Monday, March 30, 2009

The Rejecter's Rejections

So the editorial situation for my third book is still a mess, and has gotten more complicated, to the point where it's really not appropriate for me to continue posting about it on an anonymous public blog, as a lot of specifics are involved. And curse words.

Today I was back in my hometown to give a speech to students in my high school about my book and the publishing process. This was requested by an English teacher I didn't know, which shocked the hell out of me. I babbled for about 45 minutes and I'm pretty sure I might have said something in there about something related to writing. When I do public speaking it's kind of blur. It's good to go into my 10th reunion this fall with a major accomplishment. I looked in my yearbook when I got there to jog my memory of the names of my teachers, as I am especially terrible at remembering names, and discovered that in my senior profile, I asked people to buy my book (the one I was trying to publish at the time) or "a book by me by another title." Actually the English teacher, the alumni director, and the librarian all got copies from me for free, but the principle is there, which is that I had a dream in high school and I've fulfilled it. I need to come up with some crazier dreams.

Also very satisfying: My mother asked me to clean out my desk while I was home, which was filled with old paper and bank statements that needed to be shredded alongside the very important documents to save, like GRE scores and proof of jury duty service. Included in this desk was a huge stack of rejection letters from various graduate programs in creative writing. I was rejected almost everywhere I applied, and I applied repeatedly: my senior year of college, the year I was in Israel, and the year I was home sick after Israel. I applied to Columbia's MFA program three times (and was waitlisted once, but never got off it). My fiction was apparently "too commercial" as grad professors have admitted off the record. Obvious I did get in somewhere, really a middle tier school looking to expand its program with more students, and even there I was ostracized for writing "popular fiction" and one professor threatened to flunk me if I didn't write about myself. Also I probably burned the bridge of being hired as a professor there by calling the head of the department a sadist to his face.

Number of books under contract 1 year after graduating with my MFA: 5

Anyway, I shredded all of my rejections (and the acceptances to the crappy programs). Let me tell you, it was very satisfying. Especially for Columbia. Three times I paid that application fee, which went up from $85 to $120 the final year. Also Iowa, just because everyone applies to Iowa and no one gets in. Man, they rejected the hell out of me.

So, for those you receiving rejection letters: keep at it. Persistence pays off. And shredding is very theraputic.


Anne said...

Thank you! That's so great to hear. Not that I take pleasure in your rejections, but it's nice to hear about the earlier stages of rejection, by the MFA programs, instead of just reading about agent/publisher rejections. From all of us who are still going through that first stage of applications/vulnerabilities, thanks.
Oh, and it;s also good to hear that going to a less-than-top-tier school didn't stop you from getting your work published. I recently got into what sounds like an amazing program at a school nobody in the US has ever heard of (it's in the UK), and I'm thrilled about the course but a little nervous about name-recognition. So thanks for easing my worries on that front too.

NS Foster said...

Truly, it is nice to hear even though I probably already knew that. I was rejected from my university's Creative Writing undergrad program. Sucks, it was the only reason I bothered attending this particular university. It boiled down to them wanting me to write more like Odaatje (an alumni) and less like Guy Gavriel Kay. Alas, that just ain't my bag. But it shakes you, you know? So thanks for the reminder. Always welcome while I still anticipate success :)

JohnO said...

Hah. Nothing wrong with being commercial. And huzzah for a little deserved schadenfreude.

Should I be so lucky, I'll take photos of the shredding ceremony and share them with you.

Anonymous said...

No wayYou've gotta SAVE those rejection letters! Do you know how much lit archivists would pay to get their hands on the rejection letters that were sent to Harper Lee and Ernet Hemmingway's first books??

Save those nasty buggers--your fame will only enhance your rejecters' stupidity in the eyes of history! :)

Unknown said...

I take a different approach; I put all my rejection letters on my wall as motivation. A wall of my path towards publication. Although it occurs to me that if I never actually get published it will just be a wall of failure.


The Rejecter said...

The rejections from grad school were really tough on me; I don't want reminders of that in my life. I got in somewhere, I went, I got my degree. Life goes on, stuff gets shredded. Also I already obsessively collect enough stuff I should be throwing out.

Anonymous said...

So, for those you receiving rejection letters: keep at it. Persistence pays off.

"So, for those of you receiving rejection letters: keep at it. Persistence sometimes pays off."


