The Beautiful Beast
So how do we interpret this tale?
The cynical interpretation would be “This is unequivocal evidence that the world is a place of deep unfairness.”
Because look at the facts: Lois Rosenthal didn’t want “Elk Talk” when it was submitted to her by an unknown author, but she did want it when it was submitted to her by a famous literary agent. Therefore: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Talent means nothing, and connections mean everything, and the world of creativity—like the greater world itself—is a mean and unfair place.
If you want to see it that way, go right ahead.
But I didn’t see it that way. On the contrary, I saw it as another example of Big Magic—and, again, a witty one. I saw it as proof that you must never surrender, that no doesn’t always mean no, and that miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up.
Also, just try to imagine how many short stories a day Lois Rosenthal was reading back in the early 1990s. (I’ve seen slush piles at magazines; picture a tower of manila envelopes stacked up to the sky.) We all like to think that our work is original and unforgettable, but surely it must all run together after a certain point—even the animal-themed stories. Moreover, I don’t know what kind of mood Lois was in when she read “Elk Talk” the first time. She might have read it at the end of a long day, or after an argument with a colleague, or just before she had to drive to the airport to pick up a relative she wasn’t looking forward to seeing. I don’t know what sort of mood she was in when she read it for the second time, either. Maybe she’d just come back from a restorative vacation. Maybe she’d just received elating news: A loved one didn’t have cancer, after all! Who knows? All I do know is that, when Lois Rosenthal read my short story for the second time, it echoed in her consciousness and sang out to her. But that echo was only in her mind because I had planted it there, several years earlier, by sending her my story in the first place. And also because I had stayed in the game, even after the initial rejection.
This event also taught me that these people—the ones who stand at the gates of our dreams—are not automatons. They are just people. They are just like us. They are whimsical and quirky. They’re a little different every day, just as you and I are a little different every day. There is no neat template that can ever predict what will capture any one person’s imagination, or when; you just have to reach them at the right moment. But since the right moment is unknowable, you must maximize your chances. Play the odds. Put yourself forward in stubborn good cheer, and then do it again and again and again . . .
The effort is worth it, because when at last you do connect, it is an otherworldly delight of the highest order. Because this is how it feels to lead the faithful creative life: You try and try and try, and nothing works. But you keep trying, and you keep seeking, and then sometimes, in the least expected place and time, it finally happens. You make the connection. Out of nowhere, it all comes together. Making art does sometimes feel like you’re holding a séance, or like you’re calling out in the night for a wild animal on the prowl. What you’re doing seems impossible and even silly, but then you hear the thunder of hooves, and some beautiful beast comes rushing into the glade, searching for you just as urgently as you have been searching for it.
So you must keep trying. You must keep calling out in those dark woods for your own Big Magic. You must search tirelessly and faithfully, hoping against hope to someday experience that divine collision of creative communion—either for the first time, or one more time.
Because when it all comes together, it’s amazing. When it all comes together, the only thing you can do is bow down in gratitude, as if you have been granted an audience with the divine.
Because you have.