Over the years, I’ve collected rejection letters the way that most people collect books or underpants. I’ve learned that they’re part of the process, they’re pretty much inevitable, and, most of all, no matter how shitty my hair looks on any given day, they’re not personal. Also, it doesn’t matter how much good karma you try to generate by tossing pennies into the Salvation Army’s cup, or by smiling at post-office employees, the business of being rejected has nothing to do with how good of a person you are. The trick is to convince yourself that it has nothing to do with how good of a writer you are either.
My first rejection letter came on an afternoon in my preteen years. Coming home from a soccer game, which we had lost, I discovered a piece of mail on my desk, next to my goldfish bowl. My goldfish, of the five-cent carnival variety, was floating belly-up in the vase that served as his bowl. My fledgling poetry career was doing the same in the envelope. I lay down on my bed and took a nap.
Over the years I became desensitized, nay, even brazen about it. Stumbling home drunk at four-thirty in the morning, I’d struggle with my mailbox key and discover the latest gently-worded “fuck you” in the tiny compartment. I treated it no differently than the bevy of men and women I’d sauntered up to over the course of the evening, leaving with little more than napkin scrawl and a potential future outbreak of herpes simplex. Rejection is part of life. I stopped caring and started treating it as less of an occupational hazard, more as simply part of the job description. So long as I was still submitting I was still a writer. I became a hope junkie.
A few weeks ago I started work on a satirical essay that was pretty close to my little robot heart. It made light of caretaking and parents, it poked fun at some of the less-than-pleasant aspects of helping a sick family member at home. Of course, I drew on some of my personal experience thus far, as I’m lending a hand to my mom and playing the role of Falcor in our Neverending Chemo Story. I edited the shit out of the piece when I was done with draft one, and made sure that it struck the right balance between wholly acerbic and sorta poignant. I mulled over it, took my time, gave it breathing room, and…I liked it. That’s rare.
I thought of where to send it, after all, it’s not like there’s a gigantic market for gallows humor, unless I’m completely mistaken. Then I thought of McSweeney’s. Probably my favorite website, chock full of chuckle-worthy good writing and brainy wordplay, of course they’d accept a quirky little piece about homecare! They are the website that’s filled with genre-transcending prose and lists, a sanctuary for the some of the most daring of swashbuckling pens. Maybe they had a slot open for a hopeful nobody.
As glib as I’m being, it wasn’t as if I simply expected to be accepted. I truly believe that I suck, just as much as the next fledgling creative, and certainly I acknowledge that I suck much more than those who have been lucky enough to find themselves in McSweeney’s. I’ve had more than one list play the role of skeet for their editor’s marksmanship. I hadn’t cared in the past. But this piece was different. More polished, closer to the marrow, locked within the birdcage beneath my nonexistent breasts. I edited it, spell checked it twice, said a small agnostic prayer, and sent it to their site editor, wishing it godspeed.
The days that followed were filled with what keeps me doing something so stupid as submitting to publications. I became buoyant with growing expectation, dancing along on my Converse, the Gene Kelly of my own rags-to-riches story of ambition, perseverance, and a flash fiction piece about cancer. My dreams were filled with literary success, launched by my little lampoonery. I’d make a name for myself. I’d be paid to write essays and articles. I’d make a living. I’d have Simon wearing a loincloth, fanning me with a palm frond, and feeding me green grapes by hand. (And vegan soft-serve by mouth.) Life was gonna look up. For the first time in my life as a writer, I was convinced I’d be embraced by the warm, snuggley arms of an editor on his ivory throne. Welcome, the letter would say, to where you’ve always wanted to be. Cherubs would sing and play Röysksopp on little harps. Chinchilas would do the hula. Maynard James Keenan would write me fan mail. I would be in McSweeney’s. I would.
After my mom took her first monster dose of Xeloda, I ran out to buy her the B-6 vitamins she’d forgotten to take to prevent neuropathy. It was there, in the pharmacy parking lot, under a heavy, gray sky that I checked my email on my dented, pink Sidekick-ID.
“Hi, Ainsley. This one is not without its moments, but overall the conceit is just a little too dark to win me over. Appreciate the look, though. Hope you’ll keep trying.”
The sort of devastation one feels when dealing with acute failure is palpable. I’m not talking about the closing pitcher who blows an occasional game, or the still-beautiful pop singer whose third album doesn’t break the top ten on the charts. I’m specifically addressing the sort of failure that one feels when one believes, in no uncertain terms, that they will achieve great success. I hadn’t gotten all flushed and dewy eyed when Brown University bitch slapped my dreams of grad school in my early twenties, I didn’t let out a wail when Poetry Magazine sent me a very off-handed “thanks-but-no-thanks” in the tone of Sarah Palin. Like I’ve said, rejection is part of the game, if you’re truly a writer it should come as natural to you as the alphabet. I have no idea why the four lines from McSweeney’s caught me like a gerbil swept up the nozzle of a vacuum, but they did. My self-esteem, what there was of it anyway, has yet to recover, which strikes me as peculiar.
Don’t be mistaken, this isn’t a woe-is-me thing. Sure, I’m destitute, have no new clients, and spend every errant wish, from stars to birthday candles to 11:11 on the car dashboard, on the simple hope of making a living as a writer. Absolutely, my current situation, living with my mother as she battles terminal cancer while my partner stretches out in bachelor bliss on the couch in what once was our house in Oklahoma, it sucks. No bones about it. But the hard rejections, the ones that are more of a broken jaw than a flavorless jawbreaker, those are just another key in the QWERTY of life. Rejection is like entry fees, each varies in the amount, and there are few you can avoid. You want to know what would be a shame? To not resubmit the same piece — maybe edited slightly to make it less dark, maybe not — to another publication or contest. To give up and say, “That’s it, done, fuck it. I want to organize shelves in Whole Foods for a living.” (All right, I admit it, I do. But I can write, too.) Even though this particular punch in the gut was a shocker, what can you do? I’m writing about it. And I’ll keep writing, for myself and for an audience I have yet to find. And maybe that makes me an impoverished fool, but it also makes me a writer. And a Leo! And maybe also bisexual, considering I do this hoping you all will want to take me out to dinner.
As a final note, I share with you some morsels on the misgivings of this profession, that I discovered as I tried to drown my sorrows in the comforting waters of the Internet:
The editor of the San Francisco Examiner rejected a short story by Rudyard Kipling by sending him this little love note, “I’m sorry Mr Kipling, but you don’t know how to use the English language.”
If you’re looking for more consolation, there’s always the Rejection Collection and Literary Rejections On Display. They’re nice little reminders that we’re all in this together. Don’t let the bastards grind you down!
Drop me a line, AinsleyDrew at gmail dot calm. And thank you to everyone who donates! Means a ton, makes me do a little dance.
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