By BILL DUNCAN
Alexander Graham Bell said it first:
“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Since that time there are many versions of the same quotation attributed to others. Regardless, there is a mountain of truth in those few words spoken by the Scottish born American inventor of the telephone in 1876. There is more to his quote as he added, “Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open.”
Back in 1993, Arthur Pine, a New York City literary agent, joined forces with freelance writer Julie Houston to write a book entitled “When One Door Closes, Another Opens,” based on interviews with celebrities, each telling how a failure became the turning point in their lives.
There are some surprising stories of how failure led to success in the lives of George Burns, Milton Berle, Walter Cronkite, Carol Burnett, Ed Asner, Tommy John and in all 50 people — most of them famous today.
I liked the story of Michael Jordan, who failed to make his high school basketball team in Wilmington, N.C. until he was a junior, and went on to become, arguably, the greatest player in basketball history. Robert Merrill was fired from his nightclub singing gig, but was so confident in his voice that he went on to fame as an opera singer.
There is the story of Elton John, who was so influenced by the courageous life and death of Ryan White, the teenage hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from infected blood products, whose illness led to the Ryan White Act. White’s story inspired John to overcome his drug and alcohol addictions and become famous in his own rite.
The entire book illustrates how painful experiences can change lives for the better because for every closed door, another opens. Phyliss Diller is a case in point. Her attempt as a standup comedian in Miami ended in failure when the management closed her show after the first night.
Had that not happened, Jack Parr would have never introduced her routine to the audience of The Tonight Show, and launched her successful career.
Something similar happened to me as a writer. Rejection is a bedfellow of all writers. The ones that succeed simply look for a new door opening. When I wrote my first book in 1967, I luckily had an agent in New York. I had taken a leave of absence from my daily newspaper job in Los Angeles to work on the book. Weeks and months went by without me hearing the fate of my manuscript.
Each time I called the agent’s office, I was stonewalled by secretaries who assured me the agent would return my call. He never returned the call.
I lived in Southern California, a three-hour difference in the time zone between California and New York. One day I called the agent at 9 a.m. California time, which would be noon in New York. All the secretaries were out to lunch and my agent was expecting a call about a movie proposal for one of his clients. He answered the phone.
I explained my concerns and he replied: “Do you know who is sitting across the desk from me this moment?” I confessed I was not clairvoyant, so he told me novelist John O’Hara was in his office. I said something flippant like say hello to John and went right into my request for an update on my own manuscript.
The agent said: “I told you about John O’Hara because I want you to understand I have more important clients than you.”
In true Duncan bravado, I replied: “If you have more important clients that me, perhaps I have the wrong agent.” That bit of bravado cost me an agent when my manuscript was returned as “rejected.”
I went cold turkey and started sending samples of my book to every publisher my research said would consider my subject matter as a book. I sold the book without an agent and after publishing 17 books, I have never used an agent. I just open a new door as my own agent.
The message Alexander Graham Bell gave us about looking beyond the closed door, even if it is slammed shut in your face, is a good lesson for these lean times.
(Bill Duncan can be reached by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, OR 97470.)