When someone discovers that I’m a writer, they are most likely to blurt one of two things: nervousness at me correcting their grammar or spelling (seriously, folks, don’t worry), or speculation and even fear that I will use them or the details of our conversation in my work. They aren’t wrong about the latter. Everything is material to writers. Interesting people, situations or dialogue will likely catch my attention and I may be inspired to shape it into an essay or story. You are hereby forewarned: all is fair game including, and especially, disappointments.
Earlier this year, I had the good fortune of publishing an essay in True Story, which led to a couple of agents reaching out to inquire whether I had a book in the works. For an emerging writer like me, an agent reaching out rather than me chasing them with wine and roses is an occurrence on par with sighting a yeti. Naturally, I jumped on the chance to submit proposals to these agents while underneath a simmering sense of certainty in my belly convinced me that THIS was going to be my BIG BREAK.
Spoiler alert: Nope. To quote a line from High Fidelity, my guts have shit for brains.
I was devastated even though rejection usually spurs my competitiveness. It’s just that I was so sure it was going to work out. I was convinced that those agents would be excited to discover new talent and jump on the chance to sign me. It would happen overnight *POW!* like magic. I pictured a future version of myself telling the story of how it all happened… except that it didn’t.
What’s a writer to do, then, but obsess about rejection? So I wrote an essay. I needed to cleanse the sting from my system, process what had happened (or, not happened) and set a direction for moving on. In drafting my thoughts, I came to see that, for the past six years, I haven’t been writing a book so much as preparing to write a book. These essays that I’ve been experimenting with—the ones I pitched as a collection to the agents—were teaching me how to be a writer, but they weren’t necessarily a book, though I tried to assemble them as one. Yet, by doing this work was I now prepared to Do the Work; the effort was its own reward. In the end, I came out not only with a new piece but an actual lesson learned.
I shopped the essay to Submittable, who picked it up as a guest blog post titled, “What Rejection Taught Me About Doing the Work.” (N.B. The folks at Submittable were extremely easy to work with, so if you have ideas on craft/creativity-related essays, I recommend pitching to them. And they pay, which is awesome.) It’s odd to be as pleased as I was about getting an essay on rejection published, but we writers are twisted people. Afterwards, everything seemed well and good despite a few more rejections from literary magazines, which rarely faze me anymore. I thought the matter was settled.
Then, it came. An email that arrived a day later than it should have.
You see, for the past four years, I’ve applied for the Made at Hugo House program, a year-long curriculum that nurtures a small cohort of writers to develop original works with the support of Richard Hugo House. This year, I was intensely optimistic about my chances of getting in, particularly because of my writing sample. For the entire month of May, I stalked my Submittable account to see when my application came under review; on June 1, the projected notification date, I kept checking email every two minutes, but nothing arrived. That is, not until June 2, just after 5 pm.
My heart sank when I saw the message appear in my inbox. I didn’t have to open it to know that it was a rejection (all the winners were notified on June 1, as promised) but I double-clicked on it anyway just in case the word, Congratulations! was lurking below the preview lines. The email said that I was a finalist, which should have buoyed my spirits, but it didn’t. For months, I’ve been envisioning a future version of myself working on my proposed project with a cohort of other writers who would become my new confidantes. I imagined myself giving readings alongside them, working out of Hugo House’s temporary digs on First Hill, grinding away at a longform essay into the wee, dark hours of the night (the writer’s version of running up and down bleacher stairs) eventually coming up with something publishable, thanks to the assistance of the program. Maybe something good enough to show those agents, after all.
Somehow, I had become attached to an intangible future again. Didn’t I learn this lesson already? After work, I plodded to the bus stop at Third and Main feeling ridiculously dejected. The experience I had counted on changing my life remained closed. Did they wait until 5 pm on Friday to notify people so that we could conveniently drown our sorrows at happy hour ? I tried to tell myself that this rejection has nothing to do with my worth as a writer—maybe the people who had won tendered better ideas, better work samples, better experience, or better pitches. Next year, I’ll try harder! my inner optimist said as I boarded the bus.
But as I sat down, a voice lurking at the back of my head countered with sour grapes: Maybe I’m banging my head against a wall. Maybe this program just isn’t for me, it reasoned. Maybe I should give up applying, not only to this, but everything. It’s a waste of time. If I stopped writing, no one would notice, anyway. Giving up would be easier than slogging through proposal submissions, that’s for sure. I’d regain a bunch of time and money for other pursuits if I gave up the writing life.
Maybe it’s pointless to write, that voice continued as I got off at my stop in West Seattle. It’s not like I’m changing the world. Maybe all of this hard work will never come to anything. I tried to bat away that last thought. It’s the essence of my fears: that what I’m doing truly is pointless and meaningless to everyone except me. I don’t write for the purpose of recognition but the possibility of connection, yet I admit that I am willing to toil away now because I believe there will be a pay-off someday. My practical self can withstand years of delayed gratification as long as her effort will be compensated eventually, and I can’t help from hoping. The thing is, there is no guarantee that the merits of any creative endeavor will be appreciated or lauded in its time. This fact goes against the manifest destiny of my work ethic (hard labor will be rewarded) and it’s not an easy expectation to unlearn. So what do I do?
After two beers and a day to think about it, I’ve made a deal with myself: I can quit writing when my ideas dry up. Until then, I’ll hold tight to my practice and weather the fat lips, black eyes and broken dreams that these major rejections deliver. But I won’t stop until the ideas stop. Every Rocky needs her Apollo Creed to keep her dancing in the ring, and it seems that writing is mine.