Rejecting Rejection

I love Tucson in March for many reasons, chief among them the annual Tucson Festival of Books that our campus hosts each year. It’s an extraordinary community event attended by more than 450 authors and 100,000 readers, and even the parking is free! With just a couple of days and hundreds of authors, the annual literary smorgasbord forces difficult choices, but leaves us all feeling inspired and “in the know.” It isn’t every day that we get to hang out with people we read about in Kirkus Reviews and The New York Times Book Review.

Much of the festival is organized into hour blocks in which authors talk about their work. They also answer questions about their lives and the process they use to move from concept to publication. I always appreciate authors’ willingness to speak honestly and frankly, and this year I was particularly struck by the theme of “rejected rejection” expressed by several novelists who recounted the circuitous and often tortuous paths they traveled to get their books into the hand of readers. They described the sometimes humorous and other times painful obstacles they faced as they struggled to get their words to market.

While I wasn’t surprised to hear tales about harsh and biting publishers and would-be agents, I found myself feeling sad when hearing stories about soul-crushing high-school English teachers and reproachful college creative-writing professors who seemed intent on knocking the passion out of aspiring authors. The episodes described made me wonder what possesses a person in a teaching role to utter, “This is garbage” or “You, my dear, will never be a writer.” Do people who say things like this believe rejection is necessary for character building? Are they trying to prepare their students for the rejection they may receive when taking their words to market? More charitably, is it possible they feel an obligation to help their students avoid the pursuit of a life dream that may result in eventual disappointment?

Several authors mentioned mailing copies of award letters and their best-selling books to the people who had warned them they would never be successful. It was obvious, however, that the opportunity to prove their detractors wrong was not sufficient to erase the lingering pain of early discouragement. As much as the now-successful authors described taking pleasure in sending “Look at me now” packages, it was clear that the envelopes were sealed with more sadness than delight.

Have you achieved goals that you were discouraged from pursuing? Have you been tempted to send a “Look at me now” letter? If so, did you receive a response?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Sean MacEntee.]

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