“When you possess great treasures within you and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.”
AN EMAIL ARRIVED in my inbox rather suddenly this week. I had been waiting three months for the correspondence, although I was warned it could take up to six months to hear back. The email began:
Dear Corey Patrick,
Thank you for sending us [your submission], but unfortunately we’ve decided not publish anything from this submission.
The email didn’t leave me surprised. I was not shocked by its contents. I didn’t feel heartbroken. But reading it, I was left momentarily numb.
Three months ago, I had sent a series of poems I’d written to a popular poetry magazine. I sent them with great confidence. Knowing the immense competition I faced, I still felt the poems were worthy of publication. Of course, I am biased.
As the email pointed out, the editors at this popular poetry magazine are forced to whittle “120,000 [submissions] a year down to the 150 that [they] publish, so the odds are always long.”
I was assured, however, that the editors read everything that is submitted without delegating the task to interns or other readers. This is small comfort, but I hold no ill will toward these same editors. As they admitted, they face an enormous undertaking, and are probably not properly compensated for this labor of love. To their credit, any letter that at least lets a writer know that his work is unwelcome is welcome, because hearing something is better than hearing nothing.
I recently entered many of these same lyrical poems into a national songwriting competition. For my efforts, and my nearly $100 entrance fee, I received little. No email thanking me for my submission. No stock correspondence announcing the winners had been chosen, and I wasn’t one of them. For that information, I had to go to their website. I did, however, receive their monthly newsletter in my inbox and an endless stream of ads, injected into my Facebook news feed, announcing more contests in which they would be happy to accept another entrance fee.
Rejection and rejection letters are a hazard of the craft of writing. They are unavoidable. They are the callouses to the carpenter, the aching knees to the basketball player, the unruly passengers to the taxi driver, the underwhelming tip to the waitress.
This rejection may be unavoidable. Yet, it is no less disheartening. It is the type of anguish those who navigate the soul-crushing world of online dating face, at least those who do not possess the chiseled jaw of a football player or the toned abs of a swimsuit model. It is the type of rejection that makes you feel worthless. It makes you feel as if there is something wrong with you. It is the type of rejection that makes you question everything: your efforts, your talent, your significance, your sanity. It is demoralizing.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
I HAVE HOSTED a personal blog since 2013. In that time, I have posted 61 blogs. The content of these blogs range from poetry and short stories, personal reflection, television, movie, and book examinations, and the occasional contemplation on current events. In that time, I have received just under 10,000 views and just over 6,000 visitors.
Underneath the banner of this blog, I have put exactly 94,591 words up to the internet (not counting the blog you’re currently reading). I hesitate to calculate the amount of time I’ve invested in this white whale. It might make my stomach churn.
The blog began in 2013 as a marketing tool for a novel I wrote. The self-published novel quickly drown in the abyss that is the Amazon book rankings. In all fairness, I never gave the novel much of a chance. It was a first attempt at a massive project, and I was never really satisfied with the finished product. To be frank, I hesitate to speak of it because I’ve changed as a writer and a man, and, today, I don’t think it reflects that person. Today, I refer to it as something I once did.
But the blog, the blog became an outlet. In the beginning, I relished diving into the popular culture I enjoy, the movies, books, and television shows I find entertaining. Later it became a place I could share my anguish at the death of my mother and stepfather. It became a channel for me to work through the pain of difficult life events, such as breakups and my struggles to mature as a man. Lately, it has become a window into a growing desire to have a relationship with something bigger than myself, a force in the universe greater than a pasty mortal made of flesh and bone.
That being said, the output on the blog has been sporadic. There are months, even years, I have gone without publishing a single post. Life circumstances certainly have something to do with this. If I am busy, or trying to manage a love interest, my writing usually takes a backseat. Like most purveyors of words, my best writing doesn’t come when I am safe. It comes when I am struggling.
Posting letters on the blog has never been easy for me. I anguish over every single word; I battle with myself over every sentence. I am constantly terrified I will publish something that will be upsetting to someone, and this will get me in trouble. I worry that my writing will rub the right person the wrong way, and this will somehow bleed into my actual existence, the one where I have a good career and a life I am trying to build.
