Rejection Feeds Artistic Creation. Canceling Starves It. (Part 1 of 2)
I’ve been thinking a lot about rejection lately. Which is to say: I’m writing.
The memoir I’ve been writing for the last few years is being considered by a handful of publishers.
I’m sending essays and poems to literary magazines, which means a few months from now, even if I hit for better than my usual batting average, I’ll be receiving at least 4 or 5 unambiguous emails.
I’ve applied for an NEA literature fellowship. Because that application is to a federal agency, I assume the rejection might have a certain officiousness, maybe a complicated tracking number in the subject line. I'm anticipating a one-two punch: an email rejection and then, a few weeks later, an auto-generated tax form by regular mail.
I can imagine the $0.00 in box 1a.
Of all the applications and submissions I’ve got out right now, the only one I’m not preemptively mourning is for my university to reimburse me for airfare to a reading in Philadelphia. The invite letter is signed by two people, so . . . . Still, I’ve got my fingers crossed—and a backup plan.
So I’m a writer. I think of rejection in “when” rather than “if” terms.
I wasn’t always this way. Years ago, as a senior in college, I applied to half a dozen M.A.-Ph.D. programs in English and cultural studies. I’d decent grades and GRE scores, and my professors, because of the dreadful job market for humanities Ph.D.s, had encouraged me to only apply to top programs. They all agreed to write my letters of rec. None encouraged me to apply to any “safety” schools. Their confidence in me was infectious. All winter my inner monologue was liberally sprinkled with whens.
That spring, as the rejections rolled in from Princeton and Cornell and Penn, I got surly and dark. I taped each letter to my bedroom door in the apartment I shared with two roommates, so that anyone using the downstairs bathroom would have to see what UC-Berkeley and all the others thought about me.
My roommates thought I was nuts. They thought my wallowing was weird.
It may have been. I also think I knew I was going to need to figure how to put my rejections to work. Turning lemons into lemonade required, to my way of thinking, that I taste fully the lemons. Unsugared. Undiluted.
Now, I don’t even imagine lemonade’s on the menu. Only lemons, warmed by the sun.
I love the Best American series. Invariably, I discover a new poetry crush, a new favorite essay, a short story to occupy my mind for the next week. But I also love how, in the author notes in the back of the volume, there’s usually at least one really good tale of “This poem was rejected 50 times before a tiny literary magazine in Saskatchewan took a chance . . . .”
And then, look, here it is, anthologized, in a book you know is going to get read, even if just by a few thousand enthusiasts, a few thousand bored and perhaps ready-to-get-bit-by-the-literature-bug college students.
Fifty rejections and then an acceptance—and then, miraculously, another. That’s the goal, as I see it, in the writing life: a batting average of .038.
I recently heard a visiting poet at my university answer an audience question— “What advice would you give a young writer?”—by talking not about who to read or how much to write every day but by talking about stubbornness, about developing the necessary stubbornness to weather a .038 success rate.
The stubbornness to send a poem to a little magazine—hey, what’s the harm, I think every time I pay my $2.00 through Submittable—in Saskatchewan, even though fifty others have said your submission doesn’t meet their current needs.
A few years ago, I happened to see on television President Obama awarding Ellen DeGeneres the Medal of Freedom. I recall that DeGeneres seemed genuinely moved by this honor and that the unmistakable shine of tears seemed only to intensify when Obama read the last part of his prepared statement, where he quoted Dory, a character voiced by DeGeneres, "Keep swimming. Keep swimming."
As I write these words, my children are in their grandmother's living room watching Finding Dory. Two minutes ago, I heard Marlin, Nemo's dad, tell Dory how much she'd inspired him, how he'd accomplished so many things with her urging.
The tone in Albert Brooks's voice reminded me of a tone I heard recently, in the voices of the various women who stood up and asked Ellen DeGeneres questions in the "Ask Ellen" segment of her Netflix special, Relatable. Familiarity and reverence. Gratitude and intimacy. I wouldn't have been surprised if any one of those women had said, “I know you don't know me, but you have helped me to live.”
Once, I played a show at an Italian restaurant called Bambino’s. It wasn’t great.
