by Liz "Actual Mary Berry" Stevens, Poetry Editor
Growing up, my parents told me to always follow my dreams. You know, the typical cliché of, “You can be anything you want! Be a ballerina if that’s what your little heart desires!” Now that the government classifies me as an adult, however, I know that my destiny is not to be a ballerina, or a princess, or any of the titles I used to dream of. At five, I spent maybe a hot second in ballet class before my short attention span caused me to fall over one too many times, and no matter how many genealogies I research, I’ve yet to find any royal ancestors.
Failure is not something we really prepare for as children, but it hounds us in our adult lives. Those of us who have chosen the path of writer are intimately familiar with failure. It haunts our nightmares any time we manage to catch all our courage and finally show anyone our work. When we decide that we really want to suffer, we submit our work to as many journals and magazines that we can find, and our fear of failure levels up to a fear of rejection.
Rejection hurts, and it hurts like a bitch. As a writer, I pour so much of myself into my poetry that sometimes it feels as if I’m slicing off little bits of myself and holding them up for others to judge. The temptation to hide everything I have to say somewhere so that no one else but me can see it is very strong. Sometimes, I lock my words away before they’ve had a chance to live on the page and even dream of rejection. In some ways, this is easier. Each step of the writing process involves courage and vulnerability. First, I have to acknowledge that what I’m feeling is too strong to contain within myself; then, I have to find words that are strong enough to contain them on the page. At times, this process feels violent to me. My feelings don’t want to be contained in words, they want to be locked up in a little box in my chest and stay there till I die. It feels like I have to pull them out with my teeth. So after I go through this harrowing process, it’s often tempting to stop there. However, even though my poems are violent, unruly children, I’m still ridiculously proud of them. I want other writers to realize how proud they should be, too. Our words deserve to live in the light, not suffocate in darkness.
Instead of being afraid of rejection, I’m teaching myself to be proud of it. I once had a teacher bring in a manila folder completely stuffed with all the rejections he’d received over his career. He picked out his favorites and read them to the class like he was reading a treasured birthday card. He taught me in that moment that rejection does not equal shame; it equals strength. Every time you submit your work somewhere, you have overcome so many obstacles just to get to that point. You should be proud that you had the courage to show your work to the world and say, “Look at this thing I made. I love it, even if you don’t.”
I have yet to unlock a magical twelve step process for healing from rejection. So far, I’ve sobbed into a lot of ice cream containers, but that only helps so much. All I can say is to keep trying. Make your own folder labeled “rejections” and fill it to bursting. Be proud of your failures, because they will lead you to succeed.
Grub Street is Towson University's award-winning literary journal, run by undergraduates enrolled in "Editing the Literary Magazine."