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All writers must accept rejection, in fact they must embrace it.
This lesson was drummed into me in my MFA program. During my first week a faculty member waved a sheaf of rejections from the New Yorker. A few spilled on the floor and he bent down to stuff them back into his bulging folder. He told us how he had humbled and prostrated himself in front of the august New Yorker editors for at least 20 years to no avail. He is a successful author with many published books and a Wikipedia entry. But he seemed especially proud of his rejection. It proved he was out there trying and aiming high.
I worried about the health consequences of an accepted short story. He might explode with incandescent pride.
A classmate asked if I wanted to join their competition to see who would be the first to achieve the coveted milestone of 100 rejections. Someone mentioned rejections should not be treated equally; only cold and distant form letters would qualify for the contest. Rejections that came with the slightest whiff of encouragement – a closing salutation of “looking forward to hearing from you again,” and the giddy experience of a handwritten note at the bottom – these glimmers of hope are worth of a champagne celebration.
The emerging writer must view these crumbs at the table as a feast.
I have been on this earth long enough to accept rejection, both social and professional, with humor and good karma. But it has never occurred to me to rebrand rejection as acceptance. I struggled to grasp the writer’s reality, that a sheaf of rejection letters validates you as a writer. One of my advisors contemptuously sniffed, “Well you don’t want to be a hobbyist do you?”
Rejection as acceptance became my bete noire, hovering at the side of the creative environment of the MFA residency. Yes, I get it that writing should come from within, be uncompromising, without regard for the marketplace. But at some point, I needed external validation of my work, and a rejection letter was just not going to cut it.
I needed strangers, utter strangers to appreciate my efforts. Publication only guarantees strangers access to my work, but no assurance that anyone would both read and appreciate it. I want the complete package, direct knowledge that I am worth the time of strangers. What is my work-around to the world of publishing?
Mark Twain became my mentor. His early platform was based on live story-telling. I followed his lead and joined a story-telling troupe. I thrilled to the eyeball to eyeball feedback between story-teller and audience, so much more satisfying than the elusive approval of some bleary eyed editor working through a slush pile.
My short non-fiction pieces with a humorous tone are ideally suited to Twain’s model. One story-telling venue has lead to another. I create podcasts of all my stories and post them on iTunes. Readers can subscribe to my blog site (www.fanagrams.com).
My last performance was a coming-of-age story where I was dumped into the middle of a lake with only a determined dog paddle to keep me afloat. I looked out at the audience and spotted family and friends, but the sea of strangers was my target audience.
As I reached the dramatic climax of the story, I heard a woman in the audience gasp. I had her in my grasp. That sharp intake of breath was not a crumb, but the feast I have been looking for.
I am a writer. And a story-teller.