The Tao of Rejection
Generally, I’m a writer who takes rejection fairly well – or at least, philosophically. I’ve always known that racking up a huge number of rejections was part of the process, and that all writers, even the most gifted and/or most successful, had to deal with many closed doors before they found those open ones. Since the early days of my career – from the scores of literary magazine “no”s for my short stories, to applications to MFA programs, to fellowships, grants, and contests; later, to agents, and then editors at publishing houses – I’ve generally been able to keep the letdowns in perspective. Most of the time, I feel that anything I’ve applied for is a long shot – not because I think I’m undeserving, just because I understand the odds – and so, if I get it, fantastic! If I don’t, well – them’s the breaks.
I was surprised then, by the emotional reaction I had last week when I received two fellowship rejections via e-mail in the same hour. That’s right, folks: in the same hour. The first one rolled off me the way these rejections usually do. The second one? Well, after reading that e-mail, the amount of effort it was taking me not to cry while I was at work almost caused me to hyperventilate.
On my way home that night, traffic was bad, and I had a bit too long to mull it all over. What an utter hack I was! What an embarrassment to my students, to GrubStreet, to fiction writing as a whole; indeed, to the human race! While part of me did recognize that characterizing myself as a blight on humanity based on two fellowship rejections was a bit over the top, it was easy, in those moments in the car, to convince myself that I had no business writing.
I don’t know if it’s encouraging or discouraging for emerging writers to hear that being published – even repeatedly – doesn’t eliminate writerly self-doubt for most of us. Years ago I heard the acclaimed children’s author Eric Carle speak at the Massachusetts Book Awards; he talked about how, despite having a long and well-published career, with many awards, he still approached each new book wondering if it would be any good, if he could still do it. To me, the idea that an author of his stature still had doubts meant that maybe my own weren’t so well-founded, either; but when I told a writer friend about his speech, she said, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard! I don’t want to believe this never goes away!”
The frequency of rejections in a writer’s life has always been one of the toughest things about the job, but honestly, I think it’s gotten a lot harder in this age of social media. When I first started sending out short stories and applying for fellowships and grants, it was comfortably anonymous and removed. I’d put a stamp on a manila envelope and send it out. Weeks, months later, I’d get a SASE or postcard back. I’d read the rejection, feel a little sad, and then find something to make fun of in its composition, or in the name of the person who’d signed the note. Or perhaps I’d silently declare Pomposity: A Journal of Inscrutable Stories “dead to me,” or the Deceased White Male Author Memorial Fellowship “in the graveyard,” and that would be the end of it.
The rejections come both more swiftly and more impersonally in the digital age, and social media often increases their sting. I knew better, in those first moments after receiving my back-to-back rejections, than to go on Facebook or Twitter. There would surely be some Todd Manly-Krauss on there – and if you have no idea who Todd Manly-Krauss is, I urge you to read Rebecca Makkai’s hilarious blog post – crowing about how he’d won a Deceased White Male Author Memorial Fellowship, and also, how he hoped it wouldn’t interfere with his plans to spend July and August in his family’s sprawling summer home in Maine, his beautiful wife lovingly cooking him meals every night and hand-feeding them to him in his office, which overlooks a clear blue lake, so that he can write.
I took a break from social media that night. After a few hours and more than a little bad TV, I had enough perspective to see that it was self-pitying of me, even a bit arrogant, to make such a big deal out of a couple of rejections. Back when I was sitting in my dark basement apartment in Philly in the early 1990s, sending my best stories out into the void, repeatedly, and receiving no bites, I would have loved to be where I am now. Two fellowship rejections – or twenty, or two hundred, even – do not define a career.
And while I had other obligations that kept me away from writing the next day, I was able, in the midst of it all, to enter the world of my new characters, just enough to remember that’s what it’s really about: storytelling, and the necessity of creation. What always pulls me out of the depths, unfailingly, is the work. I realized, then, that I still had a week left in #BoNoProMo, my May novel writing challenge; and I would make the most of that time, fellowships or no.
Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in 2013. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa has published humor in McSweeney’s, essays in The Rumpus and several anthologies, and short stories in Washington Square, Black Warrior Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals. She has taught creative writing since 1997, shifting her focus to the novel when she developed GrubStreet’s Novel in Progress courses in 2005. She also co-developed and co-taught GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator from 2011 – 2013, and developed and led the Novel Generator from 2014-2017. She now teaches in the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s online MFA program. For more information on Lisa and her work, visit lisaborders.com.See other articles by Lisa Borders