Erin Cabatingan said...

Thanks for sharing that.

I'm glad that you were able to keep going even through the rejections.

I'm finally getting to the point where it doesn't take me quite so long to send my manuscript out again when I get a rejection.

Sometimes I feel like the only one who thinks my writing is any good is me and my very supportive husband. Sometimes, after a rejection, I don't even believe in it, but I know that at one time I did and so I still keep going.

It's good to hear stories like this where, through perseverance, you were able to reach your dream, where all those people who told you "no" weren't actually right.

And I too get rid of my rejection letters--as I get them. The very first one I got I gave to my baby who was overjoyed to have a piece of paper to play with, since I never let have paper (he usually ate it.) His happiness at my rejection letter made me feel better.

Laurel said...

Calling the department head a sadist. That is great. I admire your guts and I loved this post.

Unknown said...

I was rejected at every single MFA program I applied to, also. Best thing that ever happened to me. I mistakenly believed that I needed a graduate degree to motivate myself into finishing a book. After that mess, I vowed that I was going to finish a book no matter what.

8 contracted books and novellas regrets. :) It was the kick in the pants I needed.

Elissa M said...

While I think no education is wasted, I'm rather glad it never occurred to me to major in writing. I don't think I would have appreciated rejections essentially saying, "Your money isn't good enough for us."

I'm long out of college, and I've noticed NOBODY cares where I went to school (except the alumni association). It's definitely a case of, "What are you doing now?"

I think shredding painful rejections is a marvelous idea.

Issendai said...

*rolls eyes* WHY are creative writing programs determined to keep training people to write in a style that only a small fraction of the public wants to read? The snobbery is ridiculous. I've heard that some programs are starting to offer courses in genre fiction, but something tells me they're few, far between, and not respected in their own departments. I suspect that at your grad school ten-year reunion, you'll be one of the few graduates with a book out through a major press.

Congratulations upon achieving your dreams! And good luck with the mess your third book is in. There's a way through it, even if it involves a hell of a lot of curse words.

none said...

Write about yourself? that's autobiog, not fiction! la


Anonymous said...

The only thing that matters is that you have some kind of degree. Nobody cares where you went to school unless it was Ivy league, and if your degree isn't engineering or computer science, it's pretty much not worth mentioning what your major was, becuase if it's not technical, everyone knows that preyyt much anyone can do it.

Tara Maya said...

What a great feeling. Thank you for sharing this. Your posts about MFA programs are always enlightening.

Too commercial. *snicker*

Caitlin said...

I'm an undergrad writing student, and On Writing was required for one of my classes a while back. Whenever I think about rejection letters, the image of Stephen King nailing (and later, spiking) them to his bedroom wall always springs to mind. In theory that sounds like an impressive way to do it, but I'm not sure I'd want the reminders either.

Avery said...

For real! I am in a graduate creative writing program right now, and even thought the program I'm in is very highly esteemed and all that crap, I am so sick of being ridiculed for writing things that are "too commercial." I was reamed in a workshop recently for writing in first person present because my professor called it "fad writing." Well, SO? And the other students act like I'm "precious" because my stuff actually ends halfway happily, instead of everyone killing themselves or ending up drugged in mental institutions. I can't wait until I get published and make money. I don't care if they all consider "commercial fiction" a dirty word...

Sasha said...

I got my undergrad degree in creative writing, and I'm shocked that so many schools have a commercial v. literary divide. I never felt that at my university.

Sure, most of the plays and stories were about college kids and their (boring) lives, but plenty of kids had talent and imagination and their work reflected that, too. The most popular work (with students, professors, and the campus in general) wasn't the most pretentious or "realistic," it was the most exciting or funny or interesting.

I just wanted to throw my two cents in, in case anyone reading this is debating about applying for an MFA or writing major. I personally learned a lot, and not only did I not feel stifled, I felt encouraged to push myself beyond my writing comfort zones and supported during those experiments. I think my writing would be duller and safer, and my imagination more cramped, if I hadn't gotten the training I did.

Hope said...

I get many odd looks when I say that a dream of mine is to one day be able to paper a wall of my office/study with rejection letters.


Because if I'm being rejected, it means I'm putting myself out there, working, and making myself keep at it.

So yay for your rejection letters!!

Unknown said...

There's nothing like rejection to make you do an inventory of yourself. See the link below for more info.