Zen and the Art of Quicksand: My Twenty-Three-Year Descent Into Literary Failure, Rejection, and Redemption

Colin Hester

It was a claim to fame nobody in their right mind would want to achieve—a claim to fame in the cloistered literary world of Missoula, Montana, anyway. And when I hit my twenty-third year of rejection following the publication of my first novel, Diamond Sutra, with Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint Press in May 1997, I felt like I owned that claim: the longest drought without selling and publishing a second.

Not only had I not sold and published a second novel, I hadn’t succeeded in selling and publishing anything—not a short story, an essay, a magazine or newspaper article, and certainly not a poem—in a word: not a word.

It was a twenty-three-year descent into the despair of failure and rejection; a descent not dissimilar to a voiceless and armless person being gradually swallowed by quicksand: powerless to swim to terra firma, powerless to call for help, and powerless to avoid gagging on the quicksand as it slowly fills the throat and lungs.

When I first stepped into that quicksand, I did so deliberately, stupidly, in mid 1999, when the aforementioned Jack Shoemaker and Counterpoint turned down my second novel. Through my agent at the time—let’s call her P of New York City—Jack generously offered his counsel and guidance regarding a full rewrite.

But, as a Brit, I was teaching at the University of Colorado and doing so on a tenuous and temporary one-year visa. Though renewable, one needed to physically leave the country and re-enter each year—and run the risk of being denied and repelled by the border patrol on their whim each and every time. Thus I had no time for any full rewrite or for Jack’s generous help. I needed to sell my second novel ASAP, earn a tenure-track position, and apply for permanent residence status.

So I turned Jack down. As I did, I could feel the dampness and inescapable suck of the sand as I stepped onto that path, but nevertheless I proceeded, with both feet.

Instead I instructed P to shop the manuscript around until we had a sale. But as she made further submissions in fall 1999 and spring 2000, the rejections poured in like mudslides, and in summer 2000—the day after Independence Day—I experienced that soul-chilling thud in my letterbox for the first time. P had returned my manuscript with a note that she now viewed my writing as “hopelessly literary” and that she had “run out of trajectory.”

So I heeded Jack’s sage advice (which he had passed along in précis to P a year before). Second novel, version 2.0, concerned parallel crumbling marriages on two continents three thousand miles and two hundred years apart. This was summer 2000. I stripped out the historical couple and focused solely on the contemporary woebegottens. When I was done I shipped it off to Jack. The sting of his note of rejection—that the two main characters were too unlikeable—at least diverted my attention from the quicksand that had now swallowed me up to my knees.

So I switched lanes. August 2001. I had developed and written a fiction textbook while teaching at the University of Colorado and the University of Montana. Titled Stealing From Thieves: The Secrets of the Masters Revealed, it broke down the techniques of writers such as Shakespeare and John Steinbeck. In response to my query, an editor at John Wiley & Sons asked not for a partial but a full. Delirious, I sent it off in the first week of September. And as the quicksand stilled momentarily, I waited.

But then on the morning of September 11th, we all diverted our collective attentions to other more vital and visceral things: the taste of the air we inhabit; the laughter of the children we abide; the safety of our bodies. In short, you didn’t need to be standing in quicksand to feel the ground shift beneath your feet.

In the months-long aftermath, I resumed my struggle to escape the quicksand. I didn’t expect to hear from the editor at Wiley, assuming of course he was even still at Wiley, still in New York, or even still alive. I retitled my second novel (version 2.4) Heart Sutra and deigned it the second leg of a trilogy: The Paramita Trilogy. A few yanks on the line but no hooks to rescue me from my descent.

Well, January 2002 arrived. Winter. Darkness. And that was post-sunrise. In Missoula, Montana, it was like spending your days snogging with Drac in his coffin. One dark Friday evening (about 2:00 PM) my phone rang. The caller-ID gave a number with a 212 area code and the truncated name beneath said John Wiley &.... For a moment I puzzled and then with racing heart I knew.

“Hello,” a soft male voice said. He gave his name then said, “I’m calling from Wiley & Sons publishers. About your fiction textbook manuscript.” And in an instant my knees buckled and all my frustration and misery and dismay left my body through every single fluid orifice: tear ducts, nostrils, etc. My mouth, on the other hand, became so dry I feared it might never salivate again, though my heart did salivate so. Why? Because this was it, right? I’d done it, right? I was saved!

