I didn’t track my submissions very well back in the day before spreadsheets and the internet, so I don’t know how many rejections I received. Not that many because I submitted sporadically back then. I sent a few regrettable stories to magazines like Playboy and The New Yorker. They would stamp them and return the manuscripts (in the SASE I provided) with a form rejection. I finished an adolescent novel in the early 80s and pitched it via snail mail to maybe thirty publishers. Got a few encouraging rejections but no deal. Damn! I worked hard on that thing. Typed it out on an IBM Selectric. Used a bunch of correction tape. For a while my dreams were squashed but not quite buried.
During my years of career striving and raising kids, I didn’t write much, but I thought about writing a great deal and read many books, dreaming of the day I’d see my name on the front cover. I finished a few stories and an essay or two. I entered contests without winning or even placing. I journaled halfheartedly and cultivated ideas, most of which came to naught.
My mom, Betty Lou, was also of a literary turn of mind. She could complete those huge crossword puzzles in the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and she’d finish 1,000 page novels in a couple of days. She never had the opportunity to formally train and direct her prodigious talent, but she passed on her penchant for dark humor and irony to me. We sometimes discussed books we were reading. I believe it was after a Flannery O’Connor stint when we playfully batted an image around—something about chickens that gossiped among pebbles, then scattered, cackling and running in circles as a truck approached. I have no idea what spawned this, but it became the germ of an idea that I laboriously developed into a short story titled “Ben Stempton’s Boy.” I finished it in the mid-eighties, and it was the best work I’d ever done.
I sent it out and it was rejected. Over and over. I took this as an indication that it needed more of the magic sauce I’d larded it with. The story did, in fact, beg for development. After ten years or so of work, Ben Stempton’s Boy was a novel.
Then a bunch of other stuff happened. Life. I kept writing through the career changes and hard knocks, and by 2002 I was tracking my submissions on a spread sheet. I kept several stories in circulation among the small literary journals, and I continued to revise as I received more rejections. Every once in a while I’d finish a new story and send it out. The process continued ad nauseam.
I read as much as I could, mainly literary authors who’d won major awards: John Updike, Phillip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, et al. I also reread some of the classics, trying to learn craft from those accomplished writers. I learned much more when I enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program through Queens University of Charlotte. I got my ass kicked but survived, coming out with enthusiasm, a clearer vision, and sharpened skills. During this period I wrote and submitted with much more intensity than before, realizing that time was fleeting.
Frustration, though, crept back in. Still nothing but rejections, even though the encouraging ones came more frequently. I couldn’t stop because—besides investing a significant sum in earning my MFA—I’d made a vow with an old college friend, Rod Hardeman, an accomplished painter who’d also struggled with rejection. Back in the 70s we promised each other that we’d continue to pursue our art for as long as we had life and breath.
The persistence finally paid off in 2010 when a short piece titled “Last Stand” won story of the month at Bartleby-Snopes. My first publication! This minor achievement was enough to rekindle my desire. I continued, craving larger success and a publishing contract for that unwieldy novel, BSB, or my novella, Make It Right. But I almost stopped. I found myself trying to come to terms with giving up, abandoning the vow. I’d published infrequently since that first story, nothing that garnered much attention, much less a book deal. A voice in my head was growing louder, telling me that my dream wasn’t going to materialize. Wasn’t it enough, the voice said, to have pursued your dream? I was beginning to agree. After all I’d tried, right?
I became self-indulgent with another old college friend, Larry Hannah, when he was visiting one weekend not long ago. We’re old retired guys now who talk about music, movies, and books. He had followed my writing travails with interest for forty years or so. He grinned and shook his head when I showed him the spread sheet that now numbered around 850 submissions with only a dozen or so acceptances. With him as witness, I impulsively made another vow: I’m gonna quit if I don’t get a book deal by the time I reach 1,000. He said, “I don’t blame you.”
You’ve read this far and are expecting the good news that persistence pays off. Well, I hate to disappoint you. I’ve reached 1,000 submissions and given up . . . NOT! Just kidding. Here it is, the sentence that would have been the lead if I were a newspaper writer: Alabama author Ron Yates, after decades of disappointment and rejection, signs publishing contract with Unsolicited Press to publish his Southern Gothic novel Ben Stempton’s Boy. I’m not kidding. This acceptance (submission number 875) comes on the heels of a contract with Ardent Writer Press for a short fiction collection, Make it Right: A Novella and Eight Stories (submission 871).
So, two book deals in one year, and the joy of 2018 is not yet over. In September I’ll wed my beautiful sweetheart and friend, Carol O’Gorman Mitchell, after almost giving up on love. I’m very happy to have her by my side as we continue this amazing journey called life. So, the point of this story is _______________________________.
Henry David Thoreau put it this way: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I believe this with all my heart.