Back in June of 2009, I put my house in Philadelphia on the market so I could focus on creating the memoir of Jun Po Denis Kelly, A Heart Blown Open. My house sold in August of 2009 (in two weeks, actually), and I did indeed use the money to fund one year of intensive, 7-days a week writing and editing.
I sacrificed everything for this book. It was a leap of faith, and of belief that this story simply had to be told, and told by me. I have never been so scared or so sure of anything in my life, an intersection of faith and fear and confidence.
The End of My World: Rejection
In the summer of 2010, after I finished what I thought was the final draft of A Heart Blown Open, I sent it off to a major literary agency to seek their representation. My whole strategy hinged on them picking up the book, which meant they would be willing to walk the manuscript through the door of a major publisher.
A few weeks after submission, I got an email from the agency, saying exactly this: “…although we’ve both been really intrigued by such a ripe story, I’m afraid I just didn’t fall in the writing as much as I’d hoped. The story has all the details and events, but seems to have a… ‘and then, and then’..type of quality without really transporting to the reader into time and place. Much of this feels like a recited life and not one that leaps off the page into contemporary biography. And without these elements, I’m afraid it will be a very difficult sell in this incredibly volatile publishing market…”
I read those words, and looked around me. The sun was close to the mountains outside my window, in a clear blue sky. It was warm, and a window air conditioner rattled in the next room. A copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind sat to my left, a pad of paper with my scribbled handwriting to my right. The apartment was otherwise still.
After that pause, my world imploded around me like a slow-motion reel of a submarine being crushed at the ocean’s bottom. I could no longer breath. Another rejection — how many did that make? 305? 320? 400? I’d lost count. And not just any kind of rejection, but one that explicitly said that it was the writing, not the story, that was causing them to pass on the book.
I wanted to throw up, scream, weep, but all I could manage was raspy breathing. I limped out of my office into the living room, collapsing on a chair in an embittered, intense silence.
What am I doing? Who am I kidding? Why did I think I could pull this off? I sold my fucking house for this!
As I sat thinking these things, and worse, I looked up from the floor. My dog, Amia, was sitting ten feet away from me. Her ears were flat against her head and mouth pulled down, and her entire body was quivering. She was the very picture of the emotional devastation I was feeling.
She looked, I realized after a moment, absurd, as sad and pathetic as I felt: in an instant, I burst out laughing at my own ridiculousness. The spell had been broken, and I stood up.
I rang my brother, himself an accomplished artist who's seen his fair share of rejection. "Listen," he said, "Go out tonight and get staggering, stinking drunk. Get it all out of your system. Set your alarm for 8 a.m. Get up, and get back to work."
With a crushing hangover the next morning, I sat down at my computer with a cup of coffee and glass of water, a handful of aspirin scattered along side the computer. I opened A Heart Blown Open. The writing wasn’t good enough. Okay. I would see what I could do about that.
I had money left from the sale of my house, money I was going to use to invest and to help me transition back to work after a year of full-time work on the book. In other words, I had money to spend, and could take it down to zero if I had to.
The book’s first sentence read:
“A few weeks after his 28th birthday, Denis Kelly was sitting on the floor of a friend’s beach house in full lotus position, both feet tucked onto the top thigh of the opposite leg.”
After a few moments, I deleted the opening sentence, and typed:
“Denis Kelly was about to commit ritual suicide.”
That was better.
Another paragraph read:
Word came to him a few years after seeing her in the bank that Silvia had lost a battle with cancer, and that her unique expression of humanity had returned to the source. He sat with the news, thinking about how she had saved his life and his sanity, and realized that although he hadn’t seen her in 20 years, he would miss her terribly.
I started over.
After that night, Kelly and Silvia’s paths crossed less and less, and by the late 60’s he had lost touch with her completely. In 1982 he went into a bank in San Francisco to withdraw cash and was astonished to see Silvia standing behind the counter in a conservative pantsuit, working as a bank teller. Her hair, once magnificently long and as dark as a starless patch of the night sky, was short and graying. Kelly too was much changed from the days of beards and shoulder-length hair, and only his eyes might have given some indication of the man Silvia had known. Yet their eyes never crossed, and Kelly did his banking and left. As he stepped out into the California morning, he knew that some things were best left in the past, where their magic remained forever undisturbed by the passage of time and the changing of perspectives. Silvia and Kelly’s bond belonged in another era, in a different world whose time had come, and gone.
Word came to him a few years later that Silvia lost a battle with cancer. He sat with the news of her passing, remembering how she had saved his life and his sanity, and felt the depth of sadness in a world where nothing could be held and where everything slid inexorably, and inevitably, to ruin.
And it came to me as the aspirin began to dislodge the pain from the sides of my temples: the agent had been right — I had been cutting creative corners and being lazy with descriptions.
Later in the day, I realized that part of me had been holding back so I could tell myself, “Yeah, but I didn’t really try” when rejection "inevitably" came (another story of mine). Part of me was terrified of that rejection, and had come up with a brilliantly self-defeating strategy to live with it: don't really show up. Don't try as hard as you can. So over the next six months I labored over every sentence, every paragraph of that book, until it was the best I could do.
This time I held nothing back, and if the writing wasn’t good enough now, I could at least say that I could do no more, write no better. This was me at my best, and there was no more to give. I put everything into this book — time, money, sense of self, purpose for being, and every single ounce of talent.
At 38 years of age, I finally became a writer by finally understanding what that meant. By risking it all, I finally created something worthy of a sacrifice of that scale.
I found the perfect home for my book with a small but dedicated publisher, and A Heart Blown Open is now out in the world, and receiving almost universally glowing praise, both for the story and the writing.
On occasion a critique comes through that attacks the writing, and I won't lie -- it cuts deep, regardless of the source. But whatever people say of the book, it is the very best I could have done. And in that truth, I can relax fully and focus on what matters: the next book.
You can listen to an interview about this, and the entire process of me writing this book on the New Man Podcast.
Update, May 30, 2013: A Heart Blown Open has won the Silver Medal Award from Nautilus Books, for 2013, and was nominated for BOOK OF THE YEAR from the prestigious ForeWord Reviews.
Keith Martin-Smith is an award-winning author, content strategist, and Zen priest. He is passionate about human connection, creativity, and evolution.