And that’s exactly what at first it seemed. He began by apologizing for the delay. He said he’d received the manuscript on the Monday before 9/11 and that during all the horror and confusion the next morning it had somehow been placed in a wrong pile and that just last week he’d discovered it and just today read it right through and had done so at one sitting and that he wanted to call me and tell me how much he admired it and how he hadn’t ever come across anything like it in all his years, and I didn’t say a word, couldn’t. I fought back tears of joy: This wasn’t possible. On a vile, horrid dark Friday evening in a vile, horrid dark month in the middle of my soul’s vile, horrid darkness: my salvation. And then he said:

“Unfortunately, I can’t publish it.”

I was mute. And all the misery and self-doubt and dismay that had left through those orifices now returned, forming around my feet cement overshoes in that quicksand. He explained that it was just numbers. A matter of the accounting department. To wit: His most successful how-to-write title had remained in print for twelve years and during all that time had sold a meager nine thousand copies. It was just the sad regrettable reality of the marketplace.

Desperate, I offered to take no advance. He said that, unfortunately, it wouldn’t matter. Tasting the wet sand in the back of my throat I told him I would forego any royalties until the book was profitable, almost disgustingly groveling, begging. Ever gracious, again he said no, “That wouldn’t be just,” he explained, “not considering all the work and devotion you’ve put into this. I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am.”

As was I, miserably so.

And then somehow, some months later, in the sunshine of late spring, I was back querying agents about Heart Sutra. One agent in particular: agent L. An uberagent in New York, she worked for ICM and represented a substantial number of successful Missoula authors. Agent L, via my three-by-five-inch self-addressed and stamped postcard, requested a partial, which I sent and waited. This was summer 2002. Then she e-mailed me asking for a full. A full! Lore had it that Agent L had attended Bryn Mawr, sold books to Hollywood, actually had threaded a live camel through the eye of a needle. 

Incredibly, a couple of weeks later, she actually called me. Told me that the book “had me from start to finish” but I would need to retitle it and could I do so within eight days. “No editor,” she said, “is going to buy a book titled Heart Sutra that’s part of a Paramita Trilogy.” Retitled? Of course, I told her. No problem. Take a day or so. Two max.

True to form, on the eighth day I had to spend forty dollars to overnight it to her, but I’d come up with Drawn From Memory (the main character is a comic book artist). The mouth of the quicksand quelled its sucking sound. As too did I.

Then a fellow student from my University of Montana MFA days contacted me. Tom Groneberg. He’d sold a manuscript to Scribner, a collection of essays called The Secret Life of Cowboys, and his wife Jennifer, also a writer, had been asked by an editor at Simon & Schuster to assemble an anthology of essays and poems concerning parenthood. She wondered, would I contribute one? And lovingly so I did. Called “Argentina,” it explored how my father’s gruesome suicide twenty years earlier had somehow had a positive influence on how I’d raised my two sons. A few days after I e-mailed it to her, Jennifer called me and told me she thought it beautiful and moving and both chilling and uplifting and she couldn’t wait for it to appear in the book, now titled My Heart’s First Steps. My own heart did a two-step, a rattatatat, a grand jeté. Offered no royalties. No nothing. Just a helping hand to clamber out of the quicksand. I was thrilled.

A few weeks later I received an e-mail from her. Her Simon and Schuster editor had loved it too, but the senior editor had nixed it. The senior editor had also agreed that it was beautiful and moving and both chilling and uplifting, but he didn’t want chilling and uplifting, just uplifting. He wanted only kiln-dried sand in his sandbox and I had poured in a few broken-heartfuls of quicksand. But then, why not? I had plenty to spare. Plenty.

Still, I had uberagent L sending out Drawn From Memory, doubtless submitting the book to the New York powerhouses with the windup-and-fire repetition of a major league pitching machine. But over the months the rejections began to pile up and, terrified that she might dump me, I decided to let her know I was malleable to respond to those rejections with a rewrite. On request, she mailed me the rejection letters. (At least she didn’t read them to me over the phone.)

Sorry L, I just didn’t want to read about a poor shmuck’s struggle to keep his little family together.

Sorry L, I’ve already done a missing kid novel.

Sorry L, the novel moves at almost a too-breathtaking speed, but don’t worry, we’ll do a deal soon, I promise.

