The subtle art of being rejected

You never forget your first rejection. Mine came at the tender age of nine, at the hands of a haughty fourth-grader named Tommy, whose name I have changed here so he can’t come out of the woodwork and sue me for libel. I used the old have-a-more-popular-friend-pass-a-note one Friday afternoon, prompting Tommy to announce, in front of the entire cafeteria (on pizza day, which should have been a joyous occasion), that he would not, under any circumstances, accompany me to the Square Dance we would be performing for our families later that month.

“Not even if we were the last two people on Earth,” he added, as if I maybe hadn’t gotten the message. This last bit implied a level of seriousness I hadn’t intended to convey—I had no interest in hypothetically repopulating the planet; I just liked his Vans and thought he was good at kickball.

On the day of what promised to be the smash hit performance of the season, the gym was filled with bored parents and siblings, and Tommy’s partner was out with pneumonia. I didn’t relish it for her sake, but even at the time, I remember feeling smug that he had to stand alone in a corner for the partnered dances. Still, I felt a little twinge of something that in retrospect I think was probably the Golden Rule, so I sidled up and asked if he wanted to join me and my partner for the last dance.

“Not a chance, Four-eyes,” he scoffed, even though Ms. Mogan had said that very morning that my new glasses were really cute. I can still feel the hot, hot humiliation searing into my cheeks.

I suspect Tommy probably grew up to continue being a little jerk, but that’s not the point. The point is, I’m grateful to him, because life is full of rejections, and I picked a career where you have to have a pretty thick skin.

In the interceding years, I’ve endured my share of unanswered texts, unceremonious dumpings, and extremely personal breakups, one of which ended with, “It’s not that I don’t want to go to Senior Prom, I just don’t want to go with you.”

By the time I finished graduate school, I was well-versed in the art of being rejected. I’d had to woo faculty members into approving my thesis topic (“The subject you’re suggesting isn’t really an issue in our community”) and then into being on my committee (an especially harsh “No thanks,” without explanation, from my attempt at a third recruit). I’d submitted to journals and conferences and been met with a fair amount of “This isn’t what we’re looking for” and even a “This isn’t a very creative topic,” which smarted more than I care to admit.

In the end, though, I had a kick-ass thesis committee and a paper to present at an international conference and a publication in a peer-reviewed journal, so I figured the rejection had been good practice—especially since, in the end, I got what I came for.

And then I left the world of academia for the job market, where I discovered that no number of politely worded rejection emails could possibly have prepared me for the onslaught of No coming my way. I applied for hundreds of jobs, most of which I never heard anything back about, a few of which offered me interviews, and all but one of which did not end in a job offer.

“It’s fine,” I said to my parents over dinner one night, because my almost-husband and I lived with them because I could not find a job, “It’s just that I’m a complete failure, is all.” This was tongue-in-cheek, but the numbers didn’t lie: I had tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, and I couldn’t get a job at the coffee shop, the local university, or anywhere in between.

I got a job eventually, and then I started getting serious about writing in my off hours, and pretty soon I was pitching all over the place, as often as I could. Now, I make my living pitching stories to publications big and small, most of which send me a nicely worded “We’ll pass” a few days later, or, often as not, don’t respond at all. It can be a little demoralizing, especially now that I don’t have the safety net of a salaried job with benefits.

I’ve learned to take rejection as feedback whenever possible. It isn’t possible, always, to change what you’ve got going on based on a rejection. In the case of Tommy, my would-be paramour from grade school, there was little I could do: I could not become less in need of glasses, and my optometrist was rightly hesitant to prescribe contact lenses to a sticky fourth-grader, despite the pleas I made to her every visit. I certainly couldn’t just become cool, a lesson I wouldn’t fully learn for another ten years, at least.

I could not make myself into the person Tommy wanted to square dance with, which I later discovered is exactly okay, because that guy was a total jagweed.

Sometimes, though—and more often than not, I like to think, in professional interactions—there is useful feedback in rejections. Often, a No is an invitation to try again with another topic or angle, or to ask about ways to improve, or, occasionally, to cut my losses and head back to the drawing board. Rarely is it a reason to give up altogether, though for a big one I’ll give myself a few minutes to mope before I get back at it.

When I’m faced with an especially disappointing rejection—one I didn’t expect, or, worse yet, one I knew was probably inevitable but still somehow hoped wouldn’t come—I still feel that same flush of embarrassment, like I’ve upset the natural order of things by trying. I think of fourth grade, and how little I knew then about the nuances of love and of doing good work, the kind you’re proud of later, and I’m more grateful than I expect.

That’s not to say I’m never frustrated or confused, or that I never feel insecure. But fear of rejection drives me to work hard. And when it comes (and it inevitably does), rejection drives me to improve, to trim things down and tighten them up, to examine why it is that I give a shit about a thing. Rejection makes me a better writer. It makes me a more conscientious writer. It also makes me a more thoughtful member of my communities.

I bet old Tommy didn’t think of that, all those years ago, when he threw his pizza down on his tray and laughed out loud at the notion that I’d think he’d deign to let me square dance with him. But here we are, and guess what else? Glasses are cool now.

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