Get Out There Like Gaga
August 5, 2022 § 23 Comments
By Jason Prokowiew
On the press junket for A Star is Born, compilation videos show Lady Gaga repeating the story of how no one wanted to cast her as an actor, but Bradley Cooper did. She said: “There can be 100 people in the room and 99 don’t believe in you. And you just need one to believe in you, and that was him.” Though I laughed at the repetition, I took the story to heart. If Lady Gaga could stomach rejection, couldn’t I? Is success a numbers game built around not giving up?
Today, I applied for a writing residency at Millay Arts as part of my commitment to submit my work 100 times in 2022, be it to residencies, fellowships, magazines, or potential agents or editors. As I hit submit on my second application to the program in four months after getting a perfectly nice rejection in May, I reached my goal five months early.
Before this year, I’d submitted my writing sporadically; each rejection knocked me off my game. By not submitting, I kept myself safe from the feeling of rejection…and also kept myself pretty safely removed from getting published.
As someone as dedicated to his weekly therapy sessions as he is his writing, I’ve tracked where this fear comes from with my therapist. Growing up as the fattest kid in my school, I was significantly ostracized from social circles. I was also clocked pretty easily by my peers as “gay” even before I knew I was. I lived that stereotype of the kid picked last in gym class—and picked on first.
In therapy I’ve considered how any sort of rejection registers not only as truth about my skills but also my very worth; whereas support for my work registers as luck or sympathy. For decades, I’ve applied this formula with almost no active thought.
When I was a junior in high school, I gained some traction with my writing, and my angst-ridden, coming-out poetry dominated the pages of my high school literary magazine, in a year when the magazine’s faculty advisor was a sabbatical replacement. When the regular advisor returned my senior year, I heard rumor that he was disappointed in the quality of last year’s magazine, where all my work had landed. I heard his rumored opinion as truth, and it was only in this past year, in my forties, that I challenged these thoughts, and recognized that his “nay” felt like an indictment of my fraudulent posing as a writer, and an absolute truth. As a second example, when I was applying to college writing workshops, one professor told me I wasn’t ready for her advanced, selective classes. Another admitted me to his courses and encouraged me for years. I wondered, though—was the first professor honest and the second merely kind?
Between 2004, when I began tentatively querying agents about my memoir, and the start of 2022, I only submitted my work to about 20 agents or publications. Each rejection felt like a validation of what the naysayers said, and I slinked back to my laptop, trying to muster courage to try again. I often didn’t find it.
Recently I’ve been encouraged by the writer Emily May, a member of my writing group, who published a piece last fall that had been rejected more than a dozen times. I asked her about her resilience and saw the image of her on our Zoom workshop explaining that with each rejection she brushes off her shoulder and says, “Okay, next,” and tries again. If my brave, talented colleague could move past rejection, couldn’t I?
I also felt ready this year—weekly therapy sessions on the schedule—to face rejections, feel my way through them, and decide what to do with them: let them be the end of trying or just brief hurdles. Each rejection got easier and sank in far less. I’ve practiced brushing off my shoulder like May, and it felt good, a reminder that I can choose to give opinions the weight of dust or the world.
So far, in my year of 100 submissions, I’ve received 49 rejections, 19 acceptances, and have 32 pending submissions. After some of my work was published, I connected in new ways with estranged my family, often featured in my writing. I’ve been to a writing residency in Tennessee where I wrote two new pieces, an essay and a book review, that were accepted for publication. I have six more residencies on my schedule in the next 18 months. I’ve received eight full manuscript requests from agents, and recently recorded a story I wrote for an episode of the television program Stories from the Stage. The benefits of putting myself out there are great, but more importantly, the fear that once stopped me from submitting—the fear of the omnipresent “no”—doesn’t stop me now.
That “one out of 100” person I needed to believe in my writing was me.
Jason Prokowiew earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University. He’s the author of Raised by Wolves, a braided memoir about his Russian father’s adoption by Nazis during World War II and how his father’s trauma carried into parenthood. His writing has appeared in Scene Magazine, Edge Media, and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. He recently graduated from GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. He’s received residencies and grants from Sundress Academy for the Arts, Prospect Street Writers’ House, Gullkistan Center for Creativity, Write On, Door County, and a Contributor Award in Nonfiction for the 2022 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He runs his own law office dedicated to disability advocacy.