On Homework and Rejections

I first got regular homework assignments in third grade. I don’t remember much about them, except that I completed them. I know this for sure, because in fourth grade I did not. Nor in fifth. In fact, I had what you might call a “difficult relationship” with homework throughout my primary education. Sometimes I did it. Often I lied about having any, and then set my alarm clock for three in the morning so I could sneak down, do the assignment, and not get caught. More often I didn’t bother to do it at all. The grades I got reflected this, and boy did I get in trouble with my parents. Even Santa Claus left me a letter with my presents one year describing his disappointment. Their logic was simple: you didn’t do the homework, so you got lousy grades. Yet despite this, I continued to be deficient in homework completion through my first year of college.

Many years ago, when I told this story, my audience asked, “So of course, this kept you from getting your PhD?”

“Well,” I replied, “no…”

And it’s true. Somewhere in there I buckled down. For example, at one point in grad school I had an epiphany that if I outlined the reading for the next class instead of just reading it then maybe, just maybe, I would be able to answer, even anticipate, the professor’s questions. Otherwise I’d join my colleagues in evading eye contact. And it worked! I owned those class discussions. It wasn’t even much extra effort. Again the logic seemed borne out.

In the past eight days I have received four rejections of my writing. Two were form rejections. These annoy me for about twenty minutes and then I don’t think about them. But the others were personal. Now I understand that, as a writer, I am supposed to celebrate personal rejections. They’re the ones that give you feedback, some of it even useful. They show the editor liked what she read enough to address your writing specifically, and editors don’t like to waste time.

But let’s be honest: personal rejections also suck. We can start with the term itself. How am I not supposed to take a rejection personally if it’s right there in the name? Why not call it a “particular,” “specific,” or an “engaged” rejection? I’m open to suggestions. And with a form rejection, you can always figure the story was nixed because of a fluke, or it was too similar to something they just accepted, or it annoyed the editor in some way that has nothing to do with quality. With a personal rejection, you know your writing wasn’t good enough, because here are the receipts.

What really stinks about personal rejections is that they amplify my tendency to blame myself. Full disclosure? I do that all the time, even when it doesn’t make sense. (My therapist once suggested I wear a “Has Tendency to Self-Blame” medical bracelet.) But in this case, my history with homework has solidified the idea that my failures are my own fault. Of course my stories aren’t being accepted; I’m obviously not putting in the work. And since I don’t seem to want to put in the work, I will never succeed as a writer.

Is that true? Well, no… I’ve had three acceptances since January, including my first novella. Rejections are part of the game. (I’m actually behind on my rejection goal for the year.) I have succeeded. As for “doing the work?” It’s not like fourth grade, where the assignments are written out, and you do them or not. No one is assigning me writing that I’m failing to do. I read, I write, I revise. Could I do more? Could I spend more hours writing? Could I revise my stories an extra time or six? Of course. Most people could do more. I could always be better. I shall strive to be better. But it’s not a guarantee of acceptances, and I haven’t yet found another metric that would satisfy my anxiety in this regard.

I find myself thinking that when I get a story accepted it means I got lucky, and if it’s rejected it means that the editor has taken a true measure of my talent and ability. I need to get those reversed, but it’s gonna be a challenge. I wish I had a tip I could share with you reading this, but I don’t. A writer friend, Chris Degni, recently told me, “Acceptances mean something. You don’t get accepted by accident.” I guess I could try repeating that to myself as often as it takes to believe it. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Until then, with or without your permission, I’m going to stew for a bit. I’ve had weeks like this before and acceptances since. I know it isn’t permanent. And when the fight-or-flight response has subsided and I get some distance, I’ll read the personal rejection again and take what I can from it. Then I’m sending the story out again. And writing something new, to send into the world to get its rejections, form or otherwise.

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