Yesterday I concluded a workshop by discussing publication and its always maligned cousin, rejection. My students were stupefied when I told them I had an average of nineteen rejections per submission and that at least one essay had 71 before it was finally picked up. A short story racked up 79. Which is nothing compared to the 107 that my friend amassed for her book or the 80 or 90 rejections many of my poet friends get per poem.
I was caught off guard by their surprise because I forgot how fond I’ve gotten of those confirming notes of No. The same ones I deliver by the dozens when I sign onto the journal I work for, Pleiades. But it’s not that I have a thick skin. I bristle when someone argues more cleverly than I or skips over my baked goods at a potluck. But I’ve grown to see how vital and invigorating rejection can be to one’s ego.
Acceptance is fickle and uncertain. It’s undependable, can change. Once, I won a literary journal contest, judged by a guest of the journal, only to have the never-been-published grad student shred the essay and demand obedience before publication. Rejection is a trusty cohort. It’s dependable, a firm shelter. A yes can turn into a no (as my poet friend went through at The New Yorker when her publisher first displayed the accepted poem on the book’s website). Rejection will always be around. Rejection stays by your side and says you are doing your job.
To be honest, I didn’t have rejection ardor until a handful of writers and I formed a so-so friendly game. Whichever one of us got stymied, spurned, scrubbed, or rebuffed more than the others—this person got plied with food and booze at the grad student dive bar the end of a year. I came in second. But how good it felt to be in the running, to be the near-rejection reigning champ.
To be sure, “no” means nothing if you don’t revise, rinse. If you don’t listen to criticism, the writer’s own included. But surely it is the most dependable element of the writing process? And let us thank rejection for its role as a weeder-outer of the less serious, of the tourists and
stockbrokers and dermatologists who think they can write because they’ve mastered success and people tell them they’re brilliant and their teeth gleam like cut diamonds. Or the half-witty sophomores who believe themselves to be savants. Or the racists and misogynists (my record for quickest rejection given opened thus: “She was a leggy Jew”).
A little note, no matter how formal, how ridiculous, how unnecessary (“Just in case you thought we could send out personalized rejections, we don’t”), rejection keeps me going because it’s a gauntlet each time. It is one that weeds out the would-bes, making the rest of us can-bes.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it near impossible to separate environment from creativity. Much of who I am, I think, traces back to childhood in West Texas. What you’ve heard about it is probably half right. I was an awkward bookish but sensitive nerd, prone to lashing out at minor infractions in a macho, gun-slinging, boys-don’t-weep culture. And my same-aged tormentors were not the prepubescent mobsters of G-rated movies, just angsty and broken-down by older brothers and dust. But they shaped me. It seemed that no matter what I tried, I still got rejected.
One of the things that galled at this age, other than the stray shin kicks and the two times I was stabbed with a pencil, was Valentine’s Day. As fellow students overturned their handmade, colorful piñatas of envelopes, we watched as the candies fell, from mine only the handful of mass-market cards from the students whose parents made them write to everybody.
I think there’s something to that kind of ostracism that creates a healthy slanted gaze and distrust of middle-America. I grew inside a ball of anxiety that set my energies to search mood. It was a desire to self-empower, to acquire a community on my terms, to express myself because no one, I thought, was listening. Luckily, in my adulthood, the beginnings of recognition and a remembrance of how I bullied too, even those weaker, would taper my coldness. To say I didn’t take my anxieties out on others, like my little brother and other kids in school, would be to self- exonerating and misinformation.
Flash forward to where I went all-in on writing when I was 25 and teaching English in Japan. I’d gotten the job straight out of college on a whim. My life until that point had prepared me for writing: lonely hours reading, scribbling, introversion. Because my job granted me self-directed moments, I began taking notes, penning essays. But I felt cut-off. I longed for conversations with voices enraptured by sentences. So an obvious choice was an MFA. But something happened I couldn’t have prepared for: at a words Mecca inside fly-over cornfields, I was shunned, the community I craved (I thought) standoffish. Looking back, I see how desperate I was, probably setting off healthy social alarms. If I’m honest, I was confronted by writers who were publishing, some who had agents and book deals, and I was simmering with envy.
I also didn’t have the language for workshop. I opined that writers I loved were “beautiful” and that certain sentences of my colleagues were “boring.” This was the extent I could analyze words as well as the extent of my tact. I was bewildered when colleagues disagreed, even critiqued my critiques. Unaccustomed to dissecting writing, I took this as personally as I could.
