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What 40 Years Struggling To Publish A Book Taught Me About Rejection

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Rejections ache, whether it's from a job opening, a college loan, or Donald Trump getting rebuffed by a million marching women.

Psychology Today says rejections can cause such emotional pain, taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) sometimes helps. Book rejections have their own trauma, and yet they're a chance for growth. In the 40 years it took me to get my non-fiction book, The Age of Daredevils, published, I learned about my weaknesses and how to take a punch.

frustrated writer
(Photo: Yin Yang via Getty Images)

In the late 1960s, John Kennedy Toole got depressed, partly from constant rejection of his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, and committed suicide. Following his death, his mother kept peddling a messy carbon copy of the manuscript and miraculously got it published in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

By that year, I'd already suffered a decade of rejections for Daredevils, a saga of men who plunged over Niagara Falls in barrels.

An illiterate robber broke into my car in Buffalo, N.Y., and stole everything but the manuscript in the back seat. It sat there, dishevelled and forlorn, still without a reader apart from my wife, Jennifer, and my always-believing mother Irene (a rejected poet herself). I went home, fell down on the bed and laughed. I had to.

Most publishers' dismissals came in pink slips. To cope with the first 25, I posted them on my office wall, although the décor kept poor Jennifer out. I got depressed. When you pour your heart, ideas and style into a creative work until it becomes an extension of you, rejection finds your soul.

I realized my book wasn't good enough one night when my mother, a born-again Christian, laid "faith healing" hands on my pages.

My newspaper freelancing fell apart and our small family moved to Niagara Falls, Ont., where I went on welfare for several months before finding a full-time reporting job with The Review, a daily paper. In my free time, as Daredevils sulked in a closet, I considered switching to fiction, wrote two unpublished novels and, in 1978, drove 450 miles to seek the counsel of reclusive author Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye).

"If you're lonely, as most writers are, write your way out of it," he said in the New Hampshire woods. "Fiction gives you a voice, but non-fiction can be rewarding, as well." Salinger claimed writing was an open field to those "with enough drive and ego" and that publishers still took time to read salable material. He couldn't give me "a magic quarter to put under my pillow to make me a successful writer by morning."

Back home, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome while re-writing Daredevils. I was in elite company. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have sold more than 400 million copies, but 12 publishers rejected her first works. One editor found Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises "both tedious and offensive" on its way to becoming an American classic. Other writers, like Beatrix Potter, decided at first to self-publish. Her book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, has sold 45 million copies through commercial houses.

salinger stories
Author J.D. Salinger. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, author W. P. Kinsella used my visit with Salinger for part of his novel Shoeless Joe, at a time when its publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was rejecting my own book. Violins, please.

By the '90s, two literary agents hadn't been able to sell Daredevils. I turned to a psychologist and anti-depressants. Perhaps I should have been in maintenance like my father, who hauled daredevil barrels to warehouses after they were plucked from the river. He wasn't interested in my writing, and that hurt badly. But it also motivated my writing engine.

But other relatives were my best medication, especially Jennifer, who's had 27 major operations without complaint.

I realized my book wasn't good enough one night when my mother, a born-again Christian, laid "faith healing" hands on my pages. The rejections were professional, not personal; it wasn't the publishers; it was me. Mom should have laid hands not on the manuscript, but on the man.

I built a Salingeresque fort in my back yard and went there to reason and write, night after night.

Humbled, I sweated over my writing and, in 1999, snapped a 32-year drought with my first acceptance. Competitive Fire, a look at how athletes use their insecurities for peak performance, was published by Human Kinetics in Champaign, Il. Perhaps it was my British heritage, but, I didn't go around shouting hallelujah -- trying to balance the euphoria with the hurt.

Literary agent Robert Mackwood landed me deals for several books on fear, but alas, still no one wanted the Niagara book.

Along the way, my 37-year career as a journalist gave me chance to interview Trump, golfer Tiger Woods and the Queen of England, and to work on satisfying investigations. But, as journalism switched to Facebook, I wanted to write in-depth and took a buy-out from the Toronto Star.

I kept massaging my prose, putting the readers in the barrel at the brink of the falls, letting them feel the spray on their faces. But with no books published from 2010-15, I got depressed again. Thankfully, I still had family support and Jennifer had a job to supplement my retirement pension and my occasional speaking on fear and stress.

I've learned that "rejection" and Tylenol are inevitable, growth is optional.

I built a Salingeresque fort in my back yard and went there to reason and write, night after night, talking to a crackling fire.

Finally, in 2015, at age 67, I tried the digital route and emailed my manuscript to Amazon Kindle. The editor, Alison Castleman, liked it so much, she passed it on to Amazon's imprint in New York, Little A, whose publisher Dave Blum called it "extraordinary" and gave me a healthy advance.

The Age of Daredevils was published in October, 2016. It had early success online and for a month was Amazon's No. 1 best seller for American 20th century history.

Media reviews have been decent, particularly from Publishers Weekly and National Public Radio, but not from some purist readers on Amazon (3.5 out of 5 in about 450 reviews) who don't like my old-fashioned, freewheeling style. I'm trying to listen to readers, and learn from them.

If those critiques challenge my creative soul, I've learned that "rejection" and Tylenol are inevitable, growth is optional.

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