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.

Changing the Rejection Narrative

January 15, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

For the past few years, my literary journal submissions have become more regular, my Submittable account more colorful. The grey DECLINED rectangles far outweigh the green ACCEPTED ones, with a smattering of black WITHDRAWN rectangles, along with a mix of two cool blues. This past year, I’ve received 56 no thank yous and 4 yesses, we love your work and would like to publish it.  

But today, I had an epiphany similar to one in my memoir-in-progress. I can wallow in my losses, focus on the negatives, count and recount the rejections—or I can change my perspective and reframe my narrative. Because in 2020, a year like none other in my 55-year-old lifetime, I’ve achieved so much more than I ever imagined possible. I am no longer limited to writing creative nonfiction. I do not shy away from playing with form, from learning other genres, or from entering contests. Because in 2020, I have:

  • 1 book review
  • 1 essay (after 35 rejections over the past five years and countless revisions)
  • 1 prose poem—all new territory and terrifying
  • 1 unclear, experimental, hybrid CNF/poem with erasures and line breaks
  • 1 list essay for an anthology called Art in the Time of Covid-19
  • 1 1st-place flash contest win that led to
  • 1 Pushcart Prize nomination
  • 1 hold-on-tight, your essay has made it to our second round of reviewing for an anthology
  • 1 of the most thoughtful, generous rejections to a contest with feedback from several readers, which led to back-and-forth emails with the editor-in-chief

And, of 13 submissions to various independent presses for a memoir manuscript, thus far 3 have declined, 4 in-progress, and 6 received on Submittable (not including all the others sent by email or separate systems).

Rather than dwell on what didn’t come to pass and think poor me, I can look through another lens, perhaps even feel proud of how far I’ve reached, how much I’ve grown.

This past year, I participated in a unique podcast when I was interviewed, in Hebrew, by an Israeli DJ and read my work, in English, which she set to disco music (apart from my appalling accent, it was a really fun writing experience). Last March, I co-founded a writing community with a friend on the other side of the world to pull myself—and each other—out of lockdown paralysis (and we’re still going strong and open to newcomers). And I’ve pushed myself out of my social-media comfort zone, trying to be a better literary citizen and give where I can give and not just take when I want or need to take.

None of this is meant to boast. My intention is to help those of you who feel down about yourself or your writing life to tally up your year’s accomplishments with different eyes. Another type of re-vision. Did you break into a dream publication? Did you return to writing after a long break? Do you feel happy, satisfied, creatively fulfilled when you approach the blank page? Did you join a writing group? Reach out to a writer you admire? Find someone who believes in your words or supports your work? Did you memorize a favorite poem? It all counts.

As we kick off 2021, my wish for you, and me, and everyone in this community is to write what moves you, what compels you, what makes you feel whole and healthy, and, above all, to stay healthy—mind, body, soul—as the world keeps striking and rebounding. We cannot control how long it will carom, but we can control our reaction. We can re-see our narrative.

___

Born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Brevity Blog, and Crab Orchard Review, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites. 

Something Folded; Something Gained

November 20, 2017 § 15 Comments

IMG_0281By Lea Page

It is the day after the final soccer game for the Division III State Championship, and