Zen in the Art of Rejection
A sheet of rejection covered by a layer of garbage, a pitchfork of grass clippings followed by a spade of leaf mold, a layer of manure, a pitted tin cup of lime. I’ve used this recipe to make compost for years. If there is any question as to whether the paper is biodegradable the rejection letters should be ripped into little pieces before layering to aid the decaying process. Periodicals may slip a subscription form in with the letter. These requests are often printed on glossy paper that decays slowly. Even after shredding they are likely to remain disturbing bits of litter in the garden for seasons to come and should be left to commercial recycling centers.
My composting schedule is dictated by the mail. On rare occasions corn cobs and potato peelings overtake my kitchen before the ingredient for the first layer of lasagna compost arrives. But most of the time my confidence that a big yawning “NO” in the form of a SASE will boomerang back from somewhere out there in the vast universe is rewarded. As it was one day last May. That morning as I reached into my mail box I still considered myself a finalist for The Bellwether Prize, In Support of a Literature for Social Change , an award that would have transformed me from an aspiring middle aged writer into a mature, paid, and published author. After opening the mail I was once again a nurse who quit a perfectly good job to write a novel.
I went back into the house. The single sheet of “NO” was pinched between the thumb and fingertips of my left hand. I curled my right hand around the handle of a green pail of kitchen waste. The bucket of slop, dangerously full, hung below my hip. It’s weight and the sloppy mess of it was satisfying in my hand. Since the slip of processed pulp I planned on giving back to the earth had come from a progressive non – profit organization I assumed the note was capable of decomposition by common back yard bacteria and skipped the shredding step.
The 200 foot walk to the compost pile left shallow footprints in the moist earth where pale yellows, striated greens, and rusty reds were ready to pop, pushing themselves up, up, up. Resentfully, I stepped clear of succulent new growth. Soon this modest plot of land would turn into a jumble of green complicated by the sounds and movement of bugs, bees, burrowing furred creatures, and slithery legless things. The daffodils bobbed their heads demurely, on a good day a reminder that gentle acceptance is the way to peace and beauty. On this day the whole precious fuss of spring with its false promises made my skin crawl with disgust.
Putting my faith in layers of wet rotting leaf mold and cow dung, I contemplated the heap and the base reality of creation. I scowled at the perky daffodils wishing there was some way I could communicate to them that their fate was only weeks behind their already exhausted neighbors – drooping paper whites and wilted Soleil d’Or narcissus. The pushy smell of hyacinth wafted in the soft moist air sickly sweet in my nostrils. I put down the pail, ripped a pea pod off the vine and chomped down on the tender raw shell before I flattened the paper, blank side to the sky, on top of the mound. I lifted the pail. Asparagus stems, coffee grounds, and scrapings of red pepper pasta plopped on top of the white sheet. Twenty – four hours before they spilled from the bucket the rotting egg shells and fermenting orange juice that completely obliterate The Bellwether Prize with its promise of $25,000 and publication by HarperCollins were not considered swill, but breakfast. I’ve worked on the novel for years and the work has had a share of success. The manuscript has been a finalist for a number of prizes. Four chapters of the book have been published. Excerpts have won awards including a fellowship in Literature from the NEA. But still, this was my most frustrating literary heave – ho to date and the book as a whole has been declined by many agents whose rejection fertilizes my lawn. Turning these disappointments into fodder to help maintain my writing has been more challenging.
This day I rant at the lusty, straining – to – pop, buds of forsythia. For some reason the bushes are late in blooming this year. I can almost hear the effort they are making to break out. I want to tell them to shut up, to censure their profane fecundity, the whole sucking muck and mire and swell of them. Why do they keep coming back for a couple of weeks of glory only to be frozen and denied again and again year after year?
I put my back into it, pitching my fork into the half cooked pile on my left, turning it over on top of the new pile in front of me, sweating and straining with righteous purpose. A leathery orange rind almost makes me cry. I toss the dried up peel on top of the mound. I get a rhythm going, stab, lift, pitch, stab, lift, pitch. After a half hour of thrusting, twisting, and tossing my ego is half buried. Maybe the novel does need more work. Maybe it is “a very difficult time in publishing to place unknown writers.” Maybe “although the work is compelling and clearly well written” the agents who have read the manuscript aren’t “quite right for this project”.
I decide to turn the whole compost heap. It is easily six feet in diameter at the base and four feet high. The warm breeze dries my sweat almost as fast as I can produce it. I take off my sweatshirt and feel the sun on my arms. Hard as I try to avoid being taken in, I can’t ignore the slant of light playing on the branches of the quince bush a few feet from the heap. Red blossoms against shiny green have found the spotlight and scream, “Look At Me.” I know the feeling. And I know this bush is too full of itself for this particular incarnation of what it is to be a quince to last. But wouldn’t I be a fool to let the moment pass unnoticed?
The quince is a quince and I am a writer. I keep writing because that is what writers do. I aspire to be an author, but that involves someone else’s interpretation of what I am. I can only be responsible for my work and the effort I exert to push in out into the world.
Before I was a writer I was a nurse. I started on the nursing path for the same reason many women of my generation did, by default. I felt neither a burning desire to care for the sick nor a deeply rooted call to guide the general population to good health. The field was open to women and it paid a living wage. Over time I became a very good nurse. I came to love the skill level, the human contact, the professional intimacy the job required. But I was not a nurse by vocation. I started on the writing path because I couldn’t stop myself from scribbling dialogue on progress notes or jotting a description of a man locked in a spinal curve so severe that his head was never more than a few feet from his knees on a pad that I kept tucked under my med Kardex.
It would be so much more pleasant to be a writer and to become an author on my own terms. I work hard, put my guts into it. I get published. I get read. I get rich, famous, and adored. It hasn’t worked that way. It rarely does. It’s an unsatisfactory universe. For some reason it takes a good turn at the compost pile for me get over it, to realize that I have little control over the publishing world. That is not to say that I have no control what so ever. I control what I write, how much I allow the industry to influence my words, how hard I work on my craft, how much I let the risk of rejection dictate what makes it to the page.
When I don’t write I get depressed. When I write and get rejected I get depressed. It was time for lunch by the time I reached the dark humus at the bottom of the heap. Close to the ground is where you find the good stuff. People buy it by the pound at Agway. For a couple of bags they pay almost as much as it costs to copy and ship my manuscript. It would still be good stuff even if Agway hadn’t figured out a way to package and sell it.
Winning an award didn’t make me a writer. Failing to get published can’t stop me form being a writer. The only one who can ultimately reject my writing is me.
After the last spade was tossed I still hadn’t reached Nirvana. I was still not one with the universe. But, I hadn’t embarrassed myself by writing an unwarranted nasty letter to an editor at HarperCollins or bothering any of the individual well published judges of The Bellwether Prize with a ridiculous whining phone call. It got hotter and hotter. The daffodils died. I survived the fact that their bobbing heads never were a response to a bad mood I degenerated into because of a sheet of paper I had found in my mailbox. I live with the knowledge that this parallelism of writing and gardening and this creation, decay, and rejuvenation metaphor will embarrass some readers. The heap gets turned. My hands and butt ache pleasantly. There’s plenty of ripe compost to side dress kohlrabi and kale and eggplant. In a couple weeks I’ll start drying seeds for next year and finish another draft of a very good waiting to be published novel and start on a brand new manuscript.
“Zen in the Art of Rejection,” Poets & Writers, edited by Therese Eiben, December 2000.