“Fuck You New York Times” was my first reaction.
“I’m not a good writer after all. I can’t do it. I quit!” was my second reaction.
Whoa! What? Both reactions require me to be angry, depressed, hiding away licking my wounds in victim-y self-pity. Swinging between the extreme undemonstrativeness of my father where everything I did got a “fair” assessment and the blind adoration of my mother where I could do no wrong, I am an odd mixture of hubris and anxiety that I am a failure. Any success I have is dubious, because I am a fraud and have everyone fooled.
The experience of submitting my essay – in actuality – differed from the experience in my mind. In my mind, the New York Times enthusiastically accepted my submission within 24 hours, eager to publish it immediately. That Sunday! I was planning the announcement to my community of friends, family, colleagues, and maybe a few frenemies. (Hah! See! I showed you!) I was the undiscovered great essayist they’ve been waiting for. I would become famous and admired for my honest and beautifully written personal remembrances. I would get a book deal! True, I would have to confront going public with my stories, most frighteningly to my parents. But I was ready. If not now, when? It was time. How dare they reject my submission? I had already planned out my future – all based on their acceptance! Fuck the New York Times. I must be a failure and a fraud after all.
That night, my husband was tired of kids’ tennis duty and asked me to pick them up. I passively aggressively agreed. This was cutting into my time – it was my night to work late or sneak in a yoga class or just go home and have the house to myself to write. Besides, I was out of sorts from receiving the rejection email – one month, precisely, from the day I had submitted it, as promised by their precise submission guidelines. I grumbled out of the house and got into the car and turned on WNYC. And was transfixed. The Moth Radio Hour was on. In my heightened awareness of writing and story-telling, what could have been better? Josh Axelrad was telling his story of gambling. His word choice was sophisticated and intricate, his timing and intonation were amazing, his story was riveting. Wow. Now that’s how to tell a story! Fuck the New York Times. I must be a failure and a fraud after all.
Now what? Deep breath. Pause. Take a day, or a week, or a month, to consider my next steps. I don’t have to react immediately or impulsively or emotionally.
What now, is that after 50 years of rejections and acceptances I can find a middle ground. I am a good but new and inexperienced writer. Maybe the rejection has nothing to do with me and my essay. Maybe it just didn’t fit the direction they want to go with the column. Maybe I should submit it somewhere else. I can do that. I don’t have to quit. I can keep writing, keep practicing, honing my skills, getting my 10,000 hours in.
At 17, I was not so patient. I had been obsessed with ballet. For all of 2 or 3 years. Dancing 4 hours a day, 6 days a week, I probably had about 4,000 hours in when I decided to audition for New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet. Not a city kid, my mother and I took the train from D.C. to New York, where I was overwhelmed with the monolithic gray busyness of the city. We took a taxi from Penn Station to Lincoln Center. We found the dark and cramped administrative corridors in the bowels of Lincoln Center leading to the seemingly enormous mirror-lined dance studios of the school. I was too nervous to remember much. My mother had made the appointment, so I had a private audition not a cattle call. I went into the locker room to change and then they brought me to the studio. Two older women with Russian sounding accents were there. Not unkind, they looked me over. I pliéd and did a glissade. And that was about it. Perhaps they had me do a small combination in the center of the grand old studio. That was enough for them to know that I was not what they were looking for. I was not tall enough. I was not ethereal enough. I was not uniquely talented enough. I didn’t have my 10,000 hours in. They suggested that I go to a college with a strong dance program and explore other forms of dance that were not so exacting. Excellent advice that I could not hear. I was determined to be a ballet dancer at the most prestigious dance company I was aware of. That was the future I had imagined in my mind. They rejected me. Closed off to other possibilities, I quit ballet. Later, I quit college to return to ballet – but with similar results. Bouncing between extremes, I never let myself enjoy being good enough – open to possibilities other than greatness at something ridiculously hard to achieve.
Now what? What now is that I can practice resilience, mindfully choosing flexibility and optimism. Rejection is not a tragedy. It is an opportunity. Your loss, New York Times. (sigh, still angry) I will practice my writing and find other venues to publish and to reach an audience. Just as there are myriad other profoundly amazing dance companies and dancers (which, regretfully, I was not wise enough at the time to explore – sigh, still sad), so there are other ways to tell stories.