Jane Austen. Edgar Allan Poe. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maya Angelou. Ernest Hemingway. To me, they were literary rock stars, who played the written word like Eric Clapton plays his guitar, Billy Joel his piano and Phil Collins the drums.

Each of these authors has influenced what I read, and not surprisingly, what and how I write. They’ve moved and inspired me with their stories, passages and verses.  And each time I “jam” to their work, I learn more about a character or uncover a theme that might have escaped me the first time around.

Probably my first and strongest influence in writing is American writer, commentator, activist, and educator—Nikki Giovanni. Over the years, I’ve swayed to the rhythmic verses of “Ego Tripping,” and felt spiritually and humanly empowered as I read, “Those Who Ride the Night Winds,” a collection of her poems dedicated to “the day trippers and midnight cowboys, … who have shattered the constraints of the status quo to live life as a “marvelous, transitory adventure.”

The author of 27 books, a Grammy nominee, and now a professor of English at Virginia Tech, Ms. Giovanni still moves me. And isn’t it the very nature of a writer’s existence? To move others? To enlighten others?

After all these years, I still want to be like Ms Giovanni–embracing my thoughts and my work without the internal editor or virtual someone looking over my shoulder. I will be forever grateful to Ms. Nikki Giovanni for her masterful command of the written word and her fierce grasp on what makes us think.  She rocks.

Nikki_Giovanni_speaking_at_Emory_University_2008

Who’s your literary rock star?

Write like a rock star …

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Rejection: So, does that REALLY mean it’s over?

No one wants to receive a Dear John, Dear Jane, or Dear Writer letter. Whether it’s from an ex-lover, an agent or an editor, rejection is rejection and it’s painful.

There are varying degrees of rejection. Some can actually inspire you, while others can be downright hurtful. Yet no matter how good or bad they are, our egos and confidence take a beating. Initially, we may want to:

• Scream and rip the manuscript to shreds
• Start revising the book–at that moment–from chapter one.
• Burn the rejection letter along with the other 50 stuffed in the desk drawer
• Become BFFs with Jose, Jack or the Captain.
• All of the above or a few of your own creative choices

Yes, I know. It hurts like hell.

But the next day, after the hangover and putting out the fire we started in the trashcan, we grab our manuscript, and tape it back together. Then we try to behave like the professionals we are, and take this rejection as a sign of getting closer to our dream. And remember, the most successful authors were rejected. I might add, some none too nicely.

I ran across an interesting blog, “One Hundred Famous Rejections,” complete with the blogger’s editorial comment(at the end in italics) that I thought could make any aspiring writer struggling with rejection, hopeful. (I only saw 78, listed. However, I’m sure they’ll have a complete list in no time.)

Here are a few from their list. I urge you to look at the rest.

Famous Rejection #1: F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald, considered to be one of the best American writers, wrote The Great Gatsby in 1922. While the book is now ranked #2 in Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, he once received a rejection letter that read: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” I believe history would beg to differ.”

Famous Rejection #43: Nora Roberts

Bestselling romance novelist Nora Roberts has written over 209 novels! We think that deserves repeating. Two hundred and nine novels, which spent a combined 861 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. But, before all that, there was rejection.

[Nora Roberts] submitted her manuscripts to Harlequin, the leading publisher of romance novels, but was repeatedly rejected. Roberts says, “I got the standard rejection for the first couple of tries, then my favorite rejection of all time. I received my manuscript back with a nice little note which said that my work showed promise, and the story had been very entertaining and well done. But that they already had their American writer. That would have been Janet Dailey.” Nora found a home with Silhouette books, and since then romance has never been the same.

Famous Rejection #69: Louisa May Alcott

“Little Women” would never have seen the light of day if Louisa May Alcott let rejection hold her back.The editor of Boston’s The Atlantic magazine, James T. Fields, told Alcott’s father, “Tell Louisa to stick to her teaching; she can never succeed as a writer.” As far as rejection goes, that one is pretty harsh! Fortunately, Louisa May Alcott never took it to heart. Instead, she told her father: “Tell him I will succeed as a writer, and some day I shall write for the Atlantic!” Not long after, she did!”

Rejection #72: Jacqueline Susann

“Novelist Jacqueline Susann is famous for her book Valley of the Dolls, which sold over 30 million copies. She’s also known for a particularly nasty rejection letter. Editor Don Preston initially wrote this about Susann’s initial manuscript:

“…she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes that would not make the pages of True Confessions, hauls out every terrible show biz cliché in all the books, lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly…. most of the first 200 pages are virtually worthless and dreadfully dull and practically every scene is dragged out flat and stomped on by her endless talk… I really don’t think there is a page of this manuscript that can stand in its present form. And after it is done, we will be left with a faster, slicker, more readable mediocrity.” Wow. Now that’s a rejection!”

