Wrongly Rejected (Encouragement for Creators)

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Jonathan Swift once wrote, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” (from Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting) Swift’s pithy but pessimistic saying inspired the title of John Kennedy Toole’s comedic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published in 1980 — 11 years after the author committed suicide. No doubt Swift’s words also described Toole’s general outlook on life.

John Kennedy Toole

Toole’s novel featured the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a well educated but lazy 30-year-old man living with his mother in an uptown New Orleans neighborhood in the early-1960s. Walker Percy, in his introduction to the book, describes Ignatius as “a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Ignatius is a dreamer who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the world; a man born at least a century too late, and who feels that fate is against him.

Toole had a lot in common with his literary character. Toole (December 17, 1937-March 26, 1969) was something of a scholar who lived in New Orleans with his mother well into his adulthood. And apparently he shared with his literary creation the same paranoia, the same fatalistic worldview. Toole spiraled into a deep depression following years of rejection slips. His first novel The Neon Bible was repeatedly rejected, and the writer finally shelved the book. His next and only other novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, fared no better. At the promising age of 31, Toole took his own life.

Toole’s mother never found the original manuscript for Confederacy, but one day she came across a smeared carbon copy of the novel. She wanted to see her son’s book published, so she, too, tried to interest a publisher — any publisher — but to no avail. However, like the persistent widow of the Bible verse Luke 18:5, Thelma Toole refused to give up. She contacted Walker Percy, an author and college instructor at nearby Loyola University New Orleans, and asked him to read her son’s manuscript. He politely refused. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She continued to pester the instructor, now demanding he read it.

Percy writes in his introduction: “…The lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. …My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

Percy recommended Toole’s book to an editor at Louisiana State University Press, and A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published in 1980, with a print run of a mere 2,500 copies. The novel was an immediate critical and popular success, was quickly reprinted (and is still in print today), and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Was its author right? Was the world filled with dunces too blind to see his genius — and all of them arrayed against him? That’s not important, really.

The lessons we truly need to take from Toole’s story are about persistence and seeking help, both emotional and practical. We’ve mentioned the importance of having a “Barnabas” (a facilitator, or someone to help open doors of opportunity, as in Acts 9:26-31) — as well as the importance of being a barnabas. Imagine how differently things would have turned out if initially someone had just taken the time to read Toole’s manuscript; or had been there to share the author’s sorrows. Toole probably would be alive today, and we’d have several more books by him.

Please take the time to see what people “are about.” Don’t slam the door before you even give them a chance. And if you can, be a Barnabas! On the other hand, if you feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope, whether due to rejections or other problems, please don’t wait to reach out for help — to a doctor or a spiritual leader. The world is NOT against you! People can be callous and uncaring, but few if any actually have an agenda to keep someone from succeeding. Above all, if you have a pessimistic, paranoid, even fatalistic outlook on life, put your focus on God. He is 100% FOR YOU.

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 NIV)

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Life, Lincoln and Lithographs: Setback or Comeback?

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How we face failure can determine our future success. If you’re a creator and you accept rejection or defeat as the end of the line, you’re not going to get very far in life. We can view failure either as an impassible roadblock, or simply as a detour.

No one ever plans to take a detour, but sometimes a detour can put us on a different track that leads to better places and bigger opportunities. Mistakes and false starts aren’t necessarily the worst thing that can happen to us. Losing heart and throwing in the towel IS!  T.D. Jakes once said, “A setback is a setup for a comeback!” This is certainly true in the case of a draftsman named Milton Bradley.

Bradley was born in Maine on November 8, 1836, and grew up in a working-class household in Massachusetts. After completing high school in 1854, Bradley quickly found work as a draftsman and patent agent. Once he’d earned the tuition fees, he enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School in Cambridge.

In 1856, Bradley got a job with Blanchard & Kimball’s locomotive works in Springfield, Massachusetts. A nice steady job with a good future — or so he thought. During the economic recession of 1858, the company offices closed, and Bradley suddenly found his career opportunities extremely limited. So he followed the example of other enterprising young men who couldn’t get a job: he entered business for himself — doing what he knew best, working as a mechanical draftsman and patent agent.

But there still was a recession! In 1859, Bradley went to Providence, RI to learn lithography. Armed with yet another skill, he set up a color lithography shop the following year, in Springfield. It was the first of its kind in the city, a business that just had to succeed. Or not! Bradley was about to encounter his greatest setback, and suffer a financial blow that might have signaled the end of his entrepreneurial career.

Springfield was the stomping ground — er, stumping ground? — of a little-known Republican who was about to run for president of the United States. Bradley decided to print and sell color lithographs of the presidential nominee, and the venture proved quite successful — initially. The prints were selling like hotcakes until the man depicted in Bradley’s lithographs did something that completely changed his appearance. The guy grew a thick and distinctively shaped beard. Suddenly, Bradley’s not-so-loyal customers were demanding their money back, arguing that the lithograph was no longer an accurate depiction of the man they all hoped would be their next Commander-in-Chief — Abraham Lincoln! Realizing the prints were now essentially worthless, Bradley burned his remaining stock.

HONEST, Abe! We like you BETTER with a beard!

While sitting in his office, trying to figure out how he could possibly recoup this financial loss, poor Bradley decided to give his fevered brain a little break, by playing a board game a friend had given him. Playing the game and contemplating the ups and downs of life, business and success, Milton Bradley suddenly got the idea that would forever change his fortunes and jumpstart a business that prospers to this day!

The draftsman-turned-patent agent-turned-lithographer created The Checkered Game of Life. He released his new board game shortly before Christmas in 1860. Its sales were AMAZING!

Today, people are still playing The Game of Life, along with other Milton Bradley Company games such as Operation and Battleship. All because a hard working entrepreneur chose to view a financial setback as an opportunity for a creative comeback!

“…The LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loved you.” (Deuteronomy 23:5 ESV)

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