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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My first book, my 75 rejections, and the lesson I learned

When I was doing a lot of school author visits, I was often asked how I got started writing books, and I’d mention that my first book was rejected 75 times. Lately here I’ve been writing about stories that inspire resilience, and this was definitely one of my resilience experiences.

In January 1981, just as Ronald Reagan was about to be inaugurated, I left my job editing a weekly newspaper in New Jersey, where I grew up. I took a backpack and a portable Olivetti typewriter, which had a steel plate on the bottom so you could sit pretty much anywhere, and type — it was slim, but it was heavy — and I flew to Dubai on the Persian Gulf. From there took a soon-to-be-retired British passenger steamship, the last of its kind in the world, to the base of Pakistan. This was at the end of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, and my aim was to travel in Muslim Asia and talk with people. What was on their minds, and why did so many of them to be so angry with my country? I hoped that an unprogrammed, nonfiction journey story (I had made no reservations, had only a general itinerary) might, if I was lucky, produce a book with the shape of an adventure, and maybe the value of insight.

I did the best I could. After nearly a year traveling in Muslim regions, I got a job teaching English and wrote for a tourism magazine in Kathmandu, Nepal while straining to get my book off the ground. I typed and then threw out ream after ream of paper. Eventually I came back home. I moved to Vermont, got work with a cabinetmaker while giving early mornings to the book, and I did get it written, and it was rejected 75 times. I had two successive agents and came very close with some excellent people in the publishing world, but never got an offer. Overall I worked on the book for ten years, and not a word of it ever saw print.

The great late author John Gardner once wrote that every serious writer has one big first book sitting on his or her shelf that no one would publish. This one was mine, and it wasn’t a disaster, really. I learned a whole lot from the feedback I got; and to make the work possible I built a career, here in Vermont, as a freelance writer, which I’ve been doing now for over 30 years. I did 17 subsequent books that actually were published. But anyway.

Telling middle and high schoolers that my first book was rejected 75 times often prompted questions. How did you deal with that? How did you keep going? I would say, “Well, I learned something. I learned that a publisher had the power to reject my book, but they did not have the power to make me quit. Only I had that power, and I could use it — or not."

I’m glad I got the chance to share that.

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