Famous Rejection #76: Chinua Achebe

“Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” has been considered a milestone in modern African literature written in English, and is one of the first to receive global acclaim. It has sold over 8 million copies worldwide, been translated into over 50 languages, and was selected as Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. And, it too, was rejected: It was sent to several publishing houses; some rejected it immediately, claiming that fiction from African writers had no market potential. Finally it reached the office of Heinemann, where executives hesitated until an educational adviser, Donald MacRae – just back in England after a trip through west Africa read the book and forced the company’s hand with his succinct report: “This is the best novel I have read since the war”. In 1958, the publisher published 2,000 hardcover copies, and the rest is history.”

Lesson in all this?

If and when you get another disappointing ”Dear Writer” letter, take another glance at some of the most famous authors who had their work handed back to them. And remember, they prevailed. We will too.

And one more reminder. Stay true to you and your book. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t take out Jay Gatsby, did he? If he had, we would have been reading “The Great Whathisname.”

Chin up and keep writing because it only takes one YES.

Are their eyes still watching God?

“Those that don’t got it, can’t show it. Those that got it, can’t hide it.” Zora Neale Hurston

I’ve always been fascinated with the Harlem Renaissance, and the geniuses who embodied a time of artistic expression. I gobbled up any and all literature about the eclectic, cultural period, and the players like poets Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen,writer Jessie Redmon Fauset, artist Romare Bearden, and historian and scholar W.E.B DuBois.

In 1980, it was by sheer stubbornness that I discovered the work of writer, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. I was writing poetry, a few short stories and had begun to think about a novel. I was pleased to learn that Mrs. Redmon Fauset was a leading female writer during the Harlem Renaissance.

But then I became agitated. Why weren’t there more female writers during that time? I started digging–again, and then ran across an article about a woman on the verge of becoming one of the greatest literary figures of our time. Zora.

I began devouring her books, short stories, and her life. Born in 1891, Ms. Hurston and her seven siblings lived with their parents, who were prominent leaders in their middle-class community. Although she had a pleasant childhood, she was astute enough to recognize the often fragile imperfections of life, especially after losing her mother at a young age.

I was mesmerized by her work, “Mules and Men” and ultimately, her most famous book, “Their eyes were watching God,” a spiritual journey of a middle-aged woman, Janie Crawford, toward love and self-awareness in rural Florida in the 1930s.

I remember dreaming of what it would be like to bounce ideas off Ms. Hurston or have her critique my short stories, much like Owen Wilson’s character in “Midnight in Paris,” a writer who travels back in time and becomes friends with greats Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway.

Hurston was such an inspiration to me, which makes the fact that $943.75 was the highest royalty she ever earned from any of her books, heartbreaking. She never received the financial rewards that we as writers hope to achieve. Not so far-fetched, it was still hard for me to fathom that this eminent figure of the Harlem Renaissance died in 1960, penniless.

However, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Alice Walker, author of the “Color Purple,” and a few others who have taken an active interest in the power of Hurston’s work, her ideologies and words live on, much like another hero of mine, Edgar Allan Poe.

In 2005, Oprah Winfrey produced a television adaptation of “Their eyes were watching God,” which starred Halle Berry as Janie Crawford. It received mixed reviews, often citing that the movie left out important concepts found in the book. One thing is clear, it thrust Ms. Hurston’s book back into the literary world–after being out of print for almost 30 years–and took it by storm. Again.

August 2012 marked the 75th anniversary of, “Their eyes were watching God.” Since its original publication, it has been lifted from years of obscurity and now appears as required reading on many college syllabus.

Harper Perennial, (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishing) sponsors The Zora Neale Hurston Award, which honors librarians who demonstrate leadership in promoting African-American literature. A fitting tribute.

Finally, Ms. Hurston’s grave in Florida is no longer unmarked, and is clearly identified with the epitaph: Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.” I hope to visit in the near future.

Are their eyes still watching God?

I believe so. Just read the books of Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison,
and Alice Walker. Listen to the voices of emerging writers, who use the 1920s and 30s as the setting for their WIPs. There’s an undertone, an echo of Ms. Hurston’s voice, and often with the gritty, primitive dialog once criticized by many—particularly Renaissance elites.

Good versus evil, man vs. nature, man vs. man, search for love, the meaning of life, and the fight against societal dictates are still prevalent themes that keep readers reading, teachers teaching, and literary scholars and critics debating.

And in that place where literary greats like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Langston Hughes gather in heaven, Ms. Zora Neale Hurston is there too, watching us.