Sometimes a detour is what you really need. Almost always, come to think of it.
The day hadn’t started well. I’d checked my email over breakfast and found a reply from the last literary agent I’d contacted. A succinct but polite rejection of my manuscript: Thanks for the submission, but I’m afraid it’s not for us. I’d had rejections before, of course. Not enough to paper the walls of the room, but enough to decorate a modestly-sized writer’s coffin. And though I’d trained myself to withstand the sting of it all, inoculating myself with peppy articles describing how rejection is as much a part of the writer’s life as the writing itself; how every rejection is an opportunity to learn what could be done better; listing all the famous writers who’d been turned down, how casually, brutally, indifferently, comically; how you can tell a real writer more by the scars they bear, the piles of rejection slips as much as the piles of scripts. Articles that said ‘Get back on the horse. Re-submit. Be working on new things.’ And above all, write, write, write. Because that is what a writer does. You’re only a failed writer if you quit.
I thought a brisk dog-walk would help. I took Lola over the woods.
As I followed the usual paths and track ways, the idea took hold that this latest rejection might be a terminal sign I just wasn’t getting. I was like a sailor in a leaky bucket, grimly clutching the tiller, head down, hood up, doggedly following the wrong star, refusing to believe that the sounds of cataracts up ahead were actually the end of the world, even as I tipped down over it (this being typical of the ludicrously apocalyptic thinking I fall into in the hours after a rejection). What I mean to say is, more rationally and sensibly, is that maybe ‘learning from your mistakes’ can and sometimes should extend to ‘knowing when it’s a good idea to change course’.
I’d already devoted almost ten years to writing. Deliberately subordinating any sense of a career or progression at work to learning how to do it, and most importantly, to finishing a book. I’d had some success. When I was an EMT in the ambulance service I’d written a blog of my experiences, and over time I’d picked up quite a few followers. A book – of sorts – had come out of that. And then whilst I carried on with the blog I’d written other things. A time-travelling ghost story. A thriller about a cult. A fantasy book about a boy with a mysterious affinity for whales. I hadn’t found a publisher for any of them, but it didn’t matter. I’d self-published, been happy with the result, carried on writing. And then came this next book. The Fabulous Fears. An epic story of love and loss, starting in the Hungarian Revolution of ’56, and ending on a canal boat in London. I put everything into it. I re-wrote it seven times. I cut far more than I kept. I shaped it ruthlessly to explore as simply as I could the relationships between the main characters, not telling but showing, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. And when it was done I could actually see it in print. A paperback of average size, with a dramatic and colourful cover – ropes, handcuffs, escapology equipment, canal boat art, soldiers smoking in the foreground. I’m always hopeful when I send submissions off, but this was a different species of optimism, brighter, harder edged, one that might really happen.
They say, semi-helpfully, that the last rejection is as tough as the first. But I think it’s probably tougher, because Time starts to stack up the other side, and you start to worry that you’ll run out of road.
This was the tenor of my thoughts when I took Lola over the woods. She sensed my negativity. She picked a fight with the most perfect Labrador you’re ever likely to see this side of a Dog Calendar. I apologised, put Lola back on the lead, and we headed for home.
And it was then that I met Jack.
Jack is one of those people who are naturally positive, in the same way that some people are tall or short, or good with figures. Even though in his long life he’d suffered more than his fair share of tragedy, still he’d always found a way to pick himself up. He had two rescue whippets, Stella and Pippin, and there was something about their expression – level brown eyes, slightly sad mouth – that reminded me of him.
Jack knew about my writing. After a while I came round to telling him about the latest rejection, and how badly it had thrown me.
‘I’ve got a story about that,’ he said, just as we reached a fork in the path. ‘At least, I think it’s about that. Anyway – it takes some telling, and I know you normally go the other way from here. It’d be a bit of a detour.’
‘I don’t care,’ I told him. ‘I’d like to hear it.’
Stella and Pippin both stared up at me sadly.
Lola fell in beside them as we all carried on.
Jack is retired now. He’d been an engineer, designer, entrepreneur. These days he divides his time between family, dogs and then helping out as a conservation volunteer for the woods I’d just walked through, maintaining the bridges and the paths, coppicing, cutting back, keeping things in order. It wasn’t surprising. Jack’s the kind of man who takes care of things.
‘It’ll be okay,’ he said. ‘Everyone gets knocked back once in a while. Sometimes it’s worse than others. I remember this one time – I was properly down and out, on the ropes and the rest of it. Almost bankrupt, actually. I’d spent the last two years developing this software for ships, a new way of managing dangerous cargoes. It was a good product. I knew it was. At least, I started off that way. But then I’d spent so long on it, making it the best I could, in the end I wasn’t sure. And what made it worse was the fact no-one was biting. I was constantly writing to the big players, faxing them, calling them up. I wasn’t getting anywhere and I couldn’t understand it. It was quite a setback. I didn’t know what else to do. But then, this one particular day, I got a fax from one of the biggest shipping companies in the business. They wanted me to come in to see them, to discuss things further. I can’t tell you how excited I was. I mean, I hardly had the money for the fare, but I caught the next train up to London, in the one good suit I had left to me. So I went in to this meeting, and I sat down with the manager, wondering where everyone else was. And he said to me: Jack. I’ve called you in to ask you to stop pestering us. I said What do you mean? And he said I admire your persistence, so I wanted to tell you face to face. The fact is, we don’t need your product. We’re perfectly able to take care of our cargoes, thank you very much, but – please – if you wouldn’t mind – never, ever contact us again. So I stood up, shook his hand, and came all the way home again.’
‘It was a blow, that’s for sure.’
‘So then what happened? How did you keep going?’
‘The next three months were tricky. But then one of their ships upped and sank. A whole load of toxic chemicals were lost overboard, stuff they couldn’t account for. The entire management was sacked, and the new lot called me up, and they said Jack. About that software…’