library of my work. That was my expectation each time I peered into that metal darkness.

What I got instead was a bunch of manila envelopes bearing my own address written in my own handwriting. The envelopes held my returned stories along with a rejection note that often read: “We thank you for your story submission. Unfortunately, it does not meet our present needs.”

My heart sank every time I read those mechanically written words. But I was a writer, and I knew that if this editor didn’t want that story, then another might. So off it went in the next day’s mail, and back I went each day to the mailbox to wait for the letter that would change the course of my life. I lived between moments of pure anticipation and pure misery.

Then one day I opened the mailbox, stuck in my hand, and pulled out a letter with the official return address of a magazine. It was addressed to me, and my hand trembled as I held it. I sat down on the curb, carefully opened the letter, and read what an editor had written to me, feeling myself edge into the world of published writers. It read:

“Dear John, I’m writing to tell you that I’m rejecting another of your stories. In fact, this must be the hundredth story you’ve sent me. It’s time I was truthful with you. Your stories are terrible. I’m not saying you don’t have an imagination, because you do, but you tell a story with no idea how to construct a plot, create characters we care about, build suspense or interest. Your persistence indicates youth. I suggest you enroll in a grammar course and learn how to write. Good luck.”

Holding that letter, rereading those words, I felt like I’d been crushed. All my dreams evaporated. I balled up the letter, stuffed it in my pocket, and slinked back home. That night, as I lay in bed, I stared at the ball of paper, hating that editor because I knew he was right. I wasn’t a writer. I wanted to be published, but I didn’t know how to write.

An hour later, I flattened out the note and read it again. He’d told me to learn how to write. He hadn’t told me to quit, although that’s just what I wanted to do. I never wanted to write another word for the rest of my life. But he’d said I could learn to write, and if I really wanted to be a writer, that’s what I needed to do.

The next day, I began to learn how to be a writer. I pored through grammar and writing books, wrote my stories and tore them apart, put them back together and revised them over and over again. I learned that writers work very hard to get their stories to where they might be able to share them with others, and I spent the next few years trying to learn all that I could while I wrote, read, and slowly got better.

Today, I am a published writer, and I’ve learned that good writing takes hard work. I also learned that reaching your dreams means never quitting. Writing is done step by step, by the numbers, and by going on to the next story, knowing just a little more than you did before. I’m so glad I received the advice from that editor. You wouldn’t be reading these words if I hadn’t been smart enough to follow it.

~John P. Buentello

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