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.”

We Encourage You to Submit Your Ego Again

submit“Though we’re passing on this one, we really appreciate your trusting us with your work.”

I know it shouldn’t get to me, but it does. I know it doesn’t matter, but tonight it does. I know getting work published is insanely subjective and stupidly competitive — and that I’m being irrationally ridiculous to feel so pissed and discouraged. I know that getting published does not make life magically different or better.

I know you win some, you lose some. I know all the famous writers who plastered their walls with letters from “appreciative” editors and indifferent editors and slush-pile unpaid intern editors.

Come to think of it, I was an unpaid intern once, at a literary journal in Union Square called Parnassus. I wonder if I was given the power to reject anyone. I know walking to town with my kid on a sunny Friday afternoon brings me joy. I know reading poem after poem by people who are writing their hearts out feels as trippy and wondrous and privileged as I imagine moonwalking would–buoyant, ethereal, and solid in our landing.

I know we’re all putting on our oxygen masks every day. We’re breathing molecules from other hemispheres on this itty-bitty planet. I know I’m eating Annie’s mac & cheese with a can of tuna mixed in for dinner, and that I get to go put clean sheets on my bed after this and remember childbirth yes, like it was yesterday, and that there is so much new grey in my hair, especially around my temples, and some days it’s all I can do not to smoke ’em if you got ’em but I don’t got ’em because it’s rather nice, this breathing situation without tanks or masks or other such appendages. I know this will blow over, over and out, mark my words and Roger that, it doesn’t matter.

It does not matter.

But just for a minute it did, it does, and I need to allow myself this moment. This anger.

The thing is, I’ve never fit with the establishment — whatever that may mean. I got an MFA but then became a Hillel director, then a life coach and a career counselor. I got married and had babies and wondered for years: Am I still a writer if I’m not actually writing? I knew the answer was yes; it felt similar to a non-practicing Jew still being Jewish. But that “yes” didn’t stop me from wondering and wanting so much to not only know I was a writer, but to interface with the world as a writer. To reach people with my words. To connect deeply through my writing. This was my dream, and it still is.

I remember when Aviva was a baby and I’d go out alone, just to be with myself. I always brought a journal, and I’d sit by the lake or in a coffeeshop and write. I wrote fundraising appeal letters and bylaws and student group descriptions and eventually brochure and website copy for my fledgling business. But I still wasn’t a writer who was writing; I was writer who was trying to make a living doing other things that used other skills, and writing was a skill but in that context, not a soul.

Blogging started to change all of that, and a couple of times lately in conversations with people in my writing groups, the topic of practice has come up. Practice not only in the sense of writing practice, but the parallel practice of “putting it out there.” Of not knowing whether or where or with whom or how your words will land. Of learning not to look at, or at least not get snagged by, “seen by” stats or likes or comments as a measure of your writing’s value. Or your own value. Of knowing that silence does not equal judgment. Silence could equal busy people caught up in their own lives and stories and minds and responsibilities; silence could equal awe; silence could equal nobody saw. Silence does not matter. Silence is a gift. It gives us back ourselves.

When faced with rejection, with silence, I get to sit here with myself. At the kitchen table where I so often ramble and write. At the juncture between an inhale and an exhale, that plateau where I can choose to hold my breath in and in and in — now it becomes a game, like when we were kids — until I can’t hold it any longer and I allow the release through my nostrils. It’s then that some tears come, as if on cue.

There is room for you, the breath seems to be saying to the tears. There is room for rejection. There is room for anger. There is room for appreciation. There is room for resilience and rage and connection and moonwalking and silence. There is room for change. The only thing there isn’t room for at the inn is shame. We’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

“We encourage you to submit your work again.”

I think I may, I think I might, I think I might not, I think for tonight it really doesn’t matter. I think I am lucky to be alive, full belly and rip-roaring heart and green speckled eyes and a wife who loves me and gorgeous growing-up kids and people who trust me with their stories.

There’s a reason I’m not in the business of evaluating people’s words. We are surrounded by evaluative measures and systems; those are not hard to come by. What’s hard to come by is genuine, unconditional, non-competitive encouragement. So that’s what I do now, not only for myself but as a job. A job I made up out of the blue! Can you believe that is even possible? I give other people the very thing I want to receive. I teach what I have to learn, even though I really don’t think of what I do as teaching. This was my dream, and it still is. And it’s changing and evolving and unfolding. It’s scary and it’s beautiful and it’s unpredictable and, as my accountant reminded me, being self-employed can make us become quite religious.

Anyway. For tonight, I am not encouraged, but I will keep submitting — if not my poems, then my ego.

I submit and surrender to life as I know it, with all the trust in the world that saving one life is like saving the whole world, and not knowing — never knowing — where or whether or with whom these words will land.

If you’ve read this, thank you. For hanging in there with me and my ups and downs and rants and raves. It’s good for me to let this shit out. And it’s also good to hit “publish” and unplug for 24 hours, which is what I’m about to do.

Besides, Madonna once said, “Rejection is the greatest aphrodisiac.” I’m not taking her word for it though; better go find out for myself.

Shabbat Shalom, my friends.

A Warm Welcome from Mamalode

MamalodeIn the name of exercising the art of submission (hahahaha — I must still be tired and punchy at that), I’ve sent poems, essays, and even a couple of fiction pieces to all kinds of places in the last many months.

I’ve submitted work to contests with actual cash money prizes, to literary journals, print magazines I hold in high regard, online ones I read and respect, and sites that speak to my soul .

And I’m operating on the assumption that it’s best never to assume anything.

Out of my league? Quite probably.

That ever stop me? Nah. Not anymore.

The worst that will happen? Nothing that hasn’t already — an automated rejection email or just silence. For all of eternity. A bruised ego. Maybe some righteous indignation.

Best part? Resilience. A few encouraging words from an attentive editor. And, occasionally, a “yes.”

After recently sending a piece of writing for the first time Mamalode, a magazine that’s also a movement, that “yes” was accompanied by a warm note welcoming me to the family. Mamalode invites submissions, among others, that align with a monthly theme. For March, it’s Aspire. And one of the things I aspire to as a mama — and really, when I stop and think about it, as a writer — it’s to be a source of comfort.

All of which is a long way of saying: Come on over to Mamalode to read What Are Moms Good For?