Couldn’t do anything about the first gripe—a little like saying about Titanic, “I just didn’t want to watch a bunch of poor shmucks floundering through the North Atlantic towards lifeboats.” But the second I could at least address if not fix (cut the story line of the missing brother). The third I could also address: I would stop channeling Loony Toons and change the dial to Mr Magoo. The result (version 2.5 and circa 2004-ish) was titled The Art of Betrayal, and when a few weeks after I’d mailed it to L. it landed with a thud in my lovely brass mailbox, I quit.

Don’t I wish.

Instead, like an gibbering scribe chained to a madhouse’s typewriter, I persisted. There in the quicksand, the years flew by above my head like kites fashioned from all the rejection notes of my past: a couple of years devoted to a rewrite of the historical half of version 2.0. I titled it The Woman Who Invented Dinosaurs. An agent, M in New York, loved it and found an editor at Norton who loved it so much she wanted to take it to her August digs in the Hamptons but who, in the end, didn’t see it as quite the beach read she had anticipated. Years following, I rewrote that version of 2.0 (where are we now, version 2.i? i for insanity?) and agent B in Los Angeles loved it and requested substantial revisions, which I took a year or more to complete. I did so “beautifully,” she wrote in an e-mail. Alas, she added, she feared the manuscript would end up one of those “quiet books that editors are adverse to take on.”

But still I didn’t quit (though I should have). This was 2014. I had retired, and my lovely wife, Susan, and I had moved from Ellensburg to a tiny apartment north of Seattle, and I wrote a brand new yet doubtless doomed version of a second novel (version 2.you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me), which was about three women who survive the horrors of the last half of the twentieth century. And they also survive the horrors of the “cadre of boyish men who love them,” and do so partially through their shared linkage with the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda. Plus, I had over the years slowly penned to my own on-again/off-again amor and eventual wife Susan, eighteen Nerudian sonnets of love and deprivation, and I wove those into the end chapters.

Alas, agent M thought it beautiful but too literary and agent B concurred. So, telling Susan that the story of my life as an artist was, “Hey Colin, this is beautiful! Just beautiful! I loved it. But, please fuck off and die,” I quit. Done. No more getting yo-yoed like some poor sod stuck for eternity on a fraying bungee jump.

And then my former Zen Master died. Robert Aitken Roshi. He died of pneumonia in 2010 at the age of ninety-three in Honolulu, but I didn’t find out until those eight years later. That night, sleepless and recalling my first years as a pilgrim—my twenties and thirties—and doing so with a slight sheepishness, I looked him up and found he actually had a Wikipedia entry. Not quite up there with being in The Encyclopedia Britannica, but still pretty impressive. During my twenties and thirties, he had taught at the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii, and I had slogged as a traveling textbook salesman in Toronto, Canada. As I did, he was my navigator. We conducted our lessons via the Royal Canadian Mail. The Wikipedia article reminded me that Aitken Roshi had spent much of World War II in an internment camp in Japan, had been a strident life-long peace activist and an author, published by, among others, Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint Press—and he had done so unremittingly, all until the very moment of his death.

Now please don’t mistake this as some paean to the wretched stick-to-it-iveness of the Protestant work ethic. Absolutely not so. There in 2018, my backside hadn’t wriggled and writhed on a zafu—a Zen meditation cushion—in thirty-plus years, and I had, since my Zen days, devoted almost the entirety of my inner journey not to the pursuit of the grand eternity of Nothingness, but rather the puerile self-gratifying immediacy of The Sweet Fuck All. Nonetheless, thinking that night about Aitken Roshi’s being what he was until the moment of his death, I decided to once more jump feet-first back into the quicksand.

My improbable lifeline? Those three women and the “cadre of boyish men who loved them.” But wouldn’t agents think it beautiful but too literary? Maybe they would. Maybe it was.

That was December 2018. Christmas neared. I was yet again up at night while Susan slept and, struck by the nostalgies, I visited the website of Counterpoint Press, my decades-before publisher. And Jack Shoemaker? He still reigned but they’d moved some of the editorial offices cross-country to Berkeley. For some reason, after twenty-three years, I clicked on the ‘Our Authors’ link expecting to find nothing. But there, along with Robert Aitken, was I: Colin Hester. Me. I was as surprised as I was buoyed.

