This past week, I did something that my supervisors here at the Writers’ Program will likely frown upon. As I worked diligently on all the responsibilities a program assistant has, I kept my personal e-mail open all day, every day, refreshing the inbox over and over in hopes of seeing something new pop up. I committed this small workplace sin because I was waiting for a response from the writing contest I’d submitted to months earlier. My very first attempt at becoming a ‘real writer.’ A ‘yes’ meant publication, a chance to visit Lithuania for free, and the smallest stirrings of self-respect that only a writer can know.
I didn’t win.
Now, this is nothing new. Rejection is a part of life, especially if you’re a writer.
James Joyce’s Dubliners was rejected 22 times before it was published in 1914. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was rejected by 38 publishers. Even J.K. Rowling, as most people know, had her Harry Potter books rejected by twelve different publishing houses before she became a billionaire.
As someone who hopes to make some sort of living from my writing, I’ve heard all the warnings and horror stories. I’ve heard of not getting a response at all, getting a tiny square of paper with the word NO written in black magic marker, having one piece accepted for every hundred that aren’t, and I’ve been warned to not even try submitting to the New Yorker. It’s a scary proposition for anyone, let alone a beginning writer with idealistic dreams of Paris cafes and his name printed on book jackets.
I’m not going to lie. For the longest time, I wanted nothing to do with the idea of publication. I was perfectly happy to toil away on my short stories and nonfiction essays, revising and editing them into oblivion without any thought toward seeing them in print.
But, during an advanced nonfiction workshop last November, my instructor, Samantha Dunn, cornered me.
“So, Daniel, are you submitting your work? Have you gotten anything published?”
Knowing this question was inevitable, I had an answer prepared and ready to recite at a moment’s notice.
“Oh, no,” I responded. “I really just want to focus on my writing right now, you know? I want to be a better writer without having to worry about the whole publishing mess. It’s about the words, the art. Recognition isn’t important to me.”
I imagine Sam must have been laughing pretty hard on the inside. She was nice enough not to point out all the baloney I was trying to sell her on. At least not yet.
The simple truth was that I was scared. Who wouldn’t be? No one wants to be told they’re not good enough. As writers, we pour a little bit of our souls into the words we put down. Submitting your work for someone else’s approval is setting yourself up for rejection and that’s a hard step to take.
On the last day of the workshop, after she’d had a chance to read my work and see what kind of person I was, Sam cornered me again.
“You’re not worried about becoming a better writer,” she said. “You’re just a chicken. Get out there and do it.”
And she was right. (Take one of her classes and you’ll find that she’s just about always right.) I was a chicken.
I was worried about all things that every writer worries about at one point or another. What if I get rejected? Is this going to destroy me? Will I even want to write anymore?
I thought about my family, about the supportive looks they gave me that said, “We love you and we’ll back you up on this but we really wish you’d go to law school.” How could I justify myself to them?
Sitting at my computer last week, staring at the screen, reading the rejection e-mail over and over again, I got the answer to some of those questions.
I survived. The rejection didn’t kill me. OK, yes, it hurt a little bit not to win. I could have spent two weeks in Lithuania and called Mom with the news that I was now a published author.
Instead, I get to spend those two weeks in Los Angeles and, once Mom reads this, she gets to find out I’m submitting work.
But I also get the knowledge that I’ve finally torn the band-aid off. I have now submitted my work and been turned down. I can do it again. I can keep trying.
I have what every successful writer, from Shakespeare to Cormac McCarthy, has:
My first rejection story.
Daniel Sanchez is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing (Onsite) and Screenwriting (Online).