On unextraordinary time

It’s been a while, and I know what you’re thinking. At least, I know what you’re thinking if you’re also me: You’d better have been doing something fabulous during this unconscionable absence from the blog!

So what was it? Was I scaling mountains in far-flung countries? Was I preparing a new and edgy article that will bring justice to the world?

Flattering! But no. In the past month-ish, I’ve mostly been working on confronting my fear of failure—in less-nice words, I’ve spent the past few weeks applying to various literary projects and getting rejected from them.

You know that feeling: you scan the email for the “congratulations” and know in the pit of your stomach, before it’s registered intellectually, that you’ve been rejected. If your experiences with rejection—artistic, academic—are anything like mine, then it’s always a little fatalistic. I wonder if I’m good at anything good at all, as if this polite, distant “congratulations”-less letter eclipses everything I’ve done, ever. As artists in particular, we dispatch our work like birds carrying our most truthful messages, hoping that they reach some empathetic shore. And when they’re sent back to us, it can be a blow to a deeper, more private pride.

At some point in the past weeks, in the middle of a post-rejection wallowing period, I came across a poem. It was shared by a friend who, each year, posts a poem for every day of National Poetry Month. (Yes, she is an excellent friend.) It’s called “For the young who want to” by Marge Piercy, and the last stanza goes like this:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Reading it reminded me vividly of the ceiling of the basement of an old church in Santa Ana, California. The church building belonged to my high school; when the auditorium space was renovated for the performance students, they turned the basement into a tiny library for the creative writers. Books spilled off the shelves, tumbled onto pillows that trailed like scattered thoughts across the floor. The ceiling, we had pasted over in rejection slips.

“Hemingway had 500 rejections slips before he published anything,” a teacher told our wide-eyed class, pointing a finger up at the ceiling and handing us the glue. So we starred our sky in failures, watched fearful words like no and thank you for your submission, but and we had many qualified candidates sweep and shimmer above us with the weightlessness of clouds.

When I recall my high school friends, who created so fearlessly, I realize that I’m much more daunted by the possibility of failing than I used to be. I can’t point to an exact turning point. But sometime between high school and college, I’ve gradually staked my self-worth on conventional markers of success: good college, good grades, good job. All of these things satisfy basic needs, but it’s fragile and foolish ground for self-respect.

Up until recently, I’ve been methodical about picking battles that would minimize risk. So a month-ish ago, when I tentatively began submitting pitches and applying to more competitive writing workshops, I was startled and affronted by the series of rejections, like a toddler making the unhappy discovery of scraped knees.

But when I stop to think about what makes me respect myself, it comes back to writing. It’s how I express curiosity and love and humanity. Obviously, being told that something I’ve written isn’t good enough will continue to sting. But if I’m honest, it will take more than hurt pride and 500 rejection slips; thousands of rejection slips, even; blinding-white skies of rejection slips to make me forget how much I love what I do.

So if you haven’t heard from me, the past month-ish hasn’t been an entire loss. I’ve been spending unextraordinary time on nursing extraordinary and nebulous aspirations. I’ve also been doing the quietly noteworthy things that keep me well as a human: buying healthy groceries, visiting family, rereading books I like.

I’ve been choosing, one painful rejection at a time, to love the act of writing more than I want the writing to be loved. And I hope that you, dear reader, put your love for your work (whether it’s art, entrepreneurship, scholarship, activism) in front of seeking others’ approval—because I assure you that if this gives you light, it is inherently and unquestionably worth your time.

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