But then depressed, for when I clicked on ‘Submissions,’ it told me that they no longer accepted un-agented submissions. Luckily I remembered that, during the elaborate editorial process that Diamond Sutra had undergone, I had stumbled across the memo that the manuscript’s very first reader had written Jack. Written before he had made an offer. The memo spoke very highly of the manuscript—and had been written, I further remembered, by the author Jane Vandenburgh, and I knew she and Jack were now married.

So I contacted Jane through her Facebook page and she graciously answered the next day that she no longer read for Counterpoint but that I should contact Jack directly. Which of course I did immediately. So I e-mailed him, just before Christmas 2018, telling him that I’d written yet another “second novel” and that the agent who had sold him Diamond Sutra had retired and could I, as a Counterpoint author (as per their webpage) send him a copy. I included my pitch letter for agents.

He responded that yes of course he remembered me and yes he would read my novel though he was swamped and behind in his reading. He added that my pitch letter made the novel sound “odd.” But before I sent it, I recalled my first willfully foreboding steps into the quicksand and I heeded agent M’s advice about the poems. So I gathered them up and placed them all in an addendum. Then I sent it to Jack. Without hope. Without expectation.

Well, the holidays came and went. I won’t say that Jack and the manuscript were completely out of my mind but I remembered how it had taken him and the other Counterpoint readers three or four months before they issued their verdict back in 1995. So if I held out hope of hearing from him, I assumed it would be sometime in April or May. Meantime, on I plugged with all the day-to-day aggravations that cranky old geezers inflict upon themselves. Whatever little optimism I held was eclipsed in my mind by the harsh quicksand realities of Jack rejecting those two versions of my first second novel nearly twenty years earlier.

Then on the last day of January, a Thursday afternoon, my phone chimed. It was Jack e-mailing me. When I finally mustered the guts and opened it, his e-mail stunned me. He told me that he was still reading and to not “give up” just yet and that he’d be in touch soon.

And I thought—well, I didn’t think; rather, I didn’t allow myself to think at all.

If you’ve read this far you know indeed what happens next—you can see it as clearly in your mind’s eye as an episode of The Crown or Game of Thrones. Look: It is now Saturday. The ninth of February 2019. See the old man in the tiny kitchen of his tiny apartment, prepping on a Saturday night for their dinner. Boeuf de Bourguignonne. See him quartering the Walla-Walla onion, halving the shitakes. He wields his Henckels chef knife with far too much caution and far less acumen than that of a real chef. See him clad in navy blue sweat pants and a light-grey t-shirt with a yellow apron tied behind his back that has cartoon cats on its front. He had bought it for his beloved Susan back on her fifty-seventh birthday years before when she was still his on-again/off-again. Now this old man’s beautiful and cherished wife, with azure eyes and a perfect English complexion (indeed, she was born in Liverpool in the same year he was born in London) and a face worthy of a thousand sonnets each by a thousand sonneteers—she sits at her desk around the corner in the equally tiny dining room. His phone lays on the nearby kitchen counter, away from the moisture of his preppings. It warbles its little chime and he ceases his prepping, wipes his hands off on a dish towel, and taps his phone’s screen to awaken it. And when it does indeed unveil its visage, the lock screen causes him to gasp—you can hear him gasp, clearly, even now, and see him steady himself. For his lock screen’s notification band reads thusly:

Jack Shoemaker: OMG as my granddaughter would say.

It takes all his puny cache of courage to open the e-mail, and when he does and reads its contents he sobs, a deep sob from that somewhere far within his heart to where his soul had over the years shrunk and retreated. It is a sob not of joy or relief but of loss, loss after those twenty-three-plus years of the defeated man, the armless voiceless man in the quicksand that he had come to believe he so deeply and irrevocably was but now knew he was no longer.

“Everything okay, love?” his beloved Susan calls out.

But all he can manage in response is to sob again.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: A query from one of your authors
From: Jack Shoemaker
Date: Sat, February 09, 2019 4:46 pm
To: Colin

OMG, as my granddaughter would say.

This is an exquisite piece of work. I wept, and then stunned read my way through the poems. Now I’ve been sitting here, driving freezing rain outside, for half an hour thinking, I really need to get some air.

It would be an honor and privilege to publish this novel. 

I have to publish this book.



Colin Hester’s second novel, Death and the Butterfly—about those three women—was published by Counterpoint Press in July. His first novel will be reissued as an e-book and retitled Diamonds and the Ten Thousand Things. He is represented by agent M: Malaga Baldi at baldibooks.com.