What Killed My Faith in the Formal Channels and Gatekeepers…

I think what may have killed my faith
in the formal channels
and gatekeepers
who hold the keys
to opportunity in the creative world
was, at least in part, the years I spent being a gatekeeper myself
first as an intern at Seattle Repertory Theatre,
then at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT,
where I and my interns would slowly, slowly , slowly plow
our way through the piles, and piles, and piles
of good, and bad, and terrible submissions
from authors and their agents.

When we were really smoking,
the scripts in our agent pile got their thank you no thank you letter in 6-9 months,
while those from the much larger pile of author-submitted work could wait as long as a year,
sometimes two.

As a writer and playwright myself, I always tried to soften the blows of those eventual no’s
at the very least with a carefully chosen adjective like,
that I embedded in at least one, sometimes two
tailor-made phrases,
to let them know we did actually read their work.

As minor a gesture as this was,
I got thank you letters for my no thank you letters,
“My best rejection ever!”

One writer wrote to ask permission to quote me on a poster he created
to self-promote a self-produced reading of his work.
“Sure,” I said.
He sent me a copy.
There it was.
Stefan Lanfer, Long Wharf Theatre.

If that didn’t do it,
then what definitely killed my faith in the formal channels and gatekeepers
was my trying to get my own work through their gates –
the waiting for months and months and usually years for my no thank you letters
that had to be forwarded from our one address to our next and then our next.

Unlike the letters I wrote,
the ones I received were rarely personal.
In fact, my “NO!” often came on scraps of paper –
cut into strips because the sender ‘t want to waste a whole piece.
You could tell they had printed their “NO!” ten times down an 8 1/2 by 11
then cut and sent me one pathetic strip.

Sometimes they clearly did not want to waste even one strip of their own paper.
So, they scrawled (or stamped) “NO!” on my own cover letter and sent it back,
or sometimes a “NO!” on the self-addressed, stamped envelope they requested with the submission.
When I was asked for those, I eventually took to writing my own encouraging words,
Which, years later, when I finally got them back,
lifted my spirits a little,
until I recognized my own handwriting.

Despite all these “NO!”‘s,
the steady encouragements from all those who have checked in on dadtoday over the years,
or have shared their reactions to these stories on Facebook, when it pulls in dadtoday’s RSS feed,
gradually renewed my optimism and hope there is an audience out there for me on the other side of the gate.

Then, a little over a year ago, I was reading Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail
about the end of the blockbuster-only era,
about impact of amazon.com and iTunes and Rhapsody and so many others,
which have there mega-hits to be sure,
but also have thousands upon of titles have that may sell one or two or three copies a quarter –
titles that would never see the light of day
if they had to rely on formal channels and gatekeepers alone
because they are not and might never be blockbusters.
BUT they still have a market.
So, we get to move away from the plain vanilla world of top 20 tunes and bestselling books and blockbuster films
into a world of unfathomable diversity and all manner of niches.
(And lots and lots and lots of junk too
because the no good, the very bad, and the terrible aren’t to be stopped by the no thank you letter anymore.
But there are some gems too. Lots of them.)

Somewhere in the book, Anderson pointed to Lulu.com – a self-publishing site for book authors.
And some time later,
I thought, “Why not?”
So where I and my interns used to crank out dozens maybe a hundred thank you letters a week,
Lulu sets loose over 4000 new titles.
Now they have mine too –

One week in and I have sold a whopping 10 copies.
A modest start.
But we are just getting started.
An out of the gates blockbuster it is not.
But what it also is not
is a NO! on a strip of paper
sliced from an 8 1/2 by 11.

(originally published as “Why I Lulu’d” at my www.dadtoday.com blog)

  • I totally agree. I put in a few years dutifully reading submission directions and mailing off letters and samples to wait for rejection statements that were 100th generation photocopies. The thing that irked me the most was when, an agent might write or email and say that I needed to send return postage to get my proposal back WHEN I HAD ALREADY SENT THE RETURN POSTAGE THE FIRST TIME. I was convinced my stamps and priority envelopes were being stolen.

    Congratulations on 10 copies in a week. I think that’s pretty good, and it’s nice to see a book about fatherhood, which is likely an under-served category.

    As you said, your stories are now published and available as opposed to being a “NO!” and I completely understand. If not for my own efforts and belief in my work, my fiction and nonfiction would be piles of paper in a closet. Instead they provide a small second income and I consistently receive kind comments from readers.

    No one should let the opinions of a handful of gatekeepers keep them from doing what they want to do creatively.

  • stefanlanfer

    Thanks, Tracy. Wow, stealing stamps and envelopes a new low point!

  • Bravo Stefan, I start my week of promoting, writing, job seeking, uplifted by your piece.

    I am thankful to you, SPR and the internet for shining the beam on those who would never otherwise see the light of day. A condition exacerbated in 2010 by the new breed of celebrity blinded gatekeepers.


    G. Hugh Bodell

  • The whole system is ridiculous. I’m happy for anyone who makes it through the gates and is happy there, but too often getting “in” is followed by the reality of possibly losing your book contract or having an editor who not only wants you to change things that need to be changed to believability or whatever, but who want to change the entire plot and character of the story or in the case of nonfiction, the message or how it’s delivered.

  • Holy crap, I should have broken that up a little more. There is a 76 word sentence in my post. That’s my record. I’m going to frame it.