Last weekend I was sorting some old files, and ran across a short story I submitted to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine for a 1981 writing competition. I received my first rejection slip for that story. It was my favorite magazine at the time, and I lived in that world. It’s how I thought.
I was an impressionable teenager then, and I took the rejection personally. I still remember the story title: “The World of Henry Dacker”. I searched for the perfect last name of the main character, and chose Dacker because it meant, “to act indecisively”. That was how Henry had lived life. God grew so bored with Henry’s lame life that He destroyed the man just for the change of pace. Oh! Spoiler alert!
Picture James Thurber’s, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” meets “War of the Worlds,” by H. G. Wells, with God playing the role of the alien invaders. That was not my story. Now picture a really really really poorly written version of that combination. That was my story!
I submitted The World of Henry Dacker fully expecting it to be published, because the magazine was my magazine. I was even prepared to sign over the television rights for a nominal fee, which I was sure they would be thrilled to hear! After all, they were my people. When my story was not accepted, it meant that I was not accepted.
The editor’s rejection letter said that not only was my story unworthy of their magazine, but I was officially not wanted as part of the Twilight Zone family. That’s a lie. The rejection letter was not rude or mean-spirited. It was polite. I was thanked for submitting, but instead of “Congratulations,” the dreaded word, “Unfortunately” was printed. My story did not meet their needs.
I read the words out loud, but my teenage ears heard, “I did not meet their needs.” It sounded so permanent. I re-read the note, hoping to find missing parts, like:
While we are not accepting this story for publication (most likely a decision we will deeply regret), we whole-heartedly accept you as one of us. We somehow know that your other unpublished stories are fantastic, so if you will send us something else, anything really, we will gladly publish it in our next issue without even reading it.
Your loving Twilight Zone family.
p.s. – We love your work in advance!
Those words, or words like them, were nowhere to be found. My story simply didn’t meet their needs. But what were their needs? It was a contest with an open theme for crying out loud! Turns out their needs were for good stories; therefore, mine found itself in the “other” pile where it belonged, although it took a while to finally admit it.
My problem was that I viewed writing as an engineering equation where solving for X always gave the same predictable answer. Writing was a problem to solve, but once solved, always solved. In reality, real writing is a craft that takes real work, and the variables are always changing. I’ve kept writing but never again submitted anything to that magazine. Or any others. I concentrated mostly on my engineering career until a few years ago. I’ve done just enough creative writing over the years to improve, but not with the disciplined approach of a serious writer.
There’s a craft to engineering too, and some really-out-there math that maps out other dimensions, but engineering’s a much safer world than writing in some ways. In engineering, there is no place for two to unexpectedly become three next Tuesday afternoon. Two is two. Done. The value of Pi is a mathematical constant that always represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle divided by the diameter. The square root of 72 is always… whatever it is! Done done.
I’ve said that writing is not only a visual art to me, but one of the most effective types of visual art. When it works, no visual image can match the imagery of imagination when reading or hearing a great piece of writing. When it doesn’t work, no accompanying image in a book will make up for what the story lacks. The magic’s gone. You know it works when it works. There was never magic in The World of Henry Dacker. I was just beginning to learn to write.
Stopping or backing away from writing just because my first story did not meet needs was a big mistake. That’s what Henry Dacker would have done. I was not willing to accept the risks that go along with living in an unpredictable world. I’m not saying that I missed out on a possible writing career, because I’ve got a career that allows me to combine engineering and art.
I’m saying it’s wrong to stop anything because of what I perceive as a failure or roadblock. I was holding onto fears and not learning from so-called failures, if experience should even be called that. It’s about seeing new challenges through the eyes of learned lessons. So that’s what this post is really about. It’s not about rejection. It’s about fear of failure, and maybe of success.
I believe fear itself has no ability to grasp. We’re the ones hanging on, afraid to let go. My wife, Alane, has a favorite question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Without fear or with fear in abundance, we can still enter a place where things are not what they seem. It took time before I was willing to step out of Henry Dacker’s world, and again embrace a world where two may not always be two.
Sometimes it’s anything but, and that’s exciting. It really is like opening a door into another dimension.
“It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call, “The Twilight Zone“.
– Rod Serling