You can listen to the audio version of “Sunrise / Sunset” read by Ryan Heller or check out the entry below!
There is a paralyzing sting that follows rejection, much like the bite of a black mamba. An initial burn as fangs pierce skin. A cold chill as venom creeps through veins. A shortness of breath, chest aches. Then paralysis. From expectations not met, from dreams reaching a sudden brick wall.
It’s not what I wanted.
Not what I asked for.
And this snake, this black mamba, is docile till provoked. Expectations lay dormant in the background until I become restless. When I shake a stick in its face, get up close for a better look, start placing all those metaphorical eggs in one basket. With high hopes, with blind ambition, with bouts of entitlement and a lack of grounding.
My expectations, the black mamba.
According to Wikipedia, the source of any lazy writers research, this snake is regarded as one of the most feared in Africa. Its venom can cause humans to collapse in 45 minutes, being referred to as “the kiss of death”.
I hate snakes.
But there’s a metaphor here.
I remember walking through the desert in New Mexico, heart racing as two large snakes curled in my path. Did I mention my love for snakes? I stopped, watched them coil round a broken tree trunk then disappear. I took it as my cue to turn back, heeding the advice of several people who told me not to walk through the desert alone because these snakes are poisonous, the land is vast and I’d be screwed. At the very least, they said, let someone know exactly where you’re going just in case. Just in case, what? Vultures eat me alive? The car breaks down and I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere? Just in case a couple inbred desert folk take me in as their pet? Naturally I listened to none of their advice, not even the strongly urged suggestion to bring water so as not to get dehydrated. I quickly walked back to the car in a snake-fearing panic, bummed and, yes, dehydrated. Fortunately no inbred desert folk in sight.
I’ve been told over and over that expectations are shit. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Never assume. Well I expected to write a book and get published; I put all my eggs in one basket and assumed an agent would embrace me with open arms.
Get used to rejection, someone said.
Of course, I’d respond, rejection is part of the process. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis were rejected repeatedly before publishing work that resonated around the world. I get it, I get it.
But in my small mind there was a glowing, entitled expectation that the literary agent of my choosing would read King Of Stars and feel impassioned to have it published.
It would go something like this:
He sits, my manuscript at his desk, not entirely focused on reading. There’s a mug of coffee to his right, a pen to his left. He reads the prologue, skimming sentences until something catches his attention. A phrase, a word, a story, it doesn’t matter. What matters is he becomes more invested with each page, what matters is little by slowly he is completely engaged. There’s a moment when he says to a partner, you’ve gotta check this one out. This one is different. Days later I’m called by a New York number – it’s the agent. He says they want to represent the book, my heart swells. Within months a publishing house picks up King Of Stars, within a year it’s a bestseller with millions of readers. I’m under contract for another six books, a movie deal comes, the hills are alive with the sound of music. Suddenly I’m a famous author with chiseled abs and miraculously grew to 6’ 1”. The rest is history.
Meanwhile the black mamba slithers in my path as I walk closer, practically teasing the snake. I wave my hands and dance in its evil little face.
Then the rejection letter comes.
Albeit, a kind and extremely constructive rejection letter. But rejection all the same. The high hopes, all those cracked eggs in a single basket. A basket now covered shattered shells and runny yolk.
The black mamba hisses.
He leaps forward.
Fangs sink in my arm, I fall backward.
The unexpected. The greatest expectation is to always expect the unexpected, which I believe someone said at some point. But again, I didn’t take that suggestion either. The ache in my chest, the quiet break of my heart, the onset of paralyses that brings me to the floor with only ability to watch my montage of expectation rain down like confetti. Colorful shards of book deals and screenplays, bestseller lists and handshakes surround my venom-laced body. Thinking to myself, should I really be doing this? Is the book any good? Is it too poetic? Too scattered? Is it 262-pages of self-indulgent bullshit that no one wants to read?
It forms a thick, knotted lump where my heart is. I try moving on with the day but the weight is still felt when I breathe. Reminded repeatedly about the rejection I was supposedly prepared to accept.
Those anti-venom statements begin pumping through my head:
Everything happens for a reason.
This wasn’t the path.
You can’t give up.
Authors are rejected all the time.
There’s a better road in the future.
You want someone who believes in your work.
Blah, blah, blah, it still sucks. But what can I do about it?
I know what I can’t do – I can’t change someone’s mind. I can’t make this agent suddenly want to represent my book. I can, however, be upset, beat myself up and remain paralyzed. I can give up and allow the rejection to take me down, but I won’t. There was a time when I probably would have, but I learned that behavior brings nothing but more paralyses.
So I put on some good music, go to a coffee shop around the corner and write. It’s The High Highs’s “Open Season” right now. Before that was Florence and the Machine. Those fallback artists who put me in a good mood and offer comfort. John Mayer’s “In Your Atmosphere” feels like someone wrapped me in a warm blanket with a cup of tea.
A bit dramatic, but you get the idea.
I was in an AA meeting sharing how I always wanted to do something of Steve Jobs proportion. Anything less wasn’t enough. The next Keuroac or Vonnegut, walk the path of The Beatles or Dali. Be revolutionary, change the world.
Expectations are the black mamba of mankind. Or at least this man. Because it’s go big or go home, change the world or go to sleep. They rest quietly in the brush with reserved agility till you step just a bit too close. Then it’s the kiss of death.
But as I’m sharing about my Steve Jobs contribution or Beatles impact, I realize Jobs was a dude with an idea making computers in his garage. The Beatles were a couple of kids writing songs and playing gigs. Dali didn’t set out to be the Dali we think of today, he didn’t set out to create the Surrealist movement and transform the art world. These people simply did what they loved. They had a vision, a passion, and never gave up. They didn’t set out to be the next anything, they paved their own road and became great icons. True passion is to persevere no matter the obstacle. It is to remain focused in the face of distraction and stay afloat when tides are high.
If I impose my own will in life, I know what I’ll get. But if I remain open, trust something greater than me has a plan far better than mine, then the possibilities are infinite. If I say I want to be the next great author, get published and sell books worldwide – then I may very well get it. But if I use that goal as a guide and remain willing to walk the path unknown, hold a universal hand, then there are no limits. Because I’m not imposing my finite view of the big picture on myself, I’m not driving the car. Some of the greatest adventure has come when I surrender control, when I open my eyes and follow the signs – not try to create them.
One day I was driving alone to a national park. After two hours and maybe ten miles from the destination, I began to pass a beautiful mountain. It was surrounded by bright yellow flowers, a thin creek and lush landscape that simply took my breath away. For whatever reason I knew I had to pull the car over, had to stop and explore. It was one of those intuitive things I could’ve ignored and kept driving, but I decided to honor it. And those next few hours spent alone in this off-road, desolate region was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Nothing monumental occurred, but the spiritual connection I made with myself was one I’d never felt. That day I became my own best friend. Venturing up a mountain, taking photos, witnessing the sun drape golden beams against a mountainous landscape. It was unscripted, unexpected and life-changing. I never actually made it to the national park.
But that’s the whole thing I guess, I guess it’s what I’m talking about. The lesson I need to sink in my head right now. The brilliance of the unexpected.
I have to focus but not lose sight.
I have to plan but not control.
I have to try but not expect.
I have to be teachable but not ignorant.
In short, I have to keep on keeping on. Keep the faith, keep the dream but not the limitation. Remain open to paths unknown with the humble intention to do what I love, what fills me with light and purpose. To keep the black mamba at a distance.
Or some anti-venom blah, blah, blah like that, right?