The Beauty of Rejection

I didn't post last week. Sounds like a confession. It is, sort of. I had company. I had work. I had life. And I had no idea what to write about until yesterday. I did this cartoon over four years ago. It really has very little to do with what I'm actually going to say, but in so many ways it reflects what goes inside all of us- artists and non-artists included. We all want our "day on the stage" and "the crowd goes wild."

But if you put yourself out there, you are possibly setting yourself up for rejection, and that is what I'm writing about.

Anyone who wants to get published, or is trying to get published, whether that is with their writing or their art- or their music, or their acting... just about anyone who wants to do something with their lives must face rejection. Sometimes it is a form letter:

Dear Whoever You Are:
We are sorry but your story/art/face/craft/DNA is not right for our list. Good luck placing it elsewhere.
Sincerely, The Editors/Directors/POTUS/Dictator in General

Sometimes there are no letters, no calls, no thank you for trying.

Sure, you can be mad. Sure, you can blame them, blame the state of the world, blame your rotten luck and bad timing. But that won't get you anywhere but in the aisle of the drugstore looking for antacids. I have a much better remedy. Here it is, case in point:

This is the rejection letter I received yesterday. It's not from a publisher. It is from the highly competitive low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Warren Wilson College. I had decided at age forty-eight to apply to this program to deepen my skill level. Even though I have realized my dream of writing and illustrating children's books, I have never stopped learning. I've been working on a novel, and I came to a crossroads whereupon I decided that working on a degree in creative writing would be exciting and challenging. I had done some online research into good low-residency programs, and there are many scattered around the country, but then I reconnected with my former English Lit professor, Tobias Wolff, and he suggested Warren Wilson.

Warren Wilson's tag line, "we're not for everyone... but then, maybe you're not everyone" appealed to my "going against the grain" sensibilities. I wrote my application essays, included 25 pages of my novel, and got my two letters of recommendation: one from Tobias, himself, and one from my lovely editor at Chronicle Books. I thought I had a pretty nice package there. But the odds were against me and I knew it. Warren Wilson only takes 7-10 new students each semester in the Fiction Degree Program. I would be up against folks of all ages. Some fresh out of Ivy League undergrad English Literature underwear. I was wearing old art school rags.

Nevertheless I motored on and kept checking my oil pressure levels. As the deadline approached for their reply, I sensed internally that I didn't make the cut. Call it intuition, or call it hocus-pocus. Driving down I-5 yesterday, my husband called me to say that a letter from Warren Wilson had arrived.
"Is it thin?" I asked.
"Yes." (not good.)
"Should you open it or should I wait until I get home?"
"Either way."
"Open it."

This is what it said:

Dear Nina:
On behalf of the MFA Academic Board, I thank you for your interest in our Program for Writers but am sorry to say we are not able to invite you to begin the degree program. In recent years our pool of applicants has grown considerably and, while that is gratifying, it means we are accepting a progressively smaller percentage of the writers interested in joining us.

I know this result is disappointing. I hope you can take some encouragement from the fact that our readers praised your manuscript and asked me to indicate their interest, as well as their regret that we do not have more places to offer. All of us involved in the application process appreciate your dedication, and wish you the best for your work,
Yours, ------ ------ MFA Director

I’m okay with this. Truly, I am. Of course I’d like to know if this is the “form letter” they send to all rejected applicants. And I’m wondering if I should have tried to get a recommendation from J.D. Salinger before he died. (just kidding!) But the truth is: I have so many books to write and illustrate that I really thought my plate was too full to go get an MFA right now. 

But what I did do is send out an email to my closest friends to tell them about the rejection and to let them know that I appreciated their support throughout the process, and that I was okay. What I got back was a beautiful out-pouring of thought and emotion:

Some of the replies:

I'm sorry to hear it didn't work out, but you are after all doing 
very well with your writing and your art, and I'm not sure you need them...

And I love your sane, balanced response to this news. You are that 
rare thing, growing more rare by the moment in this country -- a grownup.

Wow, so cool of you to handle this rejection with such aplomb, I am proud of you.

You sure handle disappointment with poise and grace! It was very competitive and you did all you could. I am impressed by your candor in sharing your rejection, but not surprised. You are a class act. BTW, with all your extra time, I think you should write an intermediate grade poetry collection. I think you are a wonderful poet and such a collection would be a big hit. Just fit that in sometime, okay?

These gifts from my friends were better than getting an acceptance letter. It made me realize that we don't share enough of our failures and we place too much emphasis on success. My favorite saying came from a sign I saw at a rug cleaning business, it said, "If you don't make mistakes, you won't make anything." It's true. We have to honor the attempts, and we have to pick ourselves up and keep going.

