January 13, 2017 § 13 Comments
By L. Roger Owens
John, author of the Bible’s book of Revelation—his apocalypse occurred on the island of Patmos. Mine began in a shopping plaza parking lot two days before Christmas.
I’d just dropped my wife off at the grocery store to buy the final foodstuffs for Christmas Eve dinner, along with everyone else, judging by the traffic. I decided to walk to Wine & Spirits to buy her a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, the one gift she wouldn’t expect. As I stepped out of the car I pulled out my phone so I could check my email, which I hadn’t done it in the past two hours. We’d just finished a long lunch with friends at the new Indian restaurant, during which I managed to keep the thing out of sight. But I’d checked it often the past two days, expecting confirmation that a magazine piece I’d written had been accepted. An associate editor praised the piece two days earlier and forecasted that the buck-stops-here editor would say, “Great; do a little editing.” I was weaving among the parked cars like a lab rat mazing his way toward cheese when I saw it. But I didn’t have to open the email to know its contents. I could see enough from the first two lines—an obligatory “thank you,” an ominous “but,” a definitive “not.”
I thought of my ten-year-old son. Last spring he auditioned for the middle school honors band. He was a rising six-grader, the best saxophonist in his elementary school band. He brimmed with confidence. A week after the audition a letter arrived. Daddy-spy that I am, I held it to the light before giving it to him. I saw typed on the band director’s floral-print stationary, the font inappropriately cheery, her judgment: “not this year.”
“It’s probably the letter telling me I got in,” my son said as I handed it to him.
“Well, there’s no way to know what the competition was like, or how many sixth-graders she accepts,” I warned. As he read, the confidence leeched from his face, his expression turned from hopeful to puzzled to sad, saltwater pooled in his eyelids.
Now frozen in that parking lot, flurries whirling around me, I became a ten-year-old boy again—deflated and confused. Until an impatient SUV driver honked to hasten me along.
By the time I made it to Wine & Spirits disappointment had turned to anger, the kind that keeps you from thinking straight, which explains why I was looking for the Bailey’s in the domestic whites aisle. Why did that first editor have to give me false hope? I thought, as I wandered the store aimlessly. I needed someone to blame.
Apocalypse: in the popular imagination, a cataclysm. But really it’s a revelation, an unveiling. An apocalypse doesn’t destroy reality. It discloses reality by destroying illusion. John’s revealed a cosmic battle between good and evil. But they don’t have to be cosmic in scope. A rejection email can occasion one on a blustery day in a strip mall parking lot.
I began to see that in the past two days I’d invested that article with a significance embarrassingly beyond its due. I imagined the future: my academic dean passing around the magazine at a faculty meeting, as she does with faculty publications, and my wine-sipping colleagues admiring my article. They nod their approval, finally seeing the value in my dabbling in creative writing. The essay would certainly secure my receipt of tenure.
I imagined the senior editor of the magazine loving it so much he invites me to become a contributing editor. Roger, you simply have to write for us every month!
I imagined the acquisitions editor of a major press asking me to turn it into a book—the book destined to secure my promotion to full professor.
“Dreams of fame and fortune die hard,” Frederick Buechner once wrote, “if they ever die at all.” It took a rejection email to kill these dreams, to reveal them for what they were: sad delusions. This little crow-bar of an apocalypse began to pry apart the joints of the imaginary mansion I’d been living in until all that was left was a pile of rubbish. And watching the demolition hurts.
Until it doesn’t anymore. Because seeing clearly will always—eventually—feel better than living in the mist of make-believe.
Many have written about writing as a spiritual practice, usually referring to the act of writing itself: facing the terror of the blank page, keeping the hand moving, relinquishing perfectionism, not fearing what shows us, not so much you won’t put it on the page—all of this, the spirituality of writing.
But it also includes the disillusionment caused by rejection. Because before we can see what’s there, what’s real, we have to break off our love affair with illusion. Let the dreams of fame and fortune die. Submit to apocalypse. We can choose not to—we can keep spinning the narratives in our minds, keep blaming the editors or writing-group members or anyone else whose reaction to our work doesn’t fit into our imaginary world.
Or we can let the revelation do its work.
Now that my essay doesn’t bear the weight of winning me tenure or wowing book editors, I can begin to see it for what it is: a decently crafted piece that—as the senior editor said—would fail to capture a reader not already familiar with its subject. I can begin to remodel it, improve it. I can explore other publications, even less prestigious ones, that might make a better home for it. And I can see that making this essay do what it can do—all that it can, but not more than it can—is no one’s responsibility but my own.
Roger Owens teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He’s written for numerous publications including The Christian Century, Weavings, and Faith & Leadership. He is the author of, among other books, Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction.