Rejections, Insults, and Perspective


It’s 7:30 on Sunday morning. I did not sleep well — took a long time falling to sleep, then was up around 3:30, which is when I checked my phone and saw the rejection email from an editor I’d been really, really hoping would select the poem I’d submitted for a weekly series where poets respond to current news stories.

I must have gotten back to sleep — vivid dreams — and before I knew it, Chalupa started stirring sometime after 6:00am, and I woke up drenched in sweat. Night sweats have always been a thing for me but have gotten much more intense as I walk deeper into my 40s. So hi, I’m up. Up with coffee, of course. I took Chalupa downstairs to relieve herself after a bout of record-setting bulldog stubborness at the top of the stairs, then gave her breakfast, played with her mangled crocodile for a few minutes, and gave her a lovely shoulder massage until she was ready to calm down and sleep some more.

I’ve submitted more work in the last week than in a long time, and it’s such a funny cycle: I write, tinker a little, send with a kiss and a wish, wait, know that the odds are not in my favor, and then eventually get the email saying, “Thanks, but.” It doesn’t keep me from continuing (to write, tinker, send, etc.), but that’s not to say I don’t have a truncated trip through the stages of grief every time. This one hit a little harder, which tells me the poem itself is more personal. I will probably share it here soon.

Something Mani shared with me yesterday — she was reading a mental health-related piece about why words matter, especially the words practitioners of all kinds use — really struck me: One negative statement or insult has the same impact as 100 positive statements of compliments. Said another way, it takes 100 positive things to cancel the impact on a person of a single negative one. My mind went in so many directions at once upon hearing this. I thought of children, all children really but particularly those at higher risk to be bullied, teased, ostracized, and underestimated based solely on factors like race, gender expression, or a disability.

I also thought of creativity — from writing to art-making — and the lasting damage of that one teacher who told you you should quit, or you’d never be that good, or you didn’t have what it takes. I thought about the folks who write with me, and why my groups aren’t focused on being better writers per se. When you were diminished as a child, it can take a lot of practice and time and affirmation to slowly begin to believe, “I can.”

The latest rejection stings. It pisses me off for a minute. But it’s not an insult. It’s just a person with his own subjectivity, his own sense of what the readers of his magazine prefer, and surely his own unconscious filters and biases, too, making choices about what to publish. It doesn’t hurt me, and it won’t scar me unless I let it. But if I never shared my work anywhere where it was met with appreciation, recognition in the form of resonance and human connection, and kindness, I think it would be a hell of a lot harder to keep going.

Yesterday, a participant in my most recent 2-week writing group shared this:

Writing with you these past two weeks did get me unstuck. It was hard and didn’t always feel comfortable with what my words revealed, but now I can make words with my voice and camera again. Much self-knowledge gained. Thank you.

This woman is a phenomenally talented photographer and a deeply beautiful writer. But she had been stuck. Her word, along with so much emotion, had gotten lodged inside of her body. And the writing, the prompts, the safe space for sharing where she knew she wouldn’t be insulted or rejected be it for the quality or the content of her words, all allowed her to begin to feel herself again.

This to me is of far greater importance than getting published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and so on. Don’t get me wrong — reaching more people with my words has always been and remains an ever-growing dream of mine. It’s that this dream doesn’t overpower the other one, which is to encourage people to trust themselves through practice, to make room for being imperfect, and to do this right alongside every person I’m lucky enough to write with.

I suppose it’s called perspective.

I woke up after that less-than-stellar night’s sleep feeling some urgency. Urgency to write, perhaps to assemble my next collection of poems, which I might even submit to a literary contest if I can pull it together in time, and well. We’ll see. For now, I come here. Because here is a place to land, a way to connect, and 20 minutes I’ll never regret.

Now I’m going to pour a second cup. If you want homework: Think of one negative statement or insult you’ve carried. Write it down on a piece of paper. Then get a second piece of paper, and write 100 positive statements or compliments. If you can’t think of that many, it’s fine. Just start.

Goethe’s oft-quoted words seem like a fitting way to end: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Watching Animal Videos at Four in the Morning

1. THE PITBULL
Tip-toeing from the den
so as not to wake the cat,
she reminded me of myself
after nursing the baby back down,
as she stood stock-still on three legs,
the fourth hovering like a prayer
that the creak in the floorboard
hadn’t startled her friend from sleep. .

Four in the morning,
three words came to mind:
“if only,” and “imagine.” Utopian.
A world where for one day, a single day,
we treated each other with kindness.

2. THE PARROT + THE MAN
The man wore a neon construction vest;
the parrot had downy white and yellow feathers
and watched intently as the man flattened
the gilded cage with heavy work boots,
one clomp after another. Even in silence,
I could hear the bird egging him on,
cursing (as the caption told me) the cage
that had kept his freedom elsewhere.

Four in the morning,
three words came to mind:
“if only,” and “imagine.” Utopian.
A world where for a day, a single day,
we wanted each other’s liberation.

3. THE ELEPHANT
Isn’t it always the elephant videos?
The overlay of words — all caps, bold:
ELEPHANT CAUGHT PICKING UP TRASH.
Sure enough, you kind of got the feeling
she was looking to see if anyone
was around, then vacuum sealed
a ball of paper to the tip of her trunk
and tossed it into the plastic barrel nearby.

Four in the morning,
three words came to mind:
“if only,” and “imagine.” Utopian.
A world where for a day, a single day,
we took care of our own home planet.

4. TINY SCREENS 
Dimmed and muted in the dark,
a racing mind and frightened heart.
So in awe of the world’s wonders,
the beauty and the best of it,
and wondering what else we can do
to bring more kindness, more justice,
and more selflessness to the waking.