Using My Own Rejections to Motivate Students
April 30, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Elizabeth Jorgensen
“Your life is filled with gripping tales,” I tell my high school creative writing students. “Scour your life for dramatic moments, emotional scenes or frightening experiences and write your own stories. Write well and a publisher may want to share your stories with the world.”
When my sister qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games, suffered a flat tire in the triathlon, and proclaimed her goal to win gold in 2016, I took my own advice. But the tale was so big I needed a book. I partnered with my mom, Nancy Jorgensen, who had published two books in the field of choral education (From the Trenches: Real Insights from Real Choral Educators and Things they Never Taught You in Choral Methods).
After my mom and I completed our manuscript, we submitted it to publishers, agents, and editors. The rejections packed our email and mailbox, forcing us to ask, Is our memoir good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it? Despite rejections, our answers remained yes, yes, yes.
In my classroom, I projected a tweet from YA author Erin Hahn (@writer_ep_hahn): “Every author you respect was told no. Their email alert dinged and it was bad news. They entered their work into a contest and heard crickets. They cried buckets over a bad review. They felt inadequate. But they didn’t stop writing and you shouldn’t either.”
The tweet resonated with my students. I asked them to discuss their own rejections. I advised them to revise and submit elsewhere and then took my own advice.
Our memoir, Go Gwen Go, starts in 2010 when USA Triathlon recruited Gwen for a sport she never heard of. She rebuffed them at first, but eventually dabbled in swim-bike-run and surprised herself with success. She quit her job as an accountant to train full time. As she pursued the Olympic dream, our family agonized over her bike crashes, her relocation abroad, and her competitive losses. But, we celebrated her new skills, races won, and finally Olympic gold.
More than a sports tale, our memoir is a family story. I envisioned mothers, book clubs, and memoir fans delving into our family’s story. I saw my students enjoying how this is a book about the magic of possibility—that a 24-year-old accountant could remake her life into a dramatic athletic career.
The book explores themes of risk, the courage to invent a new life focus, and the unconditional family support that makes extraordinary accomplishments possible. Readers enter the secret world of Olympic training, professional coaching, international travel, sponsor funding, anti-doping requirements, athlete nutrition, and sports physiotherapy. They are privy to the personal life of a professional athlete, complete with medical crises, weddings, divorces, and holiday celebrations.
Gwen is followed by 42,000 fans on Twitter, 65,000 on Facebook and 138,000 on Instagram. They want a glimpse inside an Olympian’s life and the family that brought her to the pinnacle of sport. They want to peer inside sponsorship, agents, media tours. They want to know what it’s like to experience the Olympics, your sister/daughter the gold medal favorite.
After seeing Hahn’s tweet, I googled “rejected manuscripts famous authors” and saw a list that included Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Sylvia Plath. Many were told their ideas would “not sell” and “I wonder if any publisher will buy it.” I would not compare myself to Vonnegut, Hemingway or Alcott—or have ideas of grandeur for my own manuscript—but I was reminded that rejection connects all writers.
One rejection letter called our manuscript “delightful” before admonishing: the book won’t sell. Another editor said we submitted “a very worthwhile submission, particularly in memoirs” but reminded us that “because of the limited number of trade and regional titles” he would have to decline.
Each rejection challenged my mom and me to keep writing, keep believing, keep working. And to keep reflecting, perfecting, polishing. What should we cut? Where do readers want more information? Should we combine our voices? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone read it?
I shared the rejections with my students. I projected letters and chapter drafts and talked about how I felt. I reminded my students (and myself) that writing is an art form, with different audiences reacting differently to each piece. I said, “Writing is not a science, so it can always be updated, modified, changed. You just have to keep working, keep pushing forward.”
Almost two years after we finished our manuscript, Meyer & Meyer Sport, Europe’s largest sports publishing house, said they too believed—that they wanted to publish our story.
I am thankful for Hahn who reminded me it’s okay to feel inadequate, but to keep believing, keep writing and keep working. And that’s the message I relay to my students when they doubt themselves and ask, Is my writing good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it?
You just need to find precisely the right publisher who will believe as much as you do.
Elizabeth Jorgensen’s memoir, Go, Gwen, Go, co-written with Nancy Jorgensen, is available for pre-order. Her shorter works appear in Wisconsin English Journal, Azalea and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She has presented on sijo (Korean poetry) at National Council of Teachers of English, Wisconsin State Reading Association, and The National Consortium for Teaching About Asia. This blog post was inspired by Jorgensen’s blog for Marquette University’s College of Education.