Monday, June 25, 2018

Dejecting rejections
     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 more than 2,300 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, those star systems having formed in much the same way as our own solar system did.  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 original print featured in the book showing sullen people riding a segregated New Orleans trolley sold not long ago 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 yarn, it drew a Pulitzer nomination, the first of many accolades Burke has since earned.  He’s still writing best-sellers, and several of them have been turned into 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 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 can only try 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 clever 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 the naysayers 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.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What are the odds?
     Whenever the Powerball jackpot climbs into stratospheric payoff realms, the publicity ramps up, as well.  This, of course, results in a frenzy of ticket buying fueled by that good old American virtue.  Greed.

     The thinking goes, Well, somebody’s going to win the windfall, so it’s worth a try.  But is it, really? 

     The odds of winning the correct five of the 69 possible numbers, plus the correct one of the 26 Powerball numbers, are one in 292,201,338.  That number is eight times the entire population of Canada.  The odds of choosing just the five correct numbers are still one in 11,688,053.  To put that in some perspective, the odds of being struck by lightning in any given year are only one in 700,000.

     You’re far better off trying for sainthood (a one in 20,000,000 possibility) or hoping to draw a royal flush in poker on the first five cards (a one in 649,740 chance) or expecting to bowl a perfect 300 score (one in 11,500 odds) or attempting to sink a hole-in-one in golf (odds for an average duffer 12,500 to one).

     Yet millions continue to feed their money into lotteries in 44 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgins. (Conspicuously there is no lottery in Nevada.)  In 2014, these lotteries took in $70.1 billion.  And such is the American addiction to gambling that 508 commercial casinos and 470 tribal casinos across the land now rake in another $20 billion or so per year.  That’s a total of some ninety thousand million dollars per year.  And ironically this behemoth industry is taking no chance at all itself.  It isn’t gambling like its patrons are.  It risks nothing, despite its glittering payouts, because the odds are always heavily in its favor, and the demand for it never goes away.

     Gambling in the hope of becoming rich, of getting something for nothing, is ill-advised, to say the very least, especially if it strains your budget.  The odds are simply way too heavily weighted against you.

     Besides, you’ve already won one of the greatest possible lotteries.
     What are the odds that life would arise on this rather ordinary planet circling a modest star at just the right distance in a particular galaxy of several billion stars among the many billions of galaxies, and that this life would adapt and improve over deep time to produce sentient creatures capable of determining their own destiny?  What are the odds that the right two lineages of those creatures among the myriad millennia-long ancestral lineages of those creatures would eventually combine to produce a single unique sperm and a single unique egg at the perfect instant to create unique you? 

     What are the odds you would be born into a time in the long evolution of humanity when so many killer diseases have been vanquished, when so much about all things has already been learned (often at great sacrifice and cost), a time when you can even witness mankind’s early explorations of the Universe?
     What are the additional odds that you would be privileged to live in a land of such advanced technology that your major organs and joints can be replaced and life expectancy is higher by far than it ever was, a land of abundant resources and excellent available nutrition, a land of clean water, a land where you can have access to virtually all mankind’s knowledge in a pocket communication device, a land where you’re free to express your opinions and become whatever you wish if you’re only willing to work at it, where you’re free to save and invest the fruits of your labor, free to enjoy life more richly than any other previous generation on our planet?  (Some 660 million people in Africa have no electricity, much less electric toothbrushes.)

     The odds of all that happening in perfect synchronicity are so preposterous as to verge on the impossible.  Billions to one?  Trillions to one?

     Yet here you are in this place and time.

     Congratulations on your big win.


Monday, June 4, 2018

The mystical aspect

     There’s a wonderful inexplicable something about the art and craft of writing.

     In a Glimmer Train piece about various writers’ approaches to the business, there’s a thread of the mystical running through the comments.  In response to the question, “Is there a point when it seems as if the writing is coming out of your fingertips?” Stephen Dixon said, “The first draft.  I write the first thing that comes to mind.  Immediately the magic occurs.”  Ron Carlson said, “Every story is a journey into the unknown.  The strangest feeling comes over you.  You can’t think your way into it.  If you’re true to the people in your story it’s going to happen.”  David Long said, “It’s like walking through the woods with a tiny flashlight—you just hope it doesn’t conk out on you.”  Carolyn Chute said, “I go into a quiet, almost meditative state.  It feels sometimes like you’re psychic, like you’re pulling in something that already exists.”  Alice Mattison said, “Sometimes I think the things that we write are located in the air above us.”  Robert Olen Butler said, “Many times I feel like I’m channeling something as opposed to inventing it.” 

     Flannery O’Connor once said the writer should be the person who is most surprised by the story.

     The usual explanation for this mystical aspect is as Tim Gautreaux said: “Much that a writer expresses comes from the subconscious, that realm of the nearly known.”

     Surely that’s in large part true, for the subconscious is a treasure trove for any writer or artist.  But there have been times when I’ve wondered if the magic could be something more.  Something yet undiscovered, much less explained.

      I’ve been privileged to feel that mystical energy and delightful surprise occasionally while I’m writing, and I hope you have, too. 

     I also hope a glimmer of it gets through to our readers.