Rejection as a Blessing

Until recently, my relationship to rejection has always been extreme. The first time I received a long, thoughtful rejection letter from an agent, I stopped writing anything creative for years. I have always been good at giving over the power of affirmation to other people, which is certainly not the kind of thing you want to be good at.

Some time in 2007, my friend and mentor Evelyn C. White mentioned Hedgebrook to me. She called it the  gold standard of writing residencies. My heart yearned for a place where I could be with my writing that was a gold standard by Evelyn’s description — she is not prone to hyperbole.

So I went after the residency the way I go after everything: With my whole heart. I applied more than five times. I applied so much that when I first applied back in 2008, it was before Hedgebrook went to an online application system. I vividly remember printing and copying multiple double-sided copies, sending the thick envelope along with my hopes and dreams tucked inside.

I should mention that every time I applied, I was in the middle of doing all the things that make up a life: I was working full-time at a local newspaper, writing/editing/revising/printing/sending queries to agents for my memoir, A Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans, enrolled in library school, freelancing, not sleeping, falling in love, falling out of love, running marathons, planting gardens, adopting a rescue dog.

The first note I received from Hedgebrook was a letter that arrived by snail mail, informing me that I wasn’t selected this time. In the immediate, I remember grunting and thinking, “There won’t be a next time, but oh, well.”

I was disappointed, but ready to move on and never apply again. Thankfully, Evelyn had other plans.

“I can’t think of one woman I know who was accepted the first time,” Evelyn wrote to me when I bemoaned facing rejection again. I soak up the wisdom of others like a sponge, and Evelyn is excellent and generous at sharing it. “The sooner you understand any and all ‘rejections’ as blessings, the better off you’ll be.”

She went on to share with me that when you ask for something, you have to be ready to receive it. And for all the reasons I mentioned above – from my insecurities as a writer to the chaotic overwork that I used to love to be at the center of – I was not ready for a good long while to receive what it would mean to be at a place like Hedgebrook. Which is why each time I applied and the rejection came, as the years passed, a sense of inevitability began to sink in until I forgot about what I thought I should feel and truly began to feel like I wanted a place to just be with my work for a good stretch of time to find out what I could make if I could only focus.

Almost nine years after my first application to Hedgebrook, when I got news I had been accepted — one of 40 women writers out of an applicant pool of more than 1700 — I was unable to contain my joy. Of course, I told Evelyn, who was thrilled that I had not given up. I also shared the news with stacia l. brown, who had encouraged me to try one last time.

If not for their encouragement, for their reminders of rejection as a blessing, I would have missed out on what greeted me at Hedgebrook. The women who organize, manage and nurture both the farm itself and the women writers who visit have every reason to pride themselves on what they call their radical hospitality. The goal of our Hedgebrook residency was centered around doing what we needed to do for ourselves for the time we were there.

Not surprisingly, for me, that meant sleeping in. Resetting my relationship with my phone, because I didn’t have reliable service in my cottage or elsewhere on the island, really. And writing — longhand, in notebooks that I’ve hoarded during back-to-school sales and on my laptop when I just didn’t have the patience, or my characters didn’t, to take my time.

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Deer Lagoon.

I learned to get a wood fire going. I realized that I didn’t need to check my email every 10 minutes or watch my Twitter timeline relentlessly – that, in fact, not doing these things could lead to a lot of productivity that I may have previously been afraid of. After all, if you don’t write something, you don’t have to worry about what happens to it next.

Maybe because producing was the only goal, I wrote more than I could have imagined. I almost finished the sequel to my novella, All City. I wrote a handful of essays about the dismissal of black American women writers, reflections on being an Obama appointee, thoughts on writing. I finished the draft of a multigenerational story of Bronx girls and women who each try to live out the dreams of their foremothers, with varying degrees of success. And then, out of nowhere, a novel that I started back in 2011, popped up with a notion of what it wanted to become, so I wrote that.

Every other day, in the afternoon, I walked or jogged to Deer Lagoon. To marvel at the trees. To admire the beautiful birds. To see if Mount Rainier was visible that day. To watch the water: still or rippling in brutal waves, the ducks just riding with all of it.

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Useless Bay.

I’d sit on a gray plastic bench and look out at what I called the ocean. Technically, it’s a bay. But it was exquisite. I thought of Isak Dinesen’s quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat or the sea.”

Not only did I write dispatches to Evelyn from Hedgebrook, I also got to meet and share work with other amazing women writers who I came to love and respect. We had incredibly affirming discussions about how to keep ourselves and our work safe in a world that remains hostile to us and does not seem to be getting more loving. We read each others’ work, astounded and appreciative of the talent in the room.

We played Scrabble. We ate our fill of delicious, lovingly prepared meals. We walked in the dark night, glancing at the stars in wonder, our flashlights lighting a path for us back to our temporary homes.

Nine years, five, even two years ago, I would not have known how to settle into a place like Hedgebrook. It was true: Rejection had been a blessing; it had delayed my trip there until I was ready for it. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m looking forward to hearing “no” more often, but now when I do, I am aware that it doesn’t mean no forever. It just means not yet, not now.

 

 

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Aster(ix) Journal: Forever Shifting

I recently moved back to New York after being away for a little while, and as I get reacquainted with home, I’ve also been looking through the archives to assess how much has changed and how much remains the same. 