So don't stew. Don't seek revenge. Just keep putting it out there. Mistakes and all. You must first accept yourself in order to have the confidence to get others to join in your quest. 

And some days you get letters like this in the mail instead:

Embrace all the aspects of this life- rejection, acceptance, and everything in between, and learn to love the process. It's all part of the journey.
I hope you will honor whatever you try to do...


The Secret to Writing (or illustrating)- A Photo Essay

People will always invariably ask: "How do you do it?" Meaning: How did you write all those books? How did you do all those illustrations? Is it talent? Is it some secret? Is it genes? It is some of those things, but it's mostly what I'm going to show you- and I'm not the only person who believes this. Incredibly prolific author Jane Yolen preaches this all the time. (And she's published over 300 books.)

Here we go:

This is your butt. (Okay, it's MY butt.)

This is your chair. 
It doesn't matter what kind it is. This is a very cheap one, but it's pretty comfortable.

Your head can be here.
(Those are clouds from a sunset shot I took from my deck about two weeks ago.)
(The clouds symbolize "imagination," in case I'm being vague.)

As long as your hands are here...
(I really need to put on some moisturizer, dang my skin is dry!)

Or here...

Someday this could happen.

That is the last line of Tobias Wolff's short story, "Bullet in the Brain" tattooed on the back of a young man who is a student at Western Washington University. Tobias Wolff was my English Lit professor way back when I was a student at Syracuse University. I can't imagine how mind-blowing it must be to see a fan permanently etch your very words on his flesh. 

Needless to say, it won't happen unless you put that butt in that chair and write or draw. 
Happy Sitting!


Reading the Signs

I have an obsession with signs. Maybe it is because I just plain like to read and I will read anything that has words in it. (Okay, how many of you have read the ingredients on the shampoo or toothpaste because you were stuck in the bathroom and you were bored and you needed to read something?) Maybe I am always looking for meaning. Or hidden meaning. Wherever I go. I think I drive Booth, my husband, crazy when he is driving. I read every sign I see out loud. On the side of the road. On buildings. On trucks. I saw a truck bearing the sign for "The Wetter Water." Wetter water? Whoa. I had no idea water can be wetter. Apparently it is so. I learn things from signs.

Otherwise I'd be Beyond Lost. Not that being lost is a bad thing.

This past July I did what I call my "July-Brary Tour." I drove 1200 miles and spoke in fourteen libraries in the North Central Washington Library District. It was an amazing trip. It is amazingly beautiful country. Warm, welcoming people and abundant fresh fruit greeted me every step of the way. And of course I saw signs. Fortunately I had my camera with me.

I saw this sign in Mazama, Washington. It is much better than the usual: "Slow Children." That sign has always bothered me. Why are the children slow? Of course that makes them targets on the road. Sometimes the sign says: "Slow Children Playing." Well I hope they are playing. They are still children after all.

This sign is truthful. There are pets, children and wildlife and NONE are to spare. I especially hate it when snakes and turtles are hit by cars. They need signs, too.

Signs seem to be everywhere, though...

Here is a bumper sticker that I saw on the July-Brary tour in the library parking lot, which was also the town hall parking lot, and the police headquarters parking lot in Tonasket, Washington:

I was especially thrilled to see the two young women who got back into that car just as I was leaving to head to the next town, Omak. Signs say a lot about the people who post them.

Guess who posted that sign? A librarian! This hilarious sign was next to the check-out desk at the lovely Moses Lake Library. I love a librarian with a sense of humor. Lord knows, they need it dealing with the general public and unattended children all day.

But I have a confession to make: Sometimes my brain misreads signs. I don't know why it does this. Could be a "sign" I'm becoming dyslexic? For example: There is a sign near my post office that says, "Ballard Dental Arts." I don't read it that way. I see "Ballard Denial Arts." I've always wondered just what kind of art that would be, the art of denial. Maybe they need to choose a different font so that the "t" is more pronounced.

Today, to top it all off, I was driving to the gas station, and I saw a sandwich board sign on the corner of the street. I thought it said, "Singles Vacations." I thought to myself, "what an odd place to promote that sort of thing," due to the fact that the sign was sitting in front of a Rite Aid Drugstore. Then I looked again. The sign actually said, "Shingles Vaccinations." That made much more sense.  But truth be told, I prefer to read signs my own way. Sometimes they even lead to ideas for stories, books, poems... or they just make me want to take a picture so I can smile and remember a few words that broke the monotony and seriousness of life...

What signs do you like to read?