On Rejection

It is impossible to write a blog about the act of publishing without talking about rejection. This book was rejected many, many, many times—from fellowships, residencies, short story collections, to about 19,000 contests. Most editors said it was too weird, too short, too long, too lyrical— the list goes on.

This spring I was so defeated I was actually going to self-publish because I was sick of it. To this day I can barely stand to read its pages. I suppose this is only natural when you obsess over a project for the better part of a decade. The book began as an attempt to understand my father’s journey with addiction and while it has transformed since those early days, the heart of the book is still the same. I wanted to understand—what makes a family? And what makes someone leave their family? And how do families rebuild their lives after someone is gone? And ultimately, what is a woman’s role within her family? After my dad died last November I wanted to rid myself of this story. I needed a purge. I felt this need within my gut— a roiling, disgusted pressure. I wanted it out!

So when Half Mystic sent me an email saying they wanted to publish my novella I had to read the email nine times to make sure I understood it correctly. I had just finished my shift. It was after midnight and my feet hurt and my hair smelled of fried vegan food. I kind of blacked out but I’m pretty sure I screamed. I definitely cried.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of hearing from complete strangers that they see your work, they understand its meaning and they value your voice. There are a few fundamental human desires but I believe that one of the most powerful forces in the world is the feeling of being seen for exactly who you are. And, ultimately, that’s what rejection taught me— to lay your whole, bloodied and palpitating person out there, regardless of what you get in return.

When I started writing fiction I was 23 (before that I was stictly a poet) and I worked at Airbnb and I decided that in order to write fiction I should copy the style of everyone ever published in the New Yorker. I listened to their podcast obsessively (for better or worse I am singleminded as fuck). I wrote three? four? stories in this manner. I liked them alright, but you can tell that they’re not really my full voice. But I thought, yes! I’ve copied them perfectly! I’m a master of the form! These stories are sure to be accepted! And yeah, some of them were (years later lol) but they weren’t received with glowing reviews. After I came back from New Zealand I decided to bring The Family That Carried Their House on Their Backs back from the dead. It’s weird, it’s lyrical af— but it’s mine. It’s a story I needed to tell. It’s a story that lived in me while I slept, while I walked the streets of Denver and Portland. In the end, I couldn’t rid myself of this story. I couldn’t help it— the story was mine.

I think the process of putting my work out there prepared me for putting myself out there socially. For a long time I only dated people who pursued me and I spent the majority of those relationships attempting to be exactly what they wanted. And it was perfect! No risk involved. You can’t feel the sting of rejection when you aren’t dating the people you want to be with, when you’re not even yourself in those relationships. It’s the perfect insulation from the gut wrenching pain of giving someone the truth of yourself, the essence of who you are, and being told that you are not wanted.

But that’s what submitting your writing is all about! It’s about putting your voice out on a platter and being willing to wait for the perfect publisher who sees what you’ve presented and honors and respects you for exactly who you are. And it’s about recognizing that the gratification may never come (or it may come 8 years later) but you’re still going to put yourself out there every day. You’re still going to send bits of yourself out on voyages to unknown hearts, unknown minds— because that is where meaning is found. I don’t want to live my life imitating dead writers featured in the New Yorker even though I spent years doing exactly that. I want be wholly myself and wholly present. Regardless of rejection.

I would not be where I am now as a person, as a human, as a lover, if my writing hadn’t been rejected (and don’t get me wrong, it’s still rejected almost daily). Yes, it could be viewed as masochism to a pathological level, and yes there are some VERY dark days, but ultimately rejection taught me to be unapologetically myself and to value my own voice. And there are few things in this day and age as powerful as woman who uses her voice.

p.s. I wanted to post the final clip of Nanette here, but alas it’s not on YouTube. Please watch the whole thing but especially the end! One of the most powerful things I have ever seen—reminding us to use our voices.