I don’t exactly know how to categorize the music I was making back then. Not quite folk, certainly, but also not quite rock. The songs, to my ear now, sound like teenage attempts at eighties big-hair ballads—and maybe, sometimes, Simon & Garfunkel?—but played by someone with mostly ‘90s grunge-rock sensibilities and classical-guitar training.
Oh, and by someone who was girl-crazy and way too earnest about a lot of things including his girl-craziness.
Anyway, I played all right, I think. I don’t remember messing up any of my songs.
But it wasn’t great.
There was no way it could have been.
My set at Bambino’s suffered from the same design flaw as a stand-up comedian being asked, by the preacher delivering the eulogy, to do ten minutes. Or a community-college improv group doing their bawdy best to warm up an oncology waiting room.
The patrons at Bambino’s had arrived at the restaurant expecting intimate conversation, dinner, perhaps Puccini on the house stereo—not a twenty-year-old playing over-amplified arpeggios and lamenting the one that got away.
Halfway through my set, I thought, Oh, this is what people are talking about when they talk about “paying your dues.”
Halfway through my set, I thought, This really is sort of a nightmare.
I've had a slow, difficult time finally arriving at the possibility that some of my favorite writers, musicians, and artists may have also been, or currently are, bad people.
I was in my mid-30s before I understood how Raymond Carver’s essay “Fires” is largely a screed—but the prose is lovely!—blaming the birth of his children for his short attention span. His kids were born, responsibilities consumed him, and he never got around to writing the Great American Novel.
Years ago, I got somewhat obsessed with Miles Davis.
Then I started reading about him.
Then I listened to Kind of Blue every day for six months.
When both my children were learning to stand and then walk, I made collage videos of them—for grandparents, for Facebook—set to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." I love that song. The videos were, I've been told, "legitimately adorable."
I never consciously wondered if my continued—and lifelong, really—support for the music of Michael Jackson (I once planned a childhood evening around this centerpiece: sitting in front of a TV when the "Black or White" music video premiered) was contributing to the abuse of anyone.
I have never purchased or streamed an R. Kelly song.
I have never purchased or streamed a Chris Brown song, but I have, recently and repeatedly, watched "Niagra," the episode of The Office that depicts the wedding of Jim and Pam. I rarely turn off a rerun of The Office. And I always watch every second of the all-cast dance sequence featuring Chris Brown’s "Forever."
Sprinkled throughout Relatable are jokes about DeGeneres struggling with her relatability to her audience—because of her success. She's not different from us in getting angry at slow drivers; she's different in that she can't express that anger, because she's "Ellen." She's not different from us in having to do "the bath-mat shuffle" when the towel is too far from the shower; she's different in that her bathroom is huge, and presumably one of many huge bathrooms in a huge mansion, and her towel was left too far from the shower by her butler.
So the underlying premise of Relatable is that the salient differences—her success, her wealth—between Ellen and us don't weigh more than our similarities.
Ellen (and I) over-pack books on short vacations.
Ellen (and I) have a song that compels us to dance in public, but only when we've hit the magic mark, reached our designated spot on the dance floor.
The tone of the audience members asking her questions—familiarity, reverence, gratitude, intimacy—seems completely appropriate. For Ellen. We know her.
And that's some of why Barack Obama can make Ellen DeGeneres (and me!) tear up by reading aloud the words likely written by David Reynolds or Andrew Stanton or Bob Peterson, the Finding Nemo screenwriters who I couldn't pick out of lineup, men who I didn’t even bother to read the full IMDB entries for after finding their names for this sentence, men whose relatability or unrelatability I haven’t ever thought about: "Keep swimming. Keep swimming."
Because Ellen isn't just Ellen. She's Dory. She's Ellen Morgan. The fiction and the nonfiction are blended. They're one. We couldn't pry them apart, even if we wanted to. Even if we thought it would be better.
Even if we know it would be.
I anticipate rejection so as to “get out in front of it” psychologically. If I assume I’m going to lose, I will still feel, if the lemonade arrives or lightning strikes or God smiles, the lift of winning.
If I assume I’m going to lose, I won’t be as devastated when news of that loss gets delivered. It’ll be like re-discovering and carefully reading an email I’d skimmed: faint recognition that I’d already known and half understood.
