by Nikki Loftin
Rejection comes in many forms: depressing letters from agents and editors, harsh critiques from writer friends, reviews that send a writer running for the tissue box and the chocolate stash. I’ve experienced them all, and if the joys didn’t outweigh the burdens of this writing life in the aggregate, I would shut my laptop and join the circus this very day. (I bet I would make an excellent lion tamer. It can’t be any scarier than what I’m thinking of writing right now!) But in my work, the most insidious, dangerous type of rejection comes from within, and it comes before a single word is typed. It arrives with a question, a soft, whispered doubt that stops my fingers and my thoughts: “Am I allowed to do this?”
The question is flavored with fear, of course. Fear that my idea is too much for middle grade readers (my intended audience), or fear that the dark places I may go in a manuscript will turn adult readers and reviewers away, and keep my book from reaching the hands of the young readers who may need it, or at least something like it. “I should write funny,” I tell myself. “I should write something lighter, easier. Something silly and with a lot of fart jokes.”
“Yes,” the voice says. “Something safe. Less painful to read… and write.” The problem is, I wrote those safe, easy manuscripts. They just weren’t all that good, not good enough to get published — although my own kids got a lot of mileage at school out of the recycled fart jokes. When my debut novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, came out in 2012, I heard from readers who were surprised both at the fairy tale darkness (it is based on Hansel and Gretel, so yes, a touch of child cannibalism serves as a major plot point), and at the emotional dark places the main character Lorelei finds herself in as she copes with the loss of her mother. I think a lot of people (including some at my publishing house) thought I would tread lighter and shallower, with future novels. Yeah, not so much.
My second novel, Nightingale’s Nest, is a book about friendship, death, betrayal, forgiveness, redemption, and I place the main character in a situation that can at times seem more hopeless than ending up in a witch’s soup pot. (Note: It only seems hopeless. I am a firm believer in happy endings. Or at least hopeful ones!) In February, my book Wish Girl will arrive. Early readers are recommending Kleenex (although they all say it is lighter than Nightingale’s Nest, and it wasn’t nearly as painful to write), and a few have called it “brave and courageous” which is code for “Whoa! You went there?”
You’d think, with the good reviews I’ve been receiving for my books so far, I’d feel more comfortable with writing dark, or “going to the well of pain” as I flippantly refer to my current writing process when my husband asks why I’m crying at my desk.
But believing in myself doesn’t seem to get any easier. In fact, the more I try to write the stories that matter to me, that I hope will matter to my readers, the more I doubt. I am facing a new manuscript now. Another one, based on the deep tragedies of real children I knew and taught, and on some of my own personal heartbreak of being a misunderstood child, and I quail and quiver and doubt myself, again and again. Am I allowed to do this? Is anyone? I have to remind myself over and over that not only am I allowed to write books that address deep issues for kids, I am called to do so. When I forget, when that voice causes me to doubt my own instincts, I turn to some very important words, words I need to read so often I have taped them to the inside of my writing desk so I can see them every day, every hour if necessary.
One of them is Madeleine L’Engle’s famous quote, which goes like this: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Another is a greeting card, with words by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We are very near greatness: one step and we are safe; can we not take the leap?”
Emerson’s words remind me that, to achieve greatness in any endeavor, there is a leap that must first be made, a jump into the void over the internal voices of self-doubt and fear. To write the very best that I can, I must reject the internal rejecter, and leap into the arms of the story that is waiting for me to tell it. And, if I am lucky, it will find a home in the hands of readers who, just maybe, need that story – their story – to be told, so they can face the difficulties in their young lives and dream of those happy endings they so deserve.
Nikki Loftin studied literary fiction at the University of Texas at Austin graduate writing program (MA, ‘98). She has served as keynote speaker for regional writing organizations and library conferences, and has presented at schools from Austin, Texas to Tokyo, Japan. The mother of two sons, Nikki has spent most of her professional life working with children and young adults, first as a Music and Gifted and Talented teacher, and later as Director of Family Ministries for Presbyterian churches.
[Note: Nikki is the granddaughter of Mary and Raymond Moses, my godparents. Raymond was my 7th grade home room teacher. They lived next door to us for five years and then transferred to San Antonio. Later, I was sent there as a sales rep for Rose Marie Reed. They were my closest friends for many years.]