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11 February 2006

Write some blues

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” - Duke Ellington

SuitI entered a writing contest six months ago with “Laid to Rest in Suit Number Nine,” a quirky little Southern gothic tale about a fastidious man named Nial who numbered all his suits as well as every possible suit/tie/shirt/sock/shoe combination, tracking them on a neatly hand drawn matrix on the inside of his closet door so he wouldn’t go to church two Sundays in a row wearing the same combination. Not that anyone would see them under his ubiquitous beige satin choir robe with that long pointy burgundy sash, or if they did see his outfit, that they’d remember which shirt he was wearing with which tie, but I’m giving this way too much thought.

Nial is actually a real person. And it turns out that when he died, he really was laid to rest in Suit Number Nine, as announced by the preacher at his funeral. I was there when the story unfolded from the pulpit, the mere mention of which had me hoarsely whispering frantically to my mother for a writing implement as I scoured the hymnal rack for a scrap of paper (where are those Lottie Moon offering envelopes when you really need one?), desperate to capture the details of this beautifully odd story, a tale even more beautiful because the preacher telling it didn’t realize the ripeness of it, a Flannery O’Connor novella of a eulogy.

As James Frey and his million little lies have taught us, there is no such thing as an objective first person narrator, so the part of the preacher in my story is played by my mother, whose tendency to make her eyes get real big is just a plus for almost any tale:

“Nial was fastidious, an engineer who catalogued the leftovers in his fridge in a ledger, measured between his tomato plants, numbered his suits, and lived alone. When he died in his corduroy Barcalounger, a numbered list was found inside his clothes closet, a digit for each of the 110 possible suit combinations with tidy notations detailing which Sunday that particular arrangement was worn. ‘The very idea that anybody would catalog leftover squash casserole. Well I’d be to bury,’ Mama said, shaking her head. ‘The preacher said Nial was laid to rest in Suit Number Nine.’ 


Ah, I thought, nine lives, nine symphonies, nine planets, the harmony of harmony. I fumbled for something to say, surprising myself with what I did say, nearly a direct quote from Siddarta Gautama, thanks to Books on Tape: ‘Well, Mama, what is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?’


Her eyes got momentarily real big as she adjusted her hearing aid. ‘Estaleen says I ought to wear a wig because my hair’s so thin after all that Prednisone. What do you think?’”

VonnegutAnyway, the writing contest wasn’t an important, national one with a big publishing deal or dream home at the end of it, but was just sponsored by a local writer’s group. The attraction? The judge was none other than Kurt Vonnegut! Imagine!

I was sure that this was my big break, my opportunity to be noticed, to be swept into Hollywood where they’d wonder whether to use my talents as a screenwriter for black and white Scandinavian films full of heavy foreboding angles and people blowing smoke rings into street lights or, in fact, whether they should just go ahead and showcase my talents as a movie star proper, in the manner of Kate Hepburn or Meg Ryan before the lip surgery.

So, I waited. And waited and waited and waited. I was amused that my husband, John, also submitted a story. How sad, I thought to myself, since he didn’t even remember to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope to get a response. I wonder how he’ll deal with my rise to superstardom while he is relegated to the “incomplete” pile.

And so, I waited some more. Perhaps Mr. Vonnegut was savoring my every word, picturing himself writing my page-turner of a tale, envisioning Kevin Spacey playing the role of Nial and Julianne Moore playing me. Surely there will be a role for Hugh Laurie and Johnny Depp in there somewhere. And that nice Jodie Foster.

EnvelopeAnd then, it happened! The letter arrived! It was the moment I had been waiting for. And poor John, he didn’t even get a response. Now you know, I could hear myself telling him, that they mean it when they say to include a self-addressed stamped envelope.

I ripped open the envelope, my hands shaking and feeling that tinny little odd metal feeling in the back of my throat that you get when you’re about to throw up with either excitement or fear.

“BRILLIANT!” it read across the top, scrawled in Kurt Vonnegut’s very own handwriting! “BRILLIANT!” in very large letters.

Aha! I thought to myself. Good Housekeeping magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Woman’s World, the Asheville Citizen-Times, the AAA travel magazine, the quarterly periodical of the Butter Manufacturers of America, and the in-flight magazines of every major airline may have rejected my essays, but Kurt Vonnegut thinks they are BRILLIANT! BRILLIANT! BRILLIANT! That’ll show ‘em!

SandrabullockIn my head, I started designing my Oscar gown – something muted and architectural, the color of steel beams, like Sandra Bullock would wear. Definitely have to get my eyebrows done by that woman named Anastasia that I read about all the time in People magazine. And all those years of practicing my autograph were so going to come in handy at long last!

And then, I took another look. What else did Mr. Vonnegut have to say (I’m sure he’ll ask me to call him Kurt, I thought to myself, but let’s not rush the process)? When did he want to meet to talk about my beautiful career?

Then it hit me.

It wasn’t the front page of my manuscript that came back with “BRILLIANT” scrawled excitedly across the top. No, it was the front page of John’s story, “Wiltin and Wantin,” that had elicited this highest of handwritten, personalized, specific, exclamatory praise.

I reached for the torn envelope to see how this horrible error could have occurred. “But, but, John didn’t even send a self-addressed, stamped envelope. He didn’t follow the rules,” I sputtered to myself, lamely. There was John’s name and address. In my haste, having seen it was from the Writer’s Group, I had torn into the envelope without realizing it wasn’t for me.

