Let’s get this part out of the way: writers get rejected. A lot. It’s one of the essential parts of “being a writer.” It happens to all of us, except for maybe a very few phenoms.
Even so, most writers don’t like to talk about rejection, for a number of reasons. One? It can come across as sour grapes. It’s probably hard to talk about rejection without complaining a bit, and that’s no fun for anyone.
I know I haven’t wanted to blog about rejection myself for that very reason. I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m whining about it or asking anyone to feel sorry for me, as if I’m alone in this experience. Because, like I said, I’m not – all writers go through it.
But this week something changed, and today I find myself writing about rejection in a completely different and comfortable way. Because (I hope, anyway), this post is the polar opposite of sour grapes.
So the other night Kathryn Stockett came to town. I hope you know already, but if not – she’s the author of The Help, one of my favorite books. I always assumed I’d like her, but I didn’t know until I heard her speak that she would become my new hero.
But guys…she totally is.
She has this little voice but, as she confessed herself, a definite potty mouth. There were at least seven hundred people in the audience, and when she got to the microphone, the first thing she said was, “Shit, there are a lot of people here.”
Later in the talk she was forced to confess, “I’d really like to say that’s the last F-bomb I’ll drop, but probably not.”
But it wasn’t Ms. Stockett’s penchant for cussing that endeared her to me. During the Q&A portion of her talk, a fan stood and informed Ms. Stockett that, “I’m from Birmingham and we grew up with Help, but we never treated them like anything but family. That’s why your book made me so sad, to think that in Mississippi they weren’t treated that way.”
Now this woman was obviously a fan of the author and the book. The entire audience was. It would’ve been easy for Ms. Stockett to ignore tackling the true essence of her comment, to just nod and move on to the next question.
Taking the microphone in hand and addressing the fan directly, Ms. Stockett gently but firmly informed the woman that her statement was one that needed to be approached with caution, eventually saying, “It’s important to understand the way you feel like you’re treating someone and the way they feel they are being treated can be two very different things.”
This answer really spoke to me, and I thought Ms. Stockett was incredibly brave for trying to open the eyes of one of her fans in the way she did. My most recent manuscript tackles the subject of immigration in the context of the story I’m telling, and so I’ve had a pretty tight focus on the related rhetoric coming out of our latest political races.
I’ve been alarmed recently over how easily much of our populace seems to have regressed as I’ve watched the stereotyping of large swaths of the people we stand next to every day as rapists or gang members or drug dealers. How quickly we’re lapsing back into talk of building walls, of separation. How easy it is, when one person says something, for others to feel a permission to do the same, almost universally without consideration for how it’s probably making members of that particular group feel.
It sounds a little bit alarmingly familiar, doesn’t it? And scary, if you ask me.
But let me get to the part of Ms. Stockett’s speech that I REALLY loved: when she pulled out some of her old rejection letters and starting going through them one by one.
These were paper rejections – nowadays they mostly come in email, but even in the early days of my querying history, I submitted to a few old school agents who wanted snail mail submissions, so I identified with them immediately.
“Look at this one,” she said, holding it up. “They didn’t even write out the reason for the rejection, they just circled the one that applied with a red pen.”
Ms. Stockett held up yet another piece of paper. “And this one here, not even addressed to me. It was supposed to go to some other guy. He’s probably still waiting on his answer.”
Finally, the author of The Help showed us a tiny little scrap of paper, bigger than a fortune cookie slip but honestly not by that much. “This one is so cute. It’s the smallest one.”
And that’s when it happened – I felt something new about rejection. Because – wait a minute! – I remembered that one! I mean, not that one exactly, but I remember one time getting an answer back in my SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope for you people under the age of, say, thirty), opening it and at first thinking it was empty. I had to turn it over and shake it before the rejection slip fluttered out, twisting and winding to the floor. A little scrap of paper about the size of the one Kathryn Stockett was holding up.
I don’t think I kept it, but I suddenly wished I had. Not because I want to line the walls of some crazy room with them to “show everybody” when I finally get published. No, because I had an abrupt and strong moment of kinship with Ms. Stockett over that little stupid slip of paper. With all writers who have received that or the thousand other forms rejection takes.
For the first time, I felt so happy that I’ve had that experience – truly blessed by that part of the journey (Yes, I just said “journey.” Blech.) – going so far as to think, “Those poor writers who got accepted right away, they don’t have one of those.”
I started to wonder, with amusement, how those agencies created those little slips of form responses. Probably some intern printing them up, ten to a page, then cutting them into narrow strips, all to save a little money and a few trees. Maybe using one of those old fashioned paper cutters from grade school with the sharp guillotine-like blade. (Is that the name of those things? “Paper cutters”? Seems like they should have a cooler name).
I hoped there were never any accidents involving intern fingers to send those strips out when they could’ve just printed a full page letter. I hoped the worst thing that ever happened to one of those poor, hard-working interns was a little paper cut. Because paper cuts aren’t so bad.
Then Kathryn Stockett brought me back to the room. She said, “If you’re a writer, you just gotta hang in there.”
I knew she was right. Heck, I haven’t always gotten rejected. I have a fabulous agent who agreed to represent me. And I’ve had a bit of success getting short fiction published at a number of literary journals with remarkable and smart editors.
And so I got sort of giddy with the knowledge that no one can take that rejection part of this process away from me. That all those rejections are just a sign of how hard I’ve been working to make my dream come true, and whether it ever does or not, I’ll always have them to show for my efforts.
Because rejections aren’t that big a deal. They’re just paper cuts. They might sting for a minute, but then the pain goes away and all that’s left is a barely visible slice in your finger, one you can push at because you still see the skin separate the tiniest amount, a little red line, and as long as that’s true, as long as you can still see it there, you can hold on to each sliver of blood like a little badge of pride that represents your best effort.
(Also, if you came here as a writer looking for advice on how to handle rejection, I recommend this piece that I read this week that does a much better job with that sort of advice.)