Pushing the post button is an endeavor in my own personal light lunacy. Sharing these posts to social media is, in itself, an act of warfare inside my cranium. I desire each post to go viral, to spread around the internet with all the speed that routers and switches will allow. Yet, the thought of something I write actually reaching that pinnacle causes me intense heartburn.
I have yet to have to wrestle, fully, with that kind of heartburn. My posts have stayed safely in the obscure range of internet futility. On my blog, I average less than a handful of visitors a day. The numbers increase slightly on days I actually post content. I have been sustained by close friends and family who frequently read what I write. This has been bolstered by a small network of friends and followers, with whom I am most grateful, who will briefly navigate off their social media feeds to see what Corey has posted today.
Their patronage and praise is refreshing and unbelievably welcome. Writing is a lonely endeavor. The word processor provides little feedback, besides spell check. One struggles to understand the impact of his words and if those words are making a difference.
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
THE SPOTLIGHTS WERE a bit blinding. The camera was a little difficult to see in the contrast of the lights above and the darkness below. I was standing on a large podium. I was barefoot, so my dress shoes wouldn’t click beneath my feet and upset the microphone in front of my lips.
Behind me, my pastor and his wife were finishing a prayer. I was unable to focus on the prayer. My brain was inflamed. I don’t remember the second line, I thought to myself. I can’t remember the second line. I am going to blow this. I’m screwed. Then the camera turned to me…
In a former life, I was a television reporter. In that time, I had done countless live shots. I was used to the moment when the camera light would go on, and I would need to form words to inform an invisible audience. But standing on that podium, in a nearly empty church, with the darkness around me and the lights shining in my face, with my pastor and his wife praying behind me, I had never, in my life, been so terrified.
A few days before this moment, I had completed a poem titled “No Return Address.” I had been working on the piece for months, but I felt an urgency to finish it as the day came closer. The first stanzas of the poem referred to a fictional grandmother wrestling with the death of her granddaughter in the Oklahoma City bombing. The 25th anniversary of the bombing was approaching, and the poem tugged at me to be completed. On Thursday night, I completed it. I immediately sent the finished product to my pastor.
My pastor shepherds a large church within the Oklahoma City area. I knew on that Sunday evening, April 19th, the 25th anniversary of what was once the worst domestic terrorist attack in American history, he would be hosting a remembrance of the bombing. So, I took a chance.
I may never know what compelled my pastor to take a chance on me. He had never watched me speak. I had never graced the stage of his church. I had been attending his church for a period of time and was active in service. But this was a very important event for the church. It was an opportunity to provide comfort to those who had been through a trauma that, even 25 years later, scratched at wounds that will never heal.
I was a wildcard. There was a chance I might freeze. There was a very real possibility the words wouldn’t come, and I would upset a very significant moment of healing and tribute.
I may never know why my pastor took a chance on me that day, but he did. He is a man of great faith. Maybe, he believed I could do it. Maybe he felt the words were worth the risk of any failure. Maybe something inside told him he should take a chance. He is in tune with the universe; maybe he decided he might conspire to help a young man achieve something. Such forensic evaluation is really only important in criminal cases, mistakes, or difficult breakups. Faith has no time for such reflection.
He sent me a message on Friday morning telling me to prepare. I was to read a selection of the poem at the remembrance. But I must memorize it.
I spent the next few days endlessly rolling the words around in my head, practicing it in front of the mirror in my living room, and swearing to myself at any failure in the recitation.
As the hours passed, and Sunday evening came closer, the anxiousness mounted, and the frequency of the recitals increased. It came to the point where the recitations became thoughtless, but the words also started to blur. The second line was tricky for me for some inexplicable reason. I needed to get past the second line. Failure to do so would result in disaster.
Only a handful of people were in the auditorium of the church, due to the social distancing restrictions caused by COVID-19 fears. The remembrance would be broadcast on various online platforms. Those in attendance, either producing or hosting the event, remained a safe distance from each other. I continued to recite the words in my head as the moment grew closer.