I spent that entire afternoon resisting the urge to stuff “BRILLIANT” into my mouth and chew it up or swallow it whole rather than show it to John.

My sad little envelope came the next day. The self-addressed and stamped one, the one that beautifully and dutifully followed the rules.

It didn’t say “brilliant.” In fact, it had no handwriting from Mr. Vonnegut whatsoever. My story of poor Nial and his catalogued suits and straight tomatoes didn’t even make it to Mr. Vonnegut’s desk. It was returned with a declarative, Xeroxed form letter in a bad typeface, an anonymous rejection strongly suggesting that I might wish to take writing classes before entering any more writing contests.

“Well, my lord” I justified to myself, “after all, Kurt Vonnegut must be 100 years old by now. I’ll bet he can’t even see very well anymore.”

To his absolute credit, Mr. Brilliant has resisted the urge to gloat.

Instead of the Chinese Year of the Dog, it feels like the Year of the Rejection Letter, including the most recent this week from an agent who likes some of my essays, but can’t imagine who she would sell them to as a book project (“inspirational books are hard to sell”), thereby becoming the second agent in six months to resist the temptation to broker a deal that will pay for my eyebrow work by Anastasia, weekly hot stone massages, and trips to Ten Thousand Waves whenever the mood strikes. My friend David very kindly suggested that “you know you are doing good work in the world by the wave of resistance that rises to meet you.” If that’s true, Mother Teresa just better move on over because I’m approaching sainthood, if you get my drift.

In thinking about this pattern, I’ve realized that rejections are coming for the first time because it is the very first time in my life that I’ve put my real work out into the world. It’s an okay tradeoff, this validation of risk and real.

This week, in the midst of a pity parade, I opened a book and the very first line I read was this quote from Duke Ellington: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”

I had to laugh. And then I had to clear off my desk and write me some blues.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

DukeDon’t eat other people’s acceptance letters.

Don’t worry too much about the damned self-addressed stamped envelope. If Kurt wants to find you, he’ll find you.

Detach from outcome. Write (paint, sing, love) because you must, not because you might win.

Stop pouting, clear off your desk, and start writing some blues. Make art of everything, even rejection.



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Ahhh, I've received a few of those letters my self. Hurtful but not unkind.
T'were me, I'd publish you.



Anything can be turned into art when placed in the hands of an artist. Well done on another great work of art!

If only rejection letters were redeemable for lottery tickets or gold leaf or that edible Japanese paper!

I loved this post, and I'd scrawl "BRILLIANT" across the top of it, if that's any consolation.

I guess this is Slaughterhouse-Suit-Size-9.

I hope your husband's name is not Kilgore Trout because this will all be a little too fishy.Good for Mr. Brilliant not to gloat or I could see you throwing him in the moat just to see if he float or swim like a trout.

Perhaps you need to put more dirt in your writing.

3 weeks ago NPR had an interview with the man you call Kurt:

If he won't write you, you can always listen to him.

Thanks for the post.


Great post.

And isn't it the truth. We can pout, or we can write or we can live or we can create. Sometimes all at once.

Do it.


One of my favorite playwright bios ever, as seen at a small, now defunct theater in Seattle, read like this: "Mr. Suchandsuch Playwright has been rejected from some of the finest theaters in the country, including Yale Rep, A.C.T., South Coast Repertory, The Guthrie Theater, Steppenwolf...(etc.)" I loved it.

To put it in David terms, surely he knew that he was doing good work, because he clearly embraced the wave of resistance.

re: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues."

Loved the entry! Yes, those rejection letters can really give you the blues...

You got me thinking about blue.
The color blue.

Blue-sky is a blue that's often associated with happy.
Rain (or too much of it) is a phenomenon that's associated with the blues.
Both kinds of blue are crucial.

In the blue-sky there there are seeds of rain and in the rain there are seeds of blue-sky.
Likewise, in success there are seeds of failure and in failure there are seeds of success. They are linked.
Two very important kinds of blue.

One wonderful thing about failure is that you know who your friends are. :)

Speaking of friends: there are stereophonic blue jays calling and making raucous music outside my NYC window. I hear laughing blue-sky in their voices and wisdom of rain.

The Ellington quote got me interesting in hearing the Duke again. Conga brava.

I loved this! Embrace the horror!

I'm not a huge fan of the exclamation point--but I can't help it here!

Keep putting it out there. You matter.

Oh, I love reading your recent posts in reverse order...since your later reference to "Mr. Brilliant" now makes sense, of course. This is a fabulous story...sorry it had to be at your expense. ;) Congrats to the hubby!

I know I'm well behind the curve in reading this, but oh my, I'm so glad to have discovered it. And I have Billy Collins to thank, since I clicked on a link in today's posting (12-20-07). I love your fabulous honesty! And now I too know why you call him Mr. Brilliant. Great story. Great quote. Great challenge.

It's good to know even great writers who eventually get published, were rejected first.
Thanks for the honesty in this post.

Love this post! It is so hard to face what we want to be when it is not embraced by the rest of the world or when we fear it won't be. Thank you - I cleared off my desk too and wrote me some blues. The best kind though...once the pity party is over and we're just trying to look at life through a clear lens. It's all we can do.

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