Note: This is about literary rejection. I’ll save the other form for the memoir.
Last fall I applied for 16 Ontario Arts Council (OAC) Writer’s Reserve Grants. They require submissions directly to publishers that act as third party recommenders. I could have applied for 35. I decided to be selective and save on stamps and large envelopes.
“Read through the list carefully and pick the ones that sound like a fit,” my friend Rachel Zolf, an award-winning poet, told me. “Don’t worry about getting rejected. It’s part of the deal. I’ve been rejected tons of times.”
It was exciting to see how many publishing houses sound like a perfect fit. Unconventional, emerging, shows stylistic verve, (however one evaluates that – dictionary defines that as vim, vigour and vitality! So essentially I’m aiming for the four V’s – sounds exhausting.) cutting edge, quirky, diasporic, urban, new, fresh, socially aware, boundary pushing. That’s me! I thought.
I chose The Gay Divorcee or Got to get a get, a piece I wrote about going before the Beth Din (court of Jewish law presided over by seven or eight bearded Orthodox Rabbis with black hats) to get my religious divorce from my ex-husband/dear friend Ron. I felt confident. I reviewed and tweaked it 400 times. My family and friends laughed a lot when I read it to them. (Yes, I’d already been to the Humber School for Writers and remember Mr. Sileika’s caution that your family and friends love your work primarily because they love you.)
I purchased more than enough $1.22 stamps and envelopes. I included the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelopes) – pronounced sassy - with each submission as requested if you want your piece back. It hurt to think of my rejected manuscript cut into scrap paper for jotting down take-out orders or shopping lists. As it turns out, many publishers ignore the request to send your baby back and waste the large sassy envelope and hefty postage on the thin rejection form. Better not to think about the fate of my pages.
I dropped the applications in the mail on my way out for a run. The plastic bag of envelopes was heavy and banged against my leg for the ten minutes it took to find a mailbox. I kissed each one before tossing them in. Then I kept running.
It was the first thing I was sending out for judgment. I fantasized about the affirmation, the money, the recognition, the panel discussion with me, Michael Chabon and Miriam Toews, the film rights. It’s what I do when I run.
I uttered Rachel’s rejection advice to myself repeatedly, but was torn between believing it to be true and thinking myself the exception to the rule. Just in case, I gathered a handful of famous writers who’d been rejected - Ann Frank, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, Sarah Waters, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, George Orwell.
It was weeks before the first brown envelope arrived. Regardless of the fact I’d completed 16 of these forms I had to scour it to find what I was looking for. There was no cover letter, not a word of candy-coating just a check mark in the NOT approved box and a scrawled signature. I burst into tears.
I tried to visualize Sarah Waters’ suggestion that somewhere inside us we need to develop a steely reed of self-belief, which may bend with the comments of others, but does not snap.
I didn’t cry when the next fourteen arrived. I tore each one open, glanced directly at the not approved box then tossed them on the growing pile. There were a couple that stung but little more than a pinprick. I did however berate myself for choosing the wrong piece - too ethnic, too niche, too funny, too religious, too un-CBC.
The next time I cried was when a form arrived with approved checked off. I looked at the rejection box three times, confused. It came with a sticky note that read “Aviva, This is a great manuscript. Please send me the whole thing when it’s ready." I cried, jumped up and down, then called Rachel. “Great, it said great!”
That was February. I stuck it on the fridge and read it out loud about 15 times a day for the next two weeks. It’s still on the fridge.
Before I started writing this post I wondered what picture I would select to represent it. What does rejection look like? Still not sure I know but I’m getting a picture.
Bracing myself for the OAC Work in Progress rejection in June – working on my steely reed despite the fact I’m something of a snapper. Three weeks and counting. Good to prepare for disappointment while fantasizing about glory.