When I search my memory for a time and space in which I felt completely at ease, utterly loved, comfortable and surrounded by serenity, I cannot conjure a single moment or geographical location. When people talk about home to me, a single woman, it is as if they are talking about marital love. They are talking about a space I have always yearned for but never found. They might as well be talking about their common experience in outer space.

But I think I know because of how I feel when I write, or when I run, or when I’m reading. These are things that keep my nervous heart from beating out of my chest when I’m afraid and anxious and I have insomnia. Or when I’m making myself dinner, and chopping garlic just so, and cutting up onions or slicing mushrooms. Or when I hear a song that reaffirms God’s love for me, or reminds me that my love really had chosen me just for me and we would be together forever until we weren’t. Home to me is something I still don’t quite understand except when I feel close to it. — From the Tierra/Home issue of Aster(ix Journal

Another Season

I love the hibernation of winter and the renewal of spring. The only thing I really enjoy about summer is that fall is what follows – a season of harvest and brilliant color. So it seems fitting to consider that I’m moving into another season in my life that seems parallel to the promises of fall.

“The First-Person Industrial Complex” was the first essay I read that confirmed a shift in the nature of personal writing online that got me thinking about the frequency with which I used to write and publish more or less since the late 1990s:

First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm. First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting.

Laura Bennett goes on to write about the absence of self-awareness in the latest crop of personal essays and the marketing/commodification of sensational stories without regard for the impact such self-exposure has on mainly white women writers. It was once true, at least, that there was potential for an interesting, well-written story to become visible, find its audience and perhaps secure the interest of an agent. At the very least, writers and editors once said that the other side of one’s brand — the beloved platform — could expand with persistence, high quality work and consistency. But as my friend Stacia wrote in her excellent essay, “The Personal Essay Economy Offers Fewer Rewards for Black Women” at The New Republic:

Easy, daily access to writers’ most devastating experiences is decreasing the demand for full-length memoirs from the online personal essayist. But even when the stakes are lower and a writer is simply looking to raise her professional profile or earn extra money, personal essays aren’t always an advisable route. After a few days, discussion about those pieces wanes and after one bill payment, the money is a memory.

Taken together, these pieces were a codification of a season of transition for me that has stretched out over months and if I’m honest with myself, probably for more than a year. I love connecting with my audience, but I don’t want to do so in a way that feels compartmentalized or wedged into a news cycle.

There was a time when I needed to write about being a happy single woman in the face of an onslaught of media portrayals that made it seem like successful Black women would be #foreveralone, or to exclusively, daily, write and tell the stories of other people on deadline in order to inure myself to the discipline of getting to the page no matter what. And there was a time when I needed to dive deep into looking at the conversation or lack thereof of a diversity conversation  in the most important organ of democracy we have — the media — in order to place a coda on the profession that I so adored and loved. I have been incredibly blessed to make a living as a writer and to complete and publish two books on my own terms, without selling myself or anyone else out in the process.

After the media book was published, I found myself in desperate need of time to do anything but write. I had only experienced that a couple of times before, after a loss that wounded me so deeply I was afraid to write about it. Writing has been the main organizing principle in my universe for my entire life.

But I slipped into a different season partially from fatigue and partly out of choice. I wanted to catch up with my friends and attend to the parts of my life that I had long left in limbo. I wanted to read everything in sight that I had zero to do with journalism.

As a writer in these times, I feel often as though I am the awkward sixth grader I was in the Bronx when the girls got out the double dutch rope and I could hear the skipping of the hard plastic against the concrete ticking on a rhythm like a clock. I would make motions with my arm like I was about to jump in at any moment, but I was always out of sync with the rhythm. It was too fast for me, or it was too slow. Ultimately, the pace didn’t matter so much as the reality that I never found an easy way to glide between the ropes.

For as long as I can remember, I have followed James Baldwin’s advice about writing what I knew. It began with an essay to A Better Chance when I was in high school. I won an award for that essay which offered me affirmation to keep writing and aspiring to publication that I didn’t even know I needed. For more than 20 years, I have mined my personal experiences in order to bring more resonance to universal truths. Now it’s time for me to do a different kind of work.

This is not a goodbye post so much as it is my way of explaining the stretches of silence ahead. I will never stop being a writer or thinking like a writer, even though I no longer write for public consumption every day. Blogging and writing have been anchors for me as I continue to grieve my parents and heal from life’s adversities. I have benefited so much from knowing that my experiences are not as unusual or uncommon as I first thought and it has been my privilege to help make life a little easier for those who said they were inspired by my example.

I know I’ll be back to blog and write more at some point. During this season of my life, though, my intention is to read more, to devote myself to completely to my new job and to rediscover the joy of writing and connection that brought me to the page in the first place. I intend to speak at college campuses through my partnership with Bitch Media and offer writing/communications workshops, so you can connect with my work with Bitch on Campus here.

I’ve been told if you don’t have a Facebook Author Page, you don’t really exist, so please like my page. I’m also on Instagram. &  Pinterest. &, of course, Twitter.

Thank you for reading and responding to my work, to my presence, and for knowing my heart and sharing so much of this rich journey with me already. There will be more to come eventually. Until then, take good care of your heart. Enjoy all the seasons life offers you.