Fifty years ago, NASA Apollo scientist Bill Borucki had a Big Idea.
He said, “Let’s build a space telescope to look for planets orbiting stars.” If a planet were to pass in front of its parent star, he reasoned, the light would dim, thus revealing that planet’s presence. Scoffers lined up to shoot down the idea, which then languished for decades.
But in 2009 a team including Borucki launched the Kepler space scope, which has since found 1,800 confirmed exoplanets rolling around other suns in only a minuscule portion of the cosmic vastness. Some have even been directly imaged. Quite a few are earth-sized. Cosmologists now suspect that most of the trillions of stars in the universe must have orbiting bodies, some inevitably within a zone wherein water is liquid. This, in turn, greatly enhances the likelihood of life out there.
Many cosmologists now believe it’s virtually a statistical certainty we’re not alone in the universe.
A Big Idea, indeed. But one roundly rejected for decades as impossible to ever research.
After World War II, photographer Robert Frank crisscrossed the U.S taking thousands of candid photos. Much of what he shot was raw and ugly. Poverty. Racial prejudice. Mind-numbing work conditions. His pictures contradicted happy-myths propagated by The Saturday Evening Post and TV’s Leave it to Beaver. His photo book, The Americans, was vehemently criticized and then largely ignored. Only 1,100 copies sold, earning him $800.
Today, Frank’s book is considered an iconic 20th-century work. Hope you kept a copy. A single print showing sullen people riding a segregated New Orleans trolley recently sold for $633,000.
Louisiana oil-field roughneck James Lee Burke spent nine years trying to sell his first novel, The Lost Get-back Boogie. The manuscript gathered 100 rejections.
When the University of Louisiana Press finally published the story, it drew a Pulitzer nomination, the first of many accolades Burke has since earned. He’s still writing best-sellers, a number of them becoming hit movies.
Myopic unimaginative publishers also rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter debut novel 12 times, Agatha Christie’s debut novel 23 times, and Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind 38 times. Almost every publisher in England spurned Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies.
I hope all of those editorial naysayers have been plagued by thoughts of the millions of dollars they turned away from their doors. The Harry Potter franchise alone has been worth billions.
Rejections are to a writer as tipsy shot gunners are to ducks. We have to live with them. I wish I’d kept track of the rejections I've gotten over the years. They’d fill a barrel. In fact, a few years back, a smart writer did keep track of his rejections and sold a magazine article about the number and variety of them.
Even after we survive all that crushing rejection and finally do manage to get our work published, we face a gang of one-star losers out there who cruise the Net viciously putting down everything and everybody they encounter, while never actually accomplishing much of anything themselves.
The naysayers have always been an ineradicable presence throughout humankind. Society’s gleeful shot gunners. We can take a lesson from the likes of Bill Borucki, Robert Frank, James Lee Burke, J.K. Rowling, and migrating mallards though, and simply ignore them as we carry on, trying our best.
And there are occasional payoffs along the road. Although I’m not in sight of the best-seller lists yet, I've gathered a thick file of e-mails and notes from folks all over who have liked my work. One missive was from a man in Birmingham, England. The first fan letter he’d written in over twenty years of reading, he said. Five years before, an auto accident had left him in a wheelchair. He said my books had brought back to him “the outdoors and all its splendor” and had given him strength to step up his therapy intensity.
That one is taped to the wall behind my computer monitor.