At the upcoming Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, I’ll be teaching a course in Overcoming Rejection: Press On Regardless. In this class I offer tools on how to face and even benefit from rejection. I’ll talk about how my book, Split: A Memoir of Divorce began as a novel, which was rejected 22 times before being rewritten as memoir and going to press*, how this happened with all three of my books and most importantly, how to press on regardless.
I am a writer, but that’s not what I aspired to be. I wanted to be a dancer. I took classes for 12 years, often crawling to the bathroom on all fours in the morning because I could not stand up, due to grueling hours at the studio and muscles that were stretched beyond their limit.
After surviving the audition for an elite dance class at the University of California at Berkeley, I felt I was on my way to realizing my dream. But one semester later I was called into the dance director’s office and told I didn’t have what it takes. For one thing, I could not do a pirouette. For another, I had breasts and, according to tradition, those just get in a dancer’s way. Marinating in defeat and shame, I watched The Turning Point compulsively and felt ill.
I was demoted to the general phys ed dance class. After a few weeks, I had to admit it was more fun than the highly structured and competitive environment of the elite class. I also declared a new major: English literature. Although this was my second choice, it became abundantly clear after I joined the workforce that it was the right one for me. The job opportunities were a lot better, as were my long-term prospects for pleasure. Reading and writing are not only vastly more rewarding than shin splints but you can do them when you’re 90, whereas you very rarely see women that age performing Giselle.
It was in a college poetry-writing class that I met my first big love, Reed. He admired my poems and looked, not incidentally, like a young Marlon Brando. We dated until the end of the school year, when he informed me that he still loved his ex-girlfriend. I was so devastated that I missed my own graduation because I could not bear the thought of seeing them together.
Reed became a minister, and a good one from what I hear. We are still friends. But because he dumped me, I developed into an autonomous woman who surely never would have emerged had I married straight out of college. Also there is this: Would I have made a good minister’s wife? Probably not. Minister’s wives don’t wear black boots, they don’t drink, and they rarely, if ever, say “s***fire.” At the time, though, Reed was everything I thought I wanted in a man, and I cried every day for months.
Eventually I learned that I can survive heartbreak, and I wrote more poems. This led to being published in Ms.magazine, the brainchild of my idol Gloria Steinem. All told, I earned $150. I decided to try my hand at commercial copywriting, which pays somewhat more amply.
I remember preparing a massive presentation five years into my first advertising copywriter’s job (at a small agency located in a desultory suburb whose name had to do with walnuts). It was a presentation for a gaggle of car dealers who were meeting at a fancy resort in Maui. I had worked hard to add the finishing creative touches, and just as I completed the task, my boss called me into his spacious office. He informed me that although most of my colleagues were bound for Hawaii, I would not be attending the meeting. I was to stay behind, like Cinderella.
That day I revised my résumé and faxed it to the creative director of a large agency in San Francisco. The timing was ideal; the agency had just landed a huge account. I was interviewed by a woman who ignored my hideous portfolio of car ads and just like the honest way I described my job and my frustration with it. She met me on a Saturday and called with an offer the next Monday—and within an hour, I gave my two-week notice. “Don’t get mad, get even” is not my motto. My motto is, “Do feel angry and don’t just get even—go to a much higher place where they can’t see you from their lawn chairs, which are probably missing slats.”
My first novel was represented by a very encouraging literary agent in the state of Washington. After being rejected by no fewer than 19 publishing houses, I shelved the book. As a teacher of Anne Lamott’s once told her, “Every writer has a novel that isn’t published. This will be yours.” I felt bruised but not broken. I retained a wild optimism based on youth and the affable nature of many of the rejection letters. Several editors stated that I obviously had talent. But they gently added, I had forgotten to include one small detail: a plot. I made a mental note: Remember to have a plot.One rejection was harrowing, though. In spidery handwriting, a somewhat famous editor said I was “intoxicated with my own style.” It was like a dagger to my spleen. Yet within hours I realized he was right. I was intoxicated with my own style. I never forgot that. Had he been kinder and more tactful, I would not have gotten the point. That’s how I learned that sometimes the cruelest cuts hold the greatest information. You remember the rejections in ways that you don’t remember the successes. They reach you in a primal spot. Rejection can be like mulch: dirty, smelly, and essential to growth.
I eventually wrote another novel, which I eagerly submitted to my agent. After three flesh-eating silent months, I received a thick envelope with my manuscript and a terse letter. My agent explained that not only did she feel there was not market for the book, she apologized for taking so long to reject it, saying that the agency was very busy with projects that were in the works. In other words, not only was I inadequate but others were catapulting into fruition with the regularity of bunny rabbits.
After a four-month depression, I decided my Washington agent was wrong. Sometimes setbacks make you feel that perhaps you have made your goal too small—you need to aim not lower but higher. What the hell, in other words.
Marshaling my courage, I sent ten query letters to agents in New York. Within days I had my replies. Not one but two agents wanted to represent me. The woman I chose became my fairy godmother. She sold the book immediately, as well as the film rights. I resisted the impulse to contact my ex-agent to inform her of the good news. I decided she should have the thrill of discovery.
Don’t get me wrong. I detest rejection. And I do take it personally, even though, according to self-help mavens, I am not supposed to. Yet I am too stubborn to admit defeat for long.
I think that, especially in matters of work, you should expect rejection on a regular basis. To try to avoid it is a major mistake, as you will massage your unique style into the consistency of gruel in the vain effort to try to please everyone all the time. In general, the populace will be divided into four groups: (1) people who understand and appreciate what you are trying to do, (2) people who understand and don’t appreciate it, (3) people who don’t understand and appreciate it anyway, and (4) people who don’t understand and hate your guts. It is not important that everyone fall into the first category; it is only important that you participate in life.
It is also key to listen and watch for the message the rejection has hidden in its folds. At 40 I now believe rejection is God’s way of kicking you to higher ground. That said, I would add that although this has always held a gift for me, I still sometimes grow tired of God’s boot print on my ass.
When a county deputy served me a petition for divorce, I placed it in a desk drawer, unable to endure its typed finality. One day soon afterward, I took it out and taped it to the refrigerator door. I needed to see it, to absorb the harsh reality that my marriage was over. The next day, I found a hawk feather on my front porch. A few days later, I found another hawk feather in almost the exact same spot. It was no accident. I believed I was being alerted to the possibility that, from a distance, this vast rejection was a blessing in disguise, I placed the two feathers above the petition and felt a little less sad.
Divorce is not something desired; I think it is often a terrible mistake with far-reaching consequences. Yes I know the law of balance works, and probably I will reap manifold gifts from my brief marriage. When I look at my son’s face, I see I already have.
As long as I am alive, I will be rejected. We all will. I try to loosen up, to become more of an observer, as though I am watching a film whose plot twists and turns only enhance the eventual resolution. It’s just plain interesting to go through big changes, to feel improved as a result of pratfalls, turnarounds, and upheavals. Rejection? Bring it on, I want to say. Bring it on.
Suzanne Finnamore is the internationally bestselling author of Otherwise Engaged (Vintage), The Zygote Chronicles (Grove/Atlantic) and Split: A Memoir of Divorce (Penguin Worldwide), an Oprah Book Club pick and a Library Journal Book of the Year. She is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Author and a Washington Post Book of the Year award winner. She lives in Durham, NC with her family.