In eighth grade I entered a Haiku poetry contest on WBAI radio in Detroit. My poems won two weeks in a row and were read over the air. The prize for the monthly winner was an all-expenses paid trip to Japan. Two out of four; I figured I was a shoo-in. I practiced bowing graciously to imaginary crowds of admirers waiting to greet me in Tokyo. But when I went to WBAI to pick up my prize for the first two poems (an elegant Japanese tea set) the woman sitting at the desk looked skeptical.
“Are you writing these poems all by yourself, little girl?” she asked.
Someone else won the trip to Japan.
That was only the beginning of my writing mishaps and misadventures. In high school I wrote a sonnet for the school paper about Joan Baez, though I never mentioned her name. When the paper came out I discovered the editor, a senior two years ahead of me, had altered all the pronouns.
Furious, I stopped him in the hallway.
“Why did you change all the ‘she’s’ to ‘he’s?’ ” I demanded.
“Your sonnet was obviously about Christ.” He looked pleased with himself.
Maybe my admiration of Baez was a bit over the top. But that’s no excuse for messing with my pronouns.
My writing difficulties weren’t confined to authorship doubts or gender pronoun switches; there were unkind letters from editors about stories that were indisputably mine and whose pronouns were intact. According to one editor, my children’s stories all had cracks in the middle.
“The beginnings don’t go with the endings,” he said, smoothly. No cracks there. (Unfortunately he was right, my stories had cracks in them the size of the Grand Canyon.)
Of course, I’ve received dozens of rotten reviews, including a pointedly personal one from a reviewer who described the main character in my middle-grade novel as, “extreme and poorly characterized.” This brought to mind something my mother used to tell me as a child.
“You go from one extreme to the other!”
I suspect she also thought I was poorly characterized.
My protagonist was, in fact, a flawless characterization of an extreme, poorly characterized person.
When your character, or your character’s character, is not being maligned, your marshmallows are getting roasted. Recently, a reviewer criticized the illustrator’s depiction of a flaming marshmallow over a campfire in my new picture book. She said it was cruel to show a marshmallow on fire.
There have been times when the disparagement of my writing posed a fundamental threat to my very being. When an internationally renowned journal accepted my essay about my lifelong fear that I didn’t exist, I was ecstatic. Now I’d known for sure I existed! Then, just before the presses rolled, the editor informed me that his editor didn’t find the piece as engaging as he had. After that my essay about not existing became nonexistent.
I even had a fan letter I wrote to Joan Didion returned to me by the publisher– rejected!
The worst thing anyone ever told me about my writing, though, came from my ex-husband.
“Your writing illustrates tendencies I deplore,” he said, during one of our arguments. I wasn’t crazy about his tendencies, either.
Happily, things began to look up after I married my second husband. John firmly believed I was beautiful and brilliant in the absence of all empirical evidence. Best of all, in spite of cracks in my stories, poor characterization on all fronts, and doubts about my existence, he told me that my writing illustrates tendencies he adores.
That’s criticism I can live with.
Pamela Jane is a children’s author, essayist, and author of a memoir An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story.