Anglo-Saxons called February Solmonath. There are a number of theories about the meaning of the word, but the most reasonable translation – and the one I find the most compelling – is “Mud Month.” It is not a clever name, but it is perfectly descriptive.
When I was in college in New Jersey, it was called “slush season,” the time when the stunning, pristine drifts of snow melted into the dirt and formed a mash of ice, mud, and exhaust – a nasty reminder of what was once a beautiful winterscape. It was always a dreary month. It was cold, gray, and raw, but without the compensation of a gorgeous blanket of snow. The excitement of the holiday break had passed. The demands of new classes added to the burden, and the shining hope of spring break was merely a distant possibility. The trees were stripped bare, the sky was the dull color of old pewter, and the ground was a dark mush. Needless to say, it was hard to be trapped in the barren season that stretched between the wonder of snow and the reemergence of dormant life with its flowers and sun and joy.
Mud Month is the most appropriate time to consider several of the more challenging aspects of writing, those experiences not always considered when one is flush with dreams of becoming an author. The mud is not evident at the start of the journey, of course. The quest usually begins with breathless excitement and the promise of glory. The siren call of the bardic tradition is heeded, and words begin to flow. Sentences pile up, and the shimmering vision of a bestseller is the dream that inspires the pen or the cursor to keep moving. And then the golden day of completion arrives. The final period is keyed, and the manuscript is done. A stack of pages is printed, pristine papers covered in beautiful, magnificent words, your words, words shared with the masters of the ages. This bundle of papers is your heart and soul, the best of your thoughts, the story you’ve been waiting your whole life to tell. And you are tingling with the idea that your book could be in the hands of millions of adoring fans. As soon as it is published. But that, you think, is just a formality.
Between the exuberance of finishing a manuscript and the elation of publication comes the wasteland of rejection and uncertainty.
Now, there are legends that circulate among those who dream of the imagined Paradise of the Successfully Published. According to the chronicles of this mythic land, there are those luminous authors whose masterpieces emerged from their minds fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. The first agent enthusiastically accepted the blessed manuscript after a moment’s inspection, and the first publisher bought it amid a flurry of praise and promises of an astronomical advance. That might happen; every myth has some basis in reality. However, in the world that most of us inhabit, this is not quite how the process works.
The first glorious draft is finished, but the real challenge has just begun. Between the exuberance of finishing a manuscript and the elation of publication comes the wasteland of rejection and uncertainty – the “Mud Month” of the writing cycle – what T.S. Eliot in “The Hollow Men” could have meant by “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.” It is this Shadow, this mud, this slush that we cannot avoid.
The conceptualization and planning are difficult. The composition is difficult. The rewriting and rewriting are difficult. The search for representation and publication is difficult. But perhaps the most difficult are the twin challenges of rejection and uncertainty, the Scylla and Charybdis through which all authors have to navigate in their odyssey. For us mortals, we can expect the envelopes in our mailbox that we have addressed to ourselves, or the brief, polite emails that ping in our obsessively checked inbox, confirming our fears. Even worse, we hear nothing at all, the thunderous silence we eventually interpret to mean that our prospective agent has passed on our work, not that he or she is busy running around New York, sharing its brilliance with interested publishers.
Between the arrival of the occasional email or returned SASE, there are the questions. There are always the questions, those uncertainties that circulate relentlessly like New Jersey sludge in the mind of the writer: Will I ever be published? Will I languish in the slush pile? Will my writing ever provide a full-time living? Will all the effort be worth it? Am I wasting my time? Am I good enough? Should I be doing something else? Do I need a new query letter, or synopsis, or introduction? Is it the plot, or the dialogue, or the main character? Is it too cliché, or too morbid, or too frivolous, or too dated? Why can’t I seem to catch a break, when that [friend/relative/Neanderthal from the gym] has published a handful of books? If I’m already published, will my next project sink? Did I just get lucky with my other book[s]?
