Embracing rejection is hot these days. Writers compete to rack up the most rejections, since getting dissed over and over implies that you’re being brave and throwing your work out into the world. I’ve heard people say that rejections make them feel productive: they’re a sign that you’re trying as hard as you can, applying for opportunities and aspiring towards rewards that might be a reach for you. If you’re never spurned, it means you’re not stretching yourself or putting yourself into competitive situations where those who are in some sense better, or more blessed, or more plugged into some kind of social or intellectual scene, might prevail over you.
If you keep trying, eventually you may well succeed… and then you can shoot even higher, and get rejected on that level. Ultimately, you’ll be competing with super-rarefied souls, and failing against them will be an extraordinary pleasure, the tippity top of the rejection chain. If you’re doing it right, it will never end, because there’s always someone between you and God, or pure perfection, or whatever you see as the pinnacle of understanding and accomplishment. Or so the theory goes.
There are two main kinds of rejection: concrete and implicit. With concrete rejection, you actually hear from the souls who are giving you the honor of shunning your efforts. You receive notes with tidings like: “We so enjoyed meeting you and loved your enthusiasm, but…” But. Got it. You can stop reading right here and move on to your next bid for failure, because you know where this is heading.
Of course, some would say that if you want to squeeze as much benefit as possible from this particular rebuff, you should read the whole thing carefully, because you might learn something. This note might contain insight into why your efforts fell flat, so you can succeed the next time and move on to higher levels, allowing you to fail at more impressive heights. Typically, I find myself in this camp, but keep in mind that I can be horrifyingly inefficient. I’m the sort of person who reads the same email over and over, in the subconscious hope that its message might change in the third or the tenth run-through. It won’t. Even I know that, deep down where I process truth and meaning. So you might want to listen to someone who is more of a go-getter: the type who considers the message quickly and moves on. In the time it takes to read a rejection letter, you could be crafting a new application.
With implicit rejection, you eventually read the verdict in the silence of the air. You’re given a date by which winners will hear, and, if that day comes and goes and there are no congratulations… yup. Or you send your manuscript to a literary agent, and weeks go by, then months. You email a brief reminder and don’t hear back. Well, you’re not stupid — eventually, you must conclude that you have heard back, just not in the way you might have expected. You can intuit the answer in the grass that sways in the wind, or in the smell of barbecue floating from a party on a warm summer evening.
Some might argue that implicit rejection is mystical, drawing from subtleties in communication that we don’t normally tap into. My take: it’s unspeakably rude, leaving hopeful aspirants in a deep, unsettling limbo that finally gives way to sourness and defeat. Keep in mind, though, that I’ve been trying to have a mystical experience for many years, and have not succeeded in any concrete, definable way. In shaping your own take on this question, you might want to consider minds and souls whose line into spiritual realms is clearer, sharper, and more refined.
I’ve never been one to embrace fads or fashions, and this rejection thing is no exception. Heretical as it might sound in many chic, fabulous circles, I don’t see any value in getting spurned. Would you like to know how I feel when I receive a rejection? Rejected. That might sound like a circular answer, but, as my wise uncle might say, we are where we are. Rejected. That’s just it. Not pleased that at least I tried, not happy to realize that, like a truly ambitious spirit, I placed my work into an arena where many were more accomplished than I. Nope. If I was going to get rejected, I wish I never knew about the opportunity. I wish I had hung out in the café or listened to the musicians who played in the restaurant across the street while I slaved over the application that wasn’t chosen.
If life were infinite, I might feel differently, but it’s not. If I spent April 2, 2017 poring over an application, I won’t get that date of my life back again, whether the application succeeds or fails. If it succeeds, like any ambitious person who values the ability to renounce pleasure in the moment for greater pleasure down the road, I’ll deem April 2, 2017 a fabulous triumph. If it’s rejected, well, I made the wrong choice. I could have had fun. I could have been smiling as I soaked in the pure warmth of simple happiness, unpolluted by the desire for something greater to come at some future point.
Is this earth-shattering? Not really, in and of itself. But the cumulative effects are enormous. When days upon days are spent on pursuits that lead to rejection, you can start to speculate about the percentage of your lifetime devoted to efforts that will end with this particular reward: a reward whose merits can only be sensed through complex mental gymnastics or the sixth sense of a highly capable mystic.
OK, since I’m super-honest, I’ll let you in on a mortifying secret. Sometimes, when I’m rejected, I think it’s unfair. I think I should have won, or gotten the offer, or whatever it was I was trying for. So I don’t buy into this notion of: I learned something, I can grow from it, and next time, if I try for something similar, I’ll have a better chance of succeeding. Instead, I start to feel bitter about the world — about the whole way it works, and the people in charge, and my place within it.
The first time I felt this way about an application, I was in eighth grade. My school let everyone in my class know about a contest involving an essay about a famous American born in February. I did a little research, and decided to write about Frederick Douglass. Horrified by the notion that human beings could be seen as property, I was deeply inspired by Douglass’ efforts to stand up for his worth, writing and speaking about his life and his ideas. So I wrote an essay and a related poem, and decided to apply.
My parents loved it. (OK, OK, I know, I know. I’m just saying, for whatever it might be worth.) So did my teachers. Of course no one knew what the judges were looking for, but people thought I had a good shot at snagging this prize. Results came back and I won nothing: no prize, no honorable mention. And I mean, I wasn’t that arrogant: I just assumed that the judges weren’t so crazy about my essay and poem, compared to some other people’s work. I was honestly kind of disconcerted, wondering who these kids were whose submissions were better than mine, and hoping I’d never have to compete against them again.