Then, I raised myself on to the podium. The countdown began, and my pastor and his wife began the event with a prayer. My brain became inflamed. I can’t remember the second line, the thought screamed inside my head. I am going to blow this. Then the prayer ended. There was silence in the auditorium of the church.
MMM…Mementos dot a metal fence line
The first line came stuttering out of my mouth. My opening was unsure. The transition from my pastor and his wife to I had been a difficult one, and I knew it.
Lost memories and disappearing time
My voice quivered as the words exited, reciting the second line. But I had remembered it.
Words sent forth to loved ones gone
The fear in my voice remained evident, the word “gone” tripped over my dry tongue.
While the days keep marching on
The words came more confidently now.
A reminder of when terror struck
There was a shift. The words began flowing out of my mouth with power.
The rest of the roughly two minutes, I can barely remember. As I left the podium, I was uncertain if I had just recited my poem or complete drivel. There were a couple of thumbs up from the few in attendance, so I felt I had at least recited something sensical.
I can say this. Whatever drove me to that stage, whatever words had materialized out of my pen, whatever force allowed me to remove my dress shoes and stand on that podium, whatever presence had helped me depart those words from my mouth and into that microphone…that it was bigger than me.
“…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
“His hands were abraded and exhausted, but he listened to his heart. It had told him to dig where his tears fell.”
THOUGHTS ON MOMENTS of pain, of heartbreak and tragedy, is a curious way for an affluent and healthy 30-something man to spend his time. For a person who has faced a rather painless existence, this makes little sense. Yet my writing often pulls from the aches of human experience. It might be the sting of a breakup. It might be a soldier’s struggle returning from war. It might be a father devastated at the death of his daughter in a school shooting. It might be a contemplation of my own mother’s battle with addiction.
I don’t know why I choose these topics to color the words that fill up the empty pages that rest in front of me. It could be a reflection of my own longing to find meaning in this reality, in the randomness of circumstance and choice. It may come from a desire to find hope in the moments where there is nothing but hopelessness.
It, too, may be a reason why I run from this. It may be a reason why, at times, I have buried these thoughts in beer cans or drown them in whiskey, why I’ve traded the time I could have to create for hours of television or by curling myself in bed, knowing I should wake and face the day, watching the moments tick by, choosing instead the safety of my slumber.
I have run from these words. Oh, how I have run from these words. I have cursed these words, and the force that allows them to rocket through my head. Could I not have been given something easier, a path that might end in a different destination…maybe one with a sports car? I have wrestled with this. I have wasted this. Yet, ultimately, I always return to this. I might hurl my pen against the wall and vow never to pick it up again. Yet, it always reemerges in my hand.
Maybe I am finally coming to the realization. This is my journey. This is the road I am destined to walk, whether I walk this road of my own volition, or am pulled through it by a force that I am not strong enough to combat. I have spent a long time looking at this as a curse. Maybe, I need to start looking at it for what it is.
This gift is a seed from the soul of the universe. It is a seed that I must tend to. I may be surrounded by desert and only able to manage small quantities of water. The challenges may be enormous, but the task is of the upmost importance. This seed has been entrusted to me by the soul of universe. If I am diligent, it might grow into an oasis, and there I might find my treasure.
“It is we who nourish the soul of the world, and the world will be either better or worse depending on whether we become better or worse, and that is where the power of love comes in. Because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are.”
I AM GROWING increasingly uncomfortable at the rate in which I turn to her story, to the number of times I have pulled her history out from my back pocket and dropped it on to the pages in front of me. Have I turned her incredible journey into a token tale of redemption, of overcoming obstacles? Have I used her sacrifice and a mother’s love for her children as a way of packing a powerful punch to wanting post? Have I exploited her story for personal gain?
These are thoughts I wrestle with as I stare at a cursor blinking at the top of a blank page, as I once again begin to chronicle the experience of my mother, Jo White Linnemon. At least her experience, filtered through the eyes of her son.
