Well, while baseball season is winding down, basketball season is gearing up once again. Here in metro Detroit where I am that’s a big deal. Each year we enter November hoping that the multi-championship Pistons will once again emerge as tops in the NBA. The fact that they’ve made it there, means many others haven’t. In this game – it seems to me – victory is reserved for those who stare down rejection: three-pointers denied, free throws that won’t fall, blatant fouls and bad calls. Even so, this former high school power forward can vouch for the fact that b-ballers have nothing on writers when it comes to the big R.
I still remember my first rejection.
Somewhere between my sophomore and senior years of high school, I decided that years of daily “Dear Diary” entries, and countless lines of carefully rhymed verse had prepared me for the real world of writing: the poetry page in Seventeen magazine.
Five poems – per the magazine’s guidelines – made my personal cut. Using my father’s 200 pound manual typewriter, I transformed each loopy word into uniform stanzas (except for the one key that insisted on dropping its letter just below the line), folded my hopes into a business sized envelope “borrowed” from my father’s office, and sent them off with a self-addressed stamped envelope and all my dreams of becoming the next Maya Angelou.
Weeks later, my father approached me with a handful of mail and my SASE. “What’s this?” he asked, probably recognizing his typewriter’s signature on the envelope that bore my name. “It,” I told myself, heart racing, face burning. “This is it.” Maya, Nikki, Langston, Stefanie.
I opened the letter as he watched. I felt him studying my fallen face. Absolutely crushed, I was also a little angry. Righteous indignity beat inside my chest. Dad asked what it was and I told him – leaving out the hopes and dreams part, emphasizing the “they didn’t like my poems” that kept bouncing around in my brain. The sorrow of that moment still makes my pulse race. I so internalized that rejection that I figured my writing career was over.
My dad, being the insightful man that he is, smiled and praised my courage. He told me that it took a lot of guts to send out something personal, let other people read it and judge it. He was so impressed that I had taken such a chance. And he was proud of me for not being afraid to try.
His viewpoint morphed that painful experience from an ending into a beginning for me.
Fast forward 25 years. Picture me seated at a computer keyboard (sans dropped letters) still angst-ridden and hope filled, churning out query letters, submission packages and SASEs for my first manuscript. The ritual is no less gut-wrenching than the Seventeen magazine attempt. And no more successful. But, it is different.
My husband told me a few days ago that he knew I was serious about publishing Where Souls Collide when I received the book’s first rejection. He said he could tell by my reaction, because I was so upset. What’s ironic is that I don’t remember my response. I’m sure I was disappointed – crushed, angry, indignant, no doubt.
But, in the years since I mailed off my Maya hopes, I learned that the word NO is a big part of freeing caged dreams. I got over that first “Not for us, sorry,” moved on, and racked up a slew of similarly phrased rejections. They’re all in a red folder with the date I received them noted in the upper right corner. And everyone who turned me down received a very polite “Thanks for reviewing my query, perhaps we can work together someday” kind of note from me.
Several letters contained helpful suggestions for plot or character adjustments. Most were complimentary of my writing. Many (too many!) were form letters without a hint of what went wrong. I learned how not to internalize every comment (positive or negative) and how to hang onto my belief in myself.
And then, on October 10, 2006, I got The Call from Dorchester. Suddenly I realized that the timing was perfect. Had Seventeen come calling on my adolescent self I could not have appreciated the moment the way I did when it finally happened. With all the energy I put into reaching this milestone, the accomplishment wouldn’t be considered “slam dunk showy” or “nothing-but-net easy” on a basketball court. Worlds wiser and really ready, the dream points I’ve scored in getting published resulted from the shoot around it often takes to outplay a bigger opponent.
Dropped pass. Sketchy plots.
Double-dribble. Weak heroine.
It’s all part of the game.
Take the shot; go for your dream.
There is no other way to win.