Friday, July 10, 2015

Creating -- and Re-creating -- the Past

One interesting thing about being a writer is that each day sparkles with potential for delightful surprises and wonderful news. At any given time, I have short stories and essays submitted to a dozen different journals; my collection of short stories submitted to two or three book contests or small presses; and queries for my novel manuscript out to a variety of agents. With each submission I send out, my heart leaps with possibility. I carefully choose where I submit individual pieces and projects, and I take the time to read publications and research editors who seem to be a perfect aesthetic fit for my work. When I click the "submit" or "send" button, I always feel excited, dreaming that maybe this will be the one that gets the response of YES.

But, inevitably, most of the submissions I send out are rejected. It's the name of the game; simply part of being a writer. Still, when I get a rejection, it stings. It is disappointing, every time.

Usually, I shake it off and find another journal or editor or agent to submit to. Keep things moving along, keep pushing forward, keep hoping. Every "no" is one step closer to a "yes." Get knocked down seven times; stand up eight.

But sometimes, on low days, or days when the writing isn't going well, or days when something else annoying or upsetting happens, it can be hard not to let one more rejection -- one more disappointment -- steamroll my thoughts towards all the other rejections I have gotten over the years. When you put them all together in a row like that, it can feel overwhelming and hopeless. It's easy to think, Why bother submitting at all? Why go through the trouble of putting my work out there, if it's just going to get rejected again?

Of course, when my thoughts go down this rabbit hole, I'm choosing not to think about all the acceptances and good news I've received over the years: the contests won, the stories and essays published, the nice emails and praise from readers and editors alike. If you could reach back through time and tell my writer self of five years ago where I am now, she would giddily jump for joy at all the excitement I've been fortunate to experience.

In his book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul, David Castro calls this type of selective remembering "Creating the Past." He writes:
"Those not trained as historians may find it difficult to come to terms with the idea that we create the past. But modern psychological experiments speak powerfully to this concept. Mental models or mind maps exert a palpable, constructive influence on perceptions of the past; we tend to see evidence that conforms to our mental maps while we discount or omit whatever does not. An experiment conducted by Brewer and Treyens (1981), one among many, asked each participant to wait in an office for about 35 seconds for another laboratory room to be prepared. They were then moved to another room and asked to recall everything in the office. Participants showed a strong tendency to recall the presence of objects consistent with a typical office. Nearly everyone remembered a desk and the chair next to it. But only eight of the 30 recalled a skull visible in the office, few recalled a wine bottle or the coffee pot, and only one called up the picnic basket. Some recalled items that had not been there at all: nine remembered specific books not present in the office. These findings, consistent with many others on the subject, show that people tend to project their ideas onto the record of the past, thus creating narratives and imagined incidents consistent with their mental modals and beliefs. We construct the past in this way." (pgs. 138-139)
As a writer, I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of stories. I believe they connect us to one another, expand our empathy and knowledge, and help us understand each other and the world around us.

What I sometimes forget is that the stories we tell ourselves are just as powerful as the stories we tell each other. We choose the past we create for ourselves. We choose what details to emphasize and what to leave out of the telling. Just as the people in the experiment were most likely to see the things they expected to be in the office, we are most likely to see and remember the past events that fit into the narrative we are telling ourselves about our lives.

So: are you telling yourself a positive story, or a negative one?

Are you seeing the skulls and wine bottles and picnic baskets, as well as the chairs and the desks?

Are you sliding some books onto your past bookshelf that were never even there in the first place?

Next time I get a rejection, I am not going to give it more power by adding on all the past rejections I have received. Instead, I will purposely choose to remember all the acceptances and successes I have experienced. In this way, I am creating a past that is empowering for my future. I encourage you to do the same!

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