When I feel overwhelmed by the uncertainties of “Mud Month,” I try to remind myself of three facts:
Rejection is not a permanent evaluation of your work. Rejection today doesn’t necessarily mean rejection tomorrow.
Every Nobel, Booker, and Pulitzer Prize winner has experienced this too. Every author has, regardless of how brilliant or talented they may be.
Rejection is not a permanent evaluation of your work. Rejection today doesn’t necessarily mean rejection tomorrow. It just means this particular form of your work is not right for this particular agent/publisher at this particular time. Maybe it is too similar to a book she is already representing, or maybe it needs polishing, or maybe it is not the genre she represents, or maybe you just caught her on a bad day. It’s not always a reflection of the quality of the manuscript or the possibility for improvement.
Rejection is not a judgment on your worth as a human being. You are a valuable person and a capable writer. Repeat that to yourself as needed.
It’s one thing to say Persevere!, and an entirely different thing to feel lost in a thicket of uncertainty, surrounded by broken dreams and unpaid bills, detractors and the wreckage of wasted opportunities, when encouragement is rare, and nothing seems to help. It can be demoralizing and depressing to run up against what seems to be a wall of steel and reinforced concrete. Do you keep pounding away? Do you try to burrow under or drill through, or do you just sit and cry?
So the question is: Where is the line between perseverance and insanity?
I would not presume to make career decisions for anyone else. But I do want to encourage you to keep on when you are up to your waist in mud. Hold fast to what gives your life meaning and direction and fulfillment. If you love to write, if given your heart’s desire you would choose to write, then write. Do what you have to do to earn a living, but keep writing. Listen to valid critiques, improve your craft, learn from other writers, understand the business, move in the direction of your goals, and keep on writing. Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Don’t be insane: adapt, change, develop.
So the question is: Where is the line between perseverance and insanity? At what point do you put aside that 200,000-word epic supernatural romance with sci-fi/Victorian mystery thematic elements and comedic allusions to vaudeville and spaghetti Westerns? Or, more realistically, when do you stop shopping around that beloved literary novel or thriller? When is it time to move on? After one rejection? After two? Twenty? Three hundred? Only you can answer that question. And as any good coach would tell his team, “Give it all you’ve got with the best you’ve got for as long as you’ve got.”
Don’t stop before you have to. And while I can’t promise you success, I do know that it often comes only after prolonged struggle and many a “dark night of the soul.” Just as the mystic who first used the phrase saw it as a stage along the way to knowing the Divine, so the hopeful writer should trust that there are things to be learned in the slush, valuable things about themselves, their art, the process of creation, and the wonders of the world they aspire to reflect.
Believe in yourself and the gifts of imagination and expression you have already affirmed. It is the message of every motivational speaker and hence prone to the language of cliché. You can dismiss it as trite and naïve. You have been in “Mud Month” for months, even years. Your frustrations are real, the hurt deep. But in the middle of the slush, what options do you have? You can give up, or you can keep going, keep writing, keep hoping. There are inevitable casualties, a tribe of “failed” writers (how I loathe the term) who found no publishing success and ultimately turned from the dream that inspired them. And there are those who kept going, those who clung to Samuel Beckett’s motto, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Let the season of mud, however long or recurring, be a means of motivation, an opportunity for refinement. Uncertainty and rejection are inevitable, just as slush is in New Jersey every year. But they serve a beautiful purpose, signals of coming spring, and can be the twin engines that drive us forward. Try to be realistic, but also realize that it is our dreams that give us life and hope, and without them, we are lost. In the end, it is only these dreams and an unwillingness to quit that will see us through the slog of “Mud Month” and into the better days ahead.
—Clayton H. Ramsey is a freelance writer and former president of the Atlanta Writers Club. He has been published in Georgia Backroads, The Chattahoochee Review, Mash Stories, and The Blue Mountain Review, among others.