It was worse when it came to my own work, which, while it had moments, was jumbled and directionless. I didn’t know what it meant to “front-load” something, nor how to “unpack.” Honest to God, I didn’t know what an “essay” was. I wrote intuitively, with no analytical nor historical appreciation for what I was doing. When my work was cut down, I grew combative and was repaid in kind. My pieces were dismissed as “artless.” I was left off of party invites.
In Japan, I had been confronted by a culture that required me to study its mannerisms and language if I wanted to make any sense of it. The same was true for Iowa, though I was shocked by that fact and resented the effort. These were my people! But workshop, after all, has its own language. Like a lot of young writers, I had staked my identity on writing, fancying myself an untested protege, gearing up for a meteoric launch. That our culture prepares its young people for
unearned fame didn’t help.
Absurdly, a fellow MFA student began sending around Valentine’s cards. I found out only because she slipped one into my office box addressed to another colleague. It was a cute note, ironic, with a joke of encouragement and taped candy. I should have taken this nostalgically, but I couldn’t. I was on the outside looking in, as if I were ten-years-old.
But! As it was when I was a kid, this tumult of emotions kindled a small cigarette coil of anger, which is now simply a yearning to never be the same ignorant, jealous, plebeian dabbler.
I had thoughts of dropping out. But I’m lucky that West Texas sometimes instills in its males (along with a lot of macho crap) a stubbornness that can bode well. Or maybe that was genetics. TLDR: I was invested, tested, rejected, so I dove in. I don’t think I would have been so hungry to do well at Iowa had I been accepted like an old friend.
In my MFA’s second year, I began pouring through craft texts (which for prideful reasons I’d resisted), attending all the readings I could (which I’d also resisted for impostor syndrome reasons), plying my profs with questions (who’d I’d before left unbothered). I began to treat my colleagues like the luminaries that they were. Gradually, my writing began to cohere. I tabulated what an essay could be. I absorbed workshop-speak and the hints from my cohort (immersion,
they say, is the best way to learn a language). So much about workshop is about how the workshoppers know you and root for you, which I only slowly began to understand.
My MFA’s final year was more convivial, and I am now in contact with many of these towering figures. Perhaps, I might have had the same experience without that first year of utter stagnation, but I doubt it. Skating through, I wouldn’t have stored those memories of embarrassment and failure that follow me like a shadow. In trying to outrun them, I plowed harder into my work, into what humble successes I’ve had.
When I applied to PhD programs, I was surprised when, again, I was met with a cloud of rejections. Of the two schools that accepted me out of fourteen, the University of North Texas was the best but seemed like a step backward. Back to Texas, back to my roots, back to, I must admit vanity, a lower-ranking graduate program.
How could I have known that the missing piece was a move back to Texas, a chance to make me reflect on the me that I was? That after three years in Japan and three years at Iowa, moving to my home state allowed my anxious muscles to flex and build, my mind to fill out the space once occupied by isolation. I learned to appreciate, I guess, the space provided, to accept the “no” that had left me with at least one “yes.” To make a home in the backfield.
Surprisingly to me, the writers at the University of North Texas are a productive bunch. I would call them hardscrabble. They know no one cares about their pedigree. Many of them win contests, get book deals and agents, tour. The difference between them and Iowa, I think, is that theirs is not a rank they feel they have to measure up to.
Which is to say this is a “me” thing, not an Iowa thing. I had to rise with Iowa and fall with UNT to find that black pit of myself, my insecurities and weaknesses, from which emanates all my thoughts and creativity and drive. Also, the state politics drive me inward (I spent months in Iowa campaigning for Obama and seethed in Texas). Pampered again, I think I would wither.
And now in Georgia, rejection, mostly, is what fuels my process (and, again, the politics). Every time I get a rejection, this is my cue to send a submission (on good days, I send two—a submissions hydra). The tiny notes from journals, which I keep, remind me that what I was doing is right. I store them in a file like one of my mentors did. Sometimes I open the folder and scroll through them and feel a thrill. I stoke and kindle not a meteoric launch but a modest, modest, modest, more sustaining, more mudbound headspace where I can call myself a writer.
How was I to predict that rejection itself would be not an obstacle to writing, but the fuel itself, ensuring my commitment’s longevity? If I had known, I don’t think I would have taken the journey and change and the “no”s so personally.