Guest Post, Michael Schmeltzer: In Every Word a Wardrobe

Michael SchmeltzerYears ago, a professor in my MFA program asked us to identify the most important word in Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” I chose “cold” because it changed from stanza to stanza, from blueblack to splintering to driven out. One word in various garbs, a new form in each line.

From then on I knew within every word there was a wardrobe, and in every wardrobe a dozen outfits. Rejection is no different; it can shift from shirt to suit in the span of a sentence.


Form rejections are marked most often by the simple accessory of “unfortunately.” No matter how many layers the response wears, we are quick to pick up that single word. We recognize the form no matter the source.

But unfortunately does not belong solely to the literary realm. For instance, unfortunately, there’s nothing more we can do. Maybe we are with a sick pet at the vet’s office or at home watching a courtroom drama. Maybe we are at an auto shop, the staccato speech of an impact wrench like an alien tongue. One word can waltz from room to room and still belong. One word can cinch around our throats like a belt.

The next time you receive a rejection, pay attention to what it wears. This will tell you where you are, and how devastated you should be.


Rejection: to refuse, throw out, rebuff. To fail to accept (as in an organ transplant).

Devastation: the termination of something caused by so much damage it cannot be repaired or no longer exists.

As writers we know rejection. As humans we will know devastation.


My friend Merced was born June 11, 1985. She was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis eleven months later. Beginning in 2010 she would need oxygen full time.

In three sentences we travelled twenty five years. Unfortunately, we are unable to travel much further. Look carefully. Do you notice for what occasion “unfortunately” has dressed?


On November 1st Merced was listed for a double-lung transplant. On November 7th they found a set and rushed her into surgery. The speed in which they found a match was nothing short of miraculous.

Double-lung transplant. Miracle. Merced. Brightly robed and ethereal, all of them.


Rank the rejections in order from least to most devastating:

1) Rejection: literary.

2) Rejection: form.

3) Rejection: acute.

If you acknowledge either of the first two as devastating, you have already failed.


Periodically an article will come out showcasing famous authors who were rejected: Stein to Orwell, Faulkner to L’Engle. Plath. Le Guin. Nabokov. We are meant to identify with the rejected, and at the same time find encouragement.

There are articles on ways to cope with rejection. There is even a website devoted to helping writers “persevere through rejection.” And yet I am sure none of these (a)dress it correctly. In truth, most rejections dress the way children do on Halloween: silly villains and cartoon monsters. So many writers jumping at shadows.


If you’ve been devastated by a form rejection, you are using the word devastated incorrectly.

If you’ve been devastated by the body, yours or another, then I am with you. I grieve.


June 11, 1985 – October 11, 2011


Dear Merced,

How are you? I always like to imagine you are well and taken care of. Tell me this is so and my world would be a little brighter.


I love you guys and hope I will be able to visit you again!

Love always,


After I heard the news, nothing matched or made sense. The form rejections kept coming, a blur of boring costumes. Unfortunately, sorry to inform you, we regret, we’re going to pass.

Pass as in throw, as in so much of life is out of our hands. Pass which immediately becomes passed. And now all of it past, irretrievable. Sorry to say it’s not the right fit. Like receiving gifts from an acquaintance, everything was the wrong size.


Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

– from “Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke

I too was neither father nor lover so where are my rights in this matter? To be honest, I am not exactly sure but I have read repeatedly all sorrows can be borne if you make them into a story; here is mine about the one rejection with a veil over its face.

But today there is a stretch of sky like blue fabric unrolled, the sun like the crash of a cymbal, loud and absolute in its understanding of light. For a moment all I want is to tailor words with the proper attire. I want to match the heat of this world.

Sky, sun, fire. Language and radiance. It is enough to remind me what most rejections look like. Small things, really, naked and harmless.