The roughly dozen times I have written about my mother and posted them online are variations of my understanding of her experience and my memories of that experience. As a young woman, Jo struggled with alcohol, and with two small children at home was given a choice. Sober up or lose your kids.
Getting sober was not easy for her, as anyone who has struggled with substance abuse might understand. But she faced the titanic confrontation with a courage she had previously lacked, the thought she might lose what mattered most in the world offering her ammunition to wage war on an extremely potent enemy.
Mom got sober and spent the last quarter century of her life free from the bondage of alcohol. She became a doting mother, a devoted wife, and a loyal friend and comforting companion to more people than I can count.
In my defense, there are many reasons that I would write about my mother that are not exploitative. When I write these words, I feel closer to her. I can hear her beautiful laugh. I can recall her words of wisdom and encouragement. I can feel her in a strong embrace. For the briefest of moments, she is with me again.
I am also certain she would want her story to help.
For many years, before her death a little over a half decade ago, my mother was an AA sponsor and an addiction counselor. She used her climb toward sobriety to help others reach that same peak. She grabbed a bucket and drew it down into a deep, dark well of personal experience, raised that bucket, and offered those thirsty for change a chance to drink.
As I sit here and wrestle with these words, I do wonder what she might think of my decision to take her life story, without permission, and publish it on to the internet for anyone curious to view.
I take great comfort in knowing what she would say. I know the woman who spent the second half of her life devoted to helping hurting people navigate the jagged edges of recovery. I know how she would feel. I know she would believe that if her story could help one besieged individual, could aid just one single person to free themselves from the chains of addiction, could assist just one parent to be reunited with their children, then all of this would be worth it.
Such was the depth of her sacrifice.
“No matter what he does, every person plays a central role in the history of the world, and normally he doesn’t know it.”
MAYBE IT IS TIME FOR TO ADMIT that my words may never grace the pages of a national magazine. I may never share a Nashville studio with a country music icon who has decided to put music to lyrics I’ve written. There may never be a Pulitzer or an Oscar. I may never catch the eye of an editor who can expand my reach in exponential ways. The rejection letters will continue to divebomb into my inbox months after I’ve begged an online submission portal to consider publishing letters I’ve poured my heart into. For many years, these are the places I have sought treasure. Maybe, I have been looking for treasure in the wrong places.
I could seek treasure in the Amazon book rankings. I could seek it in blog pageviews, clicks, shares, and mentions. I could seek it in the number of followers I have. I could stare at my online analytics and wonder why I keep digging for diamonds and keep coming up with dirt.
Maybe it’s time for me to admit that my search for treasure has been fruitless, because I am searching for it in all the places that it isn’t. Maybe it is time for me to realize that I should stop, listen to my heart, and dig where my tears have fallen.
In early April, I published a post I titled “Hope in the Time of Coronavirus.” This was when the world was still beginning to comprehend strange, new realities like social distancing and shelter in place. This was a time before these things became a normal part of human existence. It was a time when people were raiding the grocery stores for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. At this time, I was anxious, and I put that energy into my words and posted the result.
A few days after this posting, I received a comment underneath the post. This was wildly abnormal. In fact, in the seven years, 61 posts, and nearly 100,000 words that I had placed on the blog. I had received only one other comment specifically on the blog. That comment was from my wonderful stepmother praising me for my efforts.
This comment, however, came from a total stranger, a person I had no connection with or had never had any interaction with (as far as I know). This stranger wrote:
Loved your article. It was very informative. I think everyone is feeling the same way. Lost, anxiety and just scared.
Thank you for writing this. It made me feel better and not so alone.
My words had given comfort to someone I didn’t know. The words had offered a person a respite, however briefly, from isolation and loneliness. The words, in some small way, had made someone’s life a little brighter.
Yeah, I have been looking for my treasure in the wrong places. It has been there all along, in a place I am very familiar with. It has always been in the place where my tears fell. I just needed to listen to my heart and dig.
When I did, I found I had brought some small nourishment to the soul of the universe. My mother would be proud. Maybe this is all the treasure I need. Maybe it’s the only treasure that matters.