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I wanted to be a poet. In my early twenties I got up at 4:30 every morning to write, and spent my free time reading and memorizing Wallace Stevens and Hopkins and Donne. I sent poems off to literary magazines every week and applied for many, many MFA programs.
I racked up hundreds of rejections. I didn’t get into grad school.
And that’s it. There’s no happy ending. No one liked my work — not the people in my poetry groups, not my undergrad advisor, not editors or admissions committees. I failed at my dream job. It took me a while to get the hint, but eventually I did. I gave up. I don’t write poetry now. I don’t even read it much anymore.
As you’re no doubt aware, that’s not how these stories are supposed to go. Generally, when writers tell you about their rejections, it’s a prelude to telling you about their final success — the validating sale, or award, or recognition which shows that getting up in the wee hours for years was worth the effort. You’re supposed to end your anecdote by revealing that your instincts about yourself were right, and all your naysayers were deluded.
Generally, when writers tell you about their rejections, it’s a prelude to telling you about their final success — the validating sale, or award, or recognition which shows that getting up in the wee hours for years was worth the effort.
This narrative got a boost recently by Buzzfeed journalist Saaed Jones, who noted on Twitter that he had been rejected over and over by the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, but had just “sold his memoir to Simon & Schuster for six figures.” Jones invited his followers to talk about their own failures (and success stories) with the hashtag #ShareYourRejection. People replied with stories about the novels that nobody would publish until somebody did, and the television show that wasn’t supposed to be possible but is now finally launching, or the brilliant viral YouTube series that was first passed on by many channels before becoming a huge hit. It was a supposedly inspiring mélange of accolades, money, awards, validation and success.
There’s nothing wrong with telling these kinds of stories. People who have struggled for success are understandably proud when they finally make it. And folks who are struggling themselves are clearly hungry for those narratives of triumph as well, judging by the ubiquity of the plot line in pop culture. From “The Karate Kid” to “Pitch Perfect,” we love stories about underdogs who fail and fail and work hard and then, in the final act, win.
We love those final acts so much, in fact, that talking about your struggle is often part of how you market yourself for success. Headlines about “how J.K. Rowling turned rejection into success” are great marketing for J.K. Rowling. Many of those using the #ShareYourRejection hashtag had the double benefit of being able to market themselves or their work while appearing appropriately humble.
But, for some folks, watching all that scrambling, and all that success, can be disheartening. A 2016 study of Facebook users found that on social media, reading about other people’s success made users feel envious and depressed. Reading about everyone else’s great times, career successes, and romantic dinners didn’t inspire. It enervated. You look at everyone else’s success, and you look at yourself, and the comparison doesn’t make you feel happy. It makes you feel like a loser. All these people are getting grants and publishing cover stories and scaling amazing heights of personal and professional awesomeness. Meanwhile, my editor chewed me out and the story I was working on for months got killed. What now?
But the truth is that rejection isn’t always another growth experience. Instead, often rejection diminishes you. It can close off possibilities; it can narrow your options.
That “what now?” can lead various places, of course. Sometimes rejection can help a writer improve. When marginalized people are rejected, it can be a sign that institutions are flawed and discriminatory and can inspire people to work to change them. Sometimes, a rejection can put you on a better, happier life path. It can remind you that you have to believe in your work. It can become a positive part of your life story in a lot of ways. Rejection can be, as my mom used to say, “another f*cking growth experience.”
But the truth is that rejection isn’t always another growth experience. Instead, often rejection diminishes you. It can close off possibilities; it can narrow your options. Once, you could have been a poet. And then, after enough rejections, you can’t be a poet any more. That isn’t the story of my life. But it is one story.
I’m sure some will read this piece as an exercise in self-pity or narcissism — epithets that serve to mark the failures from the successes, and the runners-up from the meritocrats. And that’s fair enough. Listening to whining isn’t much more fun than listening to boasting. People have varying thresholds for how much of each they can stand.
But still, I wish there were a little more space in pop culture and social media for us to lose, and fail, without having to turn it into a lesson, or an opportunity, or a brand. When you’re told over and over that rejection is just a stepping stone on the way to bigger and better things, how do you deal with rejection that doesn’t lead anywhere?
Maybe we could pause occasionally and let people know it’s okay to be sad that you didn’t get to be who you hoped to be, even when that sadness doesn’t get you closer to being anyone you want to be, either. Sometimes, when a door closes, no window opens. The door is just closed. You stand there staring at it for a while.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.”