When I was in high school, I got one and only detention—for plagiarism. Sister Marie watched me from her rolling stool as I erased and wiped the board. The back of my neck felt hot. My uniform sweater scratched through my shirt to my back.
“Well?” she bellowed. “Are you ready to admit it?” Slowly, I turned around. I had handed in three poems for her advanced placement English class, and she accused me of plagiarism. The reason? I used the word “immutable” in one, and she said there was no way I could know that word at age 16.
She was the same teacher who gave me a D for my report on Tennyson’s poetry because I didn’t print the pages with the right margin widths. “I didn’t plagiarize that poem,” I said to her. “It’s my work.” Sister Marie and I just looked at each other. “You’re a jackass,” she finally said. “A jackass who’s not going anywhere in life.” Yes. A jackass. Do you know what this jackass did? I got a full scholarship to college and graduate school. I was proud of that, proud of that defiance I thought I had in me—that “I’ll prove you naysayers wrong” attitude that I felt gave me an internal swagger.
Years after that detention, and after I had scored my MFA in creative writing, I ran into another high school teacher. I told her what Sister Marie had said to me, and what I had accomplished anyway. “Oh, she was just trying to encourage you in her own way, you know?” said this former teacher, essentially negating this whole course of defiance I had set myself on.
At the heart of this anecdote, something carries over into my current life: how I deal with rejection. Mostly, this comes up in my writing life. Send out 14 submissions. Get 12 form rejections back. It’s part of the process. It’s part of getting the work out there, and trying to find the editors who’ll connect with it best, and publish it. Most of the time, I take rejection in stride. I steel myself for it, expecting it, and assuming there won’t be any acceptances from this batch. Some days, rejection floors me. Sometimes I even cry.
And, rejection also rears its head in other, unexpected ways. My husband and I are the parents of two children under age six. We work full time. And I write full time—at night. After the kids are in bed, I try to devote time to my writing and submissions process. And that includes other writing, blogs, book reviews, reading submissions for Minerva Rising Literary Journal or sending critiques of other writers’ poems back to them.
We also try to get to church every week—but it’s always some odd configuration. We attend Mass separately. One of us goes alone. One of us goes with the kids. Or we all go, but get to church five minutes late. Usually, I’m dressed in jeans. Last week, my husband went to church solo on Sunday night, while I held down the fort during a heavy rainstorm. When he came home, he was really disgruntled. “You know what?” he said. “We’re not welcome at church anymore.” I didn’t even know what to say. As he removed his dripping coat, he went on, “Yeah, the sermon this week was that if you’re going to come in late or leave early, or dress in jeans or stand in the back, you might as well not come at all, since you’re not participating fully.”
And that’s me. The mother of two slipping into church five or 10 minutes late, dressed in jeans, hair pulled back, no makeup. That’s me there, standing in the back near the confessional, also poised to slink out a few minutes early so I can get home earlier. That’s me. Trying to do everything, be a wife, mother, a full-time editor, a poet by night, help my daughter with homework, mop the floors, write a last-minute blog entry that an editor friend asked me to submit because another writer got the flu. That’s me turning off my phone ringer in church, and then seeing a poetry rejection come in as everyone else is singing The Gloria—and then, actually feeling worse about the poetry rejection.
So where does this leave me? When I considered the disconcerting sermon, I thought: We’re doing our best. We’re trying to get to church as much as life allows us to.
Is God disappointed? We’re called to work toward perfection of a type that fallible humans can attain, right? And there’s forgiveness and second chances. In my spiritual life, oddly, I’m not working in a mode of defiance or of tearing up when I show up to Mass late: I view God as a creator who wants me to act in love, and love him. Like Rilke, who wrote in his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, “I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.”
Why then, in my writing life, do I act with such defiance? “Rejection? Well, I’ll show them. I’ll succeed. I’ll get published anyway.” The defiance is, honestly, physically and mentally wearing. If I could approach my submissions process the same way I approach my spiritual growth, I’d be more loving toward myself. I’d be more about perseverance and valuing second chances. To that end, I broke down my poetry submissions process here—and focused on being kind to myself (taking out the self-doubt and recriminations):
I do a lot of poetry reading in print and online journals. When I find a journal that I love for whatever reason (like it’s top tier and I really want to be in its pages or it’s indie and new and super cool), I read about it on Duotrope, and also check out its website, current and back issues, social media accounts and more. If it’s one that I think my work would be a match for, I add it to my long list of submit-to-someday journals.
Two months ago I submitted eight poems to a top-tier journal. Last week, it came down to one of the poems being up against another more well-known poet’s piece. When I received my personal rejection, I did tear up. After feeling the disappointment I returned to the kind, personal rejection note where the editor asked me to send more work, “today, if you have it.” I felt heartened, even though the week before I received five rejections in two days, one for a chapbook I’d been really hoping would get accepted by a particular press. But the top-tier journal I lost out with receives submissions from more than 1,500 poets a year to fill a few issues. The press received more than 100 manuscripts and was planning to publish three. It’s a tough world for writers.
Competition is high. That’s why you have to send out two new submissions for every rejection. That’s why you have to resubmit when you get a personal rejection. That’s why you can’t take it personally. I’ve talked about different types of rejection—from a high school teacher, from a priest (does he speak for God?) and from literary journals and presses. They’re all different, but the same in that something we did feels like it wasn’t good enough.
The takeaway is that we deal with rejection in all facets of our lives, and it hurts. You can allow yourself to feel that sting, but then very pragmatically have a plan for what you’ll do next. Whether that’s trying to get to church on time or submitting a packet of poems that I really believe in to the next journal on my list—and also stopping to consider what I have done well, what really I have to be thankful for, for the beauty I’ve been blessed to create.
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