Then my parents discovered that the contest was run by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). “Guess what. That contest of yours? You never could have won it, no matter how good your essay about Frederick Douglass was,” my father announced one evening. Apparently, the DAR’s main membership criterion was a woman’s ability to trace her lineage back to people involved in the United States’ fight for independence from Great Britain. Apparently, too, the organization had a history of exclusiveness; for instance, it barred African Americans from joining, from its founding in 1890 all the way until 1977, and evidence of anti-black sentiment lasted beyond then. On top of that, they tended to value patriotism and emphasize the goodness of our country; they probably wouldn’t have taken to an essay about a rebel agitating against values that were deeply entrenched throughout much of the country during Douglass’ lifetime. What’s more, my parents seemed pretty sure that my last name of Levine would have worked against me if the judges had an option to choose someone with an ancestry more like their own.
This is not meant to slam the DAR in any way. The group seems to have opened up quite a lot in recent years; the issues I mentioned may well have worked themselves out. It’s very possible my parents’ suspicions were not at all founded, and their speculations were grounded in their own stereotypes, and the common parental tendency to assume that anyone who spurns their child is benighted for one reason or another. But this experience opened an idea for me — one that has never left me, because it became more and more entrenched the longer I lived in the world and saw how it worked: life is not fair.
I mean, really, it’s not. Organizations and companies choose people to value, honor, and put resources behind because these applicants happen to suit their idiosyncratic goals, or because they seem likely to bring in commercial success. Fundamental qualities of drive, talent, passion, intelligence, creativity, likeability, and goodness often appear secondary at best. Beyond that, selection is often based on knowing the right people: having the right friends or contacts who can set you up well. So, when you’re rejected, often there’s nothing to learn beyond the fact that the chips just didn’t fall in the right way for you. You didn’t have a buddy at the company, or an aunt who went to high school with one of the founding partners. Applying again and again and piling up the rejections might just be an exercise in waving your small hands in front of the eyes of a huge, unfriendly beast who will never warm to you, because you don’t have the right social resources and never will… unless you have the ability and the nerve to become a social climber, showing up at the right gatherings and charming your way into the gatekeepers’ hearts.
Recently, I had the most bizarre thought: maybe I should become a spiritual renunciant. Except I wouldn’t be renouncing the usual suspects: physical comfort, tasty food, sex, financial independence, alcohol, etc. I would renounce the application process — all application processes: the kinds that can lead to rejection and also, of course, acceptance. I’d apply for positions if I needed a new job to support myself; this is not about suffering for suffering’s sake, or the underlying freedom of poverty. What it’s about, at bottom, is self-respect: the internal kind, the kind that’s not dependent on a resume, or awards, or publications, or anything else that’s extraneous to the internal wonders of my mental universe, or to my external ways of reaching out and connecting with people for the pure sake of bonding.
So… no more applying for something like the Mall of America’s five-day-long writer-in- residence position, checking my email obsessively on the day decisions about finalists were supposed to come out. No sending my manuscript about my quest for insight into possible afterlife states to literary agents, when I could avoid that and still share my work in ways that might not be prestigious, but would certainly spark excellent conversation.
I have no reason to renounce, say, sex or alcohol, since I’m not crazy about either one, and giving them up would mean little to me. I would never renounce any aspect of food; food is my life, my greatest pleasure, and I am no masochist. But renouncing applications? Rejections? The possibility for acceptance, prestige, honor, and the kind of pride this sort of thing can bring? That could have deep significance for me. I’m intoxicated by the chance of success along these lines, and, whenever it eludes me, I feel anger and pain, and begin to question the purpose of my life.
I’ve never wanted a partner or children, and, crazy as this may sound, I’ve often thought that my mission might be to share my ideas with as many people as possible, freed from the kinds of obligations that shackle many adults. And that’s all good, probably, except I’ve paired this notion with a yearning for specific kinds of success. I already share my ideas online, with students, and with people I meet in all kinds of ways; why do I need the prestigious book, or the writing prize? I’m addicted to these possibilities, like some become addicted to cocaine, or eating way more than their bodies need.
I’m relatively immune to physical addictions, but, sometimes, my mental ones — my goals and desires — feel every bit as draining. Just like many alcoholics believe that any alcohol at all is bad for them, maybe I’d do best to completely throw away my desire for “success”: move beyond it, decide it’s not important. Go cold turkey on all those ridiculous applications and emails to gatekeepers of various kinds. Hang out in a café instead, with a nice cup of tea and a homemade English muffin, feeling no compulsion to hurry up and get my computer out so I can start researching and contacting literary agents before the summer begins.
But this I know for sure: if someone out there told me that they had just the prize for me, one I’d be sure to win, or knew the perfect agent who could get my manuscript into the right hands and bring me fame, acclaim, and wealth, I’d drop the renunciant idea so fast. Without a second’s hesitation, I’d throw it out my window and slam my sliding door shut to be sure it wouldn’t return.
I’m like the coke addict who’d go through rehab only if the world’s coke supply dried up, or the ascetic who embraces poverty just when he loses all his money in some weird scam. And, for better or worse, I’m not there, not even close. I still have hope for the kind of success I crave. At some point soon, I’ll try again to seek it.
If I don’t find it, will I accept it? Maybe, but first, I’d have to write a scathing note to those Mall of America people, letting them know that no one else — and I mean no one — will dive into that prize like I would have, bringing the characters, stores, and amusements of that mall to life, with an eye towards spiritual growth, mystical possibility, and insight into who, in essence, we are, beyond the external circumstances of our lives. And if they’re reading, they’re probably thinking: “Well, thank God we didn’t choose her; she wouldn’t have boosted revenue here very much at all.” I guess my challenge is to know that, and laugh about it, and feel proud that I am who I am, and, though I want what I want, I never compromise anything fundamental in order to get it.
***Image Credit: “Bonfire Night” by bluedotcreations, November 3, 2007.