Yet a couple recent stories from the publishing world—the cancellation of Kosoko Jackson’s A Place for Wolves and the treatment of Anders Carlson-Wee by The Nation—have made me reconsider my approach.
These stories of cancellation have reminded me I’m wrong to think of the possibilities as binary: winning and losing.
There’s also a third, more ambiguous, possibility. Sometimes, of course, this third option isn’t merely ambiguous. Sometimes it’s sinister.
It’d been long enough since her sitcom was cancelled, I guess, that I’d forgotten that Ellen DeGeneres’s story was a story of comeback.
I’d forgotten that, before she was a one-name entity (I almost used the word brand, but, for Ellen, doesn’t entity, or maybe even juggernaut, seem more accurate?), she’d been knocked down a few times, both by personal tragedy and by professional setback.
I’d forgotten that before Ellen was a modern performer whose life and art are inextricably intertwined, before she was someone whose performative voice and persona are, like Oprah’s, so distinctive and well-honed that we all start to believe we know her, before Ellen DeGeneres became this very particular “Ellen” in our popular imagination, she was canceled.
My book has been rejected by three editors at three different imprints. I read their notes of rejection like they were love letters. Or break-up letters, I guess.
I read their notes looking for clues, for evasions, for subtext. The longest of these notes was probably six sentences, but I read every word carefully. I read every word twice.
Recently I confided to a friend I was worried that when I started to receive the inevitable rejections of my book they would say something like: Wow, this is NOT a book. I can’t believe you thought it was. We pity you. We hope you didn’t spend four years working on this “memoir,” because that would be such a sad waste of energy. Again, we pity you.
Recently I confided to a friend I was relieved some of the rejections outlined explicitly commercial rationales. I was relieved the editors seemed to think it decent enough, as an art object, as something made out of words, but were worried that the book wouldn’t sell.
These rejections have helped me to stay stubborn. At least for now. At least with this round of rejections.
My grit, my stubbornness, as a writer is due largely to rejection, the continual picking--oneself-up-off-the-groundness of the writing life.
And so now I’m wondering if that’s some of why a cancellation—a delayed rejection, in some sense, a rejection after an acceptance, a “Yes, and then no”—feels different. I’m wondering if a cancellation plays upon our artistic stubbornness in a different way than simply hearing, first and unambiguously, “No.”
Rejection makes me think, OK. How do I work with this sun-warmed lemon? What next? Maybe I wallow for a day or a month. Maybe I tape up my rejections on my bedroom door for a few weeks and then toss them into the garbage. Then I go about the business of making something new, reorienting myself toward today and tomorrow.
Cancellation, though, seems different. Rather than the world saying, "Yes" or "No," it's as if the world is saying: "You and what you were (or what you make) seemed all right, it got our stamp of approval, but then we discovered that you weren't. What you made wasn't. Turns out: you didn't even understand the rules. You didn't understand that the rules were up to us."
Cancellation: You know it's time to make lemonade, but all you've got are oranges and salt.
My show at Bambino’s wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but I never got the volume right. I started too loud and, by the end of the set, even with nudging down the volume on my amp between songs, both the guitar and the vocals were still too loud.
Finally, at the end of my set, I played my version of the Beach Boys’s “Sloop John B,” which finally got some feet tapping, a few smiles from a few patrons, and seemingly genuine applause.
Nobody fell in love, but I also surmised I hadn’t ruined anyone’s night.
One of the restaurant’s servers called me over when I was packing up, pulled out a calendar, and booked me for the following Friday.
I was thrilled. Not only was I going to have another chance to play my music publicly, I was happy, too, that I was going to have a chance to get it right. The next Friday I’d be playing on the restaurant’s patio, where there’d be more forgiveness on the volume, where I wouldn’t be playing my too-loud music at the equivalent of an adjacent table while folks were trying to order their fettuccine and have a conversation.
So somewhat higher was the height I fell from when, a few days later, a bartender at the restaurant phoned and said he was uninviting me from my upcoming gig, that the server who’d booked me hadn’t checked with him about putting me on the calendar and that, well, he was really the one who did the booking.
I asked if he was rescheduling or canceling.
I wasn’t going to play Bambino’s again. I wasn’t going to have a chance to get the volume right.
I asked him why.
“I just didn’t like it,” he said. “I didn’t like you.”