The first year I lived in Portland, I had four part-time jobs — two at any given time. I registered voters for the midterm election. I sold ballet tickets and subscriptions over the phone. I canvassed to raise money to implement a ranked-choice system in local elections. And I hawked ad space in the gay and lesbian yellow pages. I had just moved across the country from New York, where I’d worked as a waiter and a temp, so I was pretty used to getting shit on. Besides, I didn’t think I was too good for any job — at least, that was my philosophical standpoint. I was a writer.
In the service industry, it’s not unusual to encounter a little rudeness. But the people I dealt with in New York relied upon me to bring their drinks, return their coats from the coat check, hand over the conference lanyards. They needed me around. At my jobs in Portland, no one needed me
. I was asking strangers to do something they didn’t want to do. And in a hundred different ways, they rejected me. They got off the MAX train when they spotted me with my clipboard. They hung up the phone. They pretended not to be home when I knocked, even though I could see them through the blinds. They told me the business owner wasn’t there, wouldn’t be in tomorrow either, might be out all next week.
My boss on the canvassing job was a veteran of the work, his approach scientific. He had a lot of theories about how people think. For instance, he trained me to use a drop-tone when asking potential donors if they had time to stop and talk about elections. This meant that instead of raising our voices at the end of the question, we lowered them. He swore this was persuasive and commanding in some subliminal way. Sometimes, the two of us canvassed together right by the entrance to Powell’s, where we only stopped customers who were already coming out, so that no one would complain about us to the cashiers. My boss defended our turf fiercely, resisting all encroachments — from teens with skateboards, from panhandling musicians, from Street Roots
vendors. We had to have the corner to ourselves to command the attention of the donors.
Rejection hurts less if you treat it as inherent to the work.
I’m not a natural salesperson. My charisma is limited, my enthusiasm quickly sapped. Worst of all, I’m very bad at remembering faces. This was bad for canvassing, but it became a real problem when I rode the MAX from Hillsboro to Gresham and back with my clipboard. On a daily basis, I asked the same commuters if they were registered to vote, and had the dubious pleasure of being rejected by them, not once, but over and over. Only the feeling that this was not my real life kept me going. Because I was writing short stories, too, and sending them to literary journals. Someday soon, I thought, these jobs would exist only in the bio on my dust jacket. The problem with that logic was that editors seemed as unexcited by my work as the Blue Line crowd was by my fifth attempt to register them. I have form "no's" from this era on the letterheads of The Threepenny Review, Zoetrope, Tin House
At my low-paying jobs, I didn’t always understand what I was selling, or believe in its worth. On the phone, when a true ballet cognoscente raised some reasoned objection, like “I never like Balanchine. His choreography is subpar,” it was hard to come up with a response. The last dance performance I’d seen was on an elementary school field trip. And I had even more trouble quieting the doubts of business owners who questioned the utility of a gay yellow pages. They were right! It was 2010! I knew a lot of other gay people, and all of us just looked things up online, like anybody else.
Octavia E. Butler
wrote that she’d figured out that “getting a rejection slip was like being told your child was ugly. You got mad and didn’t believe a word of it.” She paid the bills with factory and warehouse jobs in her apprentice days, and threw her rejections in the trash. I kept mine. I didn’t know how to assess the value of my own writing. I wondered: What if my stuff just wasn’t any good? How would I know? I’d recently been devastated by Maugham’s depiction of art school in Of Human Bondage
. Fanny Price, who will not compromise her vision or listen to naysayers, dies starving in a Paris garret. Perhaps the editors of those literary magazines were sending me a clear and important message. Who was I to refuse to listen?
Yet in order to get paid in Portland, I had to do just that. When someone said no to me on the phone or on the street, I would fold. I let them walk away. And then I would get over myself and call the next number on my list. I’d stand on W. Burnside in the rain and deploy my perfect drop-tone again and again. I found that the more people I asked, the better chance I had of running into the right one. If I stopped, I never would. As a woman, I’d been socialized to be sensitive to other people’s discomfort, to always take no for an answer. Pushing past that for my job helped me learn that rejection hurts less if you treat it as inherent to the work.
I applied to six MFA programs and got rejected by five. The query for my novel was rejected by 10 agents and the novel itself by probably two dozen editors before Tin House Books picked it up. I’m overjoyed that my novel will come out this spring, but I still have a day job (albeit one that’s slightly higher prestige and less emotionally scarring than the work I did in my youth). That means I have to be strict with my schedule. Every weekday, I get up at 5 a.m. Before the heat comes on, I sit in front of my wife’s laptop with a cup of coffee and a weird afghan on my lap. One of our dogs sits at my feet while the other one ignores me with the focus of someone who has, perhaps, seen my kind coming before with the voter registration forms. And I spend an hour writing.
The early wake-up is part of my method. According to Mary Oliver
, showing up with regularity is important, for the “wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live....won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.” Butler agreed: “Habit,” she wrote, “will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” She drew a subtle distinction between stubbornness and persistence. The former she described as the “refusal to change unproductive behaviors,” but the latter was the most essential quality a writer can have, “the persistence to keep writing in spite of rejection, to keep reading, studying, submitting work for sale.”
I understand that life isn’t fair, that talent and luck are not distributed evenly. The useful thing I learned about rejection by being rejected on the regular is that there’s no use in taking it personally. Sometimes, the thing you’re offering isn’t what the other person wants or needs. So you give up in strategic ways only. Sometimes, you put a story away forever and turn your attention to writing a better one. But overall, you keep going.
The hour counts and word counts, the number of rejections tracked in the column of the spreadsheet — that’s all part of the science.
And when I keep my promise to myself at 5 a.m. and the good words come, that’s the magic.
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is the author of short stories honored by the Nelson Algren Literary Award and the Pushcart Prize. She was a W. K. Rose Fellow, earned an MFA from Southern Illinois University, and currently teaches at GrubStreet. She lives with her wife in Providence, Rhode Island. Famous Men Who Never Lived
is her first book.