on writing

Today I was reminded of a story from Stephen King’s book, On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft.  Here are his words —

My room in our Durham house was upstairs, under the eaves.  At night I could lie in bed beneath one of these eaves– if I sat up suddenly, I was apt to whack my head a good one — and read by the light of a gooseneck lamp that put an amusing boa constrictor of shadow on the ceiling.  Sometimes the house was quiet except for the whoosh of the furnace and the patter of rats in the attic; sometimes my grandmother would spend an hour or so around midnight yelling for someone to check Dick — she was afraid he hadn’t been fed.  Dick, a horse she’d had in her days as a schoolteacher, was at least forty years dead.  I had a desk beneath the room’s other eave, my old Royal typewriter, and a hundred or so paperback books, mostly science fiction, which I lined up along the baseboard.  On my bureau was a Bible won for memorizing verses in Methodist Youth Fellowship and a Webcor phonograph with an automatic changer and a turntable covered in soft green velvet.  On it I played my records, mostly 45s by Elivs, Chuck Berry, Freddy Cannon, and Fats Domino.  I liked Fats; he knew how to rock, and you could tell he was having fun.

When I got my rejection slip from AHMM [Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine], I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor, wrote “Happy Stamps” on the rejection slip, and poked it onto the nail.  Then I sat on my bed and  listened to Fats sing “I’m Ready.”  I felt pretty good, actually.  When you’re still to young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.

By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it.  I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.  By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging than the advice to stop using staples and start using paperclips.  The first of these hopeful notes was from Algis Budrys, then the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who read a story of mine called “The Night of the Tiger” (the inspiration was, I think, an episode of the fugitive in which Dr. Richard Kimble worked as an attendant cleaning out cages in a zoo or a circus) and wrote:  “This is good.  Not for us, but good.  You have talent.  Submit again.”

Those four brief sentences, scribbled by a fountain pen that left big ragged blotches in its wake, brightened the dismal winter of my sixteenth year.  Ten years or so later, after I’d sold a couple of novels, I discovered “The Night of the Tiger” in a box of old manuscripts and thought it was still a perfectly respectable tale, albeit one obviously written by a guy who had only begun to learn his chops.  I rewrote it and on a whim resubmitted to F&SF.  This time they bought it.  One thing I’ve noticed is that when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, “Not for us.”