Rejection Apocalypse

January 13, 2017 § 13 Comments

zz-roger_099By 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.

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§ 13 Responses to Rejection Apocalypse

  • Thank you for this soul-searching and thoughtful piece. I’ll certainly read it again.

    I just read an article by a writer who said of any 15 of her pieces, 10 get published. She added that if she thinks something she’s written is really good, she doesn’t let up till she has found a home for it. Maybe that’s why she has such a good track record. I plan to use that approach before I mangle all my essays trying to figure out what a particular editor wanted.

    Yours might be fine as it is. Editors make bad judgements, and have days when they are off their game.

  • Roger, I LOVE this idea of seeing Apocalypse in a different way! “Apocalypse: in the popular imagination, a cataclysm. But really it’s a revelation, an unveiling.” I — For example, I have been struggling with how to shape a story: I know what I want to tell, but not how. It’s on my mind like a huge brick house. Last night I awoke, cold-sweating, from what I though was a nightmare: My old house (where my ex husband still lives) was being ripped up from the ground, swirling in the air about to land on me and other fleeing, screaming folks, the way we see in tornado horror movies. My old house is a huge, old brick house, and it means a lot to me as we raised our kids there, and I was happy there, until I wasn’t. But the house (and my ex) still take up way too much space in my emotional energy (I miss him, I miss it, I don’t, I don’t, etc), and now I see the revelation: The dream wasn’t implying impending doom, but rather, the way I can chose to unveil this; a visual image of my need to get out from under the weight of that past already. I have freedom now, I write, I live an inspired life, and what I may lack in house or spouse, I have gained in imagination to tell my story and others’ stories, in effect what I was always supposed to be doing. NOW, my work will be to unveil the dream (or “unwrap” it as the popular expression goes) as it can relate to the story where I’m stuck. It’s time to get out from under the brick house and perhaps to restructure just a tad? Here’s to revelations!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you. I spoke to a writing class yesterday and warned them they need to love working hard because that’s what writing is.

  • Sharon Silver says:

    What a lucky man, to know what’s worth pursuing and what’s not. When I think of how much time I wasted refusing to know, or being unable to decide — about so many things…and then I remember: hopping into my time machine is not an option, but making the best of what can be made better is.

  • Nancy Julien Kopp says:

    A fine essay; it’s a scenario all writers can relate to but with added insight. Thanks for sharing with your fellow writers.

  • Roberta Bondi says:

    This I a great reflection, Roger, and beautifully written, too.

  • jnelson30second says:

    I very much enjoyed your piece–and thought it so relevant to many writers who face rejection, and feel dejected, but once they revisit their work see its imperfections and one hopes, make improvements. And to me writing is a spiritual journey, one that enriches me daily.

  • Katie Marie says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience in such an open and thoughtful way. I love ti when people can provide a different interpretation to ideas, your thoughts on the apocalypse being a revelation will stay with me.

  • samiller1029 says:

    Well said. You’ve captured a universal experience of writers in an honest and insightful way.

  • Hi Roger, a reader of my blog, The Rejection Survival Guide, pointed me to your piece here. I admire the humility and strength of character you showed in using that rejection as an opportunity for growth. I think it also takes a secure and deep faith in the value of your work to be able to admit to yourself that maybe the piece wasn’t the best it could be, and still step up to the challenge and try to find another market for it. Those “almosts” are the worst. But you already recognize it as a blessing in disguise; I hope that blessing becomes even clearer when the piece finds its market. Thank you for sharing this.

  • amymwright says:

    Wise and insightful–thank you! Sharing.

  • Wonderful, rich essay. Thanks for sharing your experience and your journey towards reconciling rejection as a necessary and healthy part of the writing process. I hope you don’t mind that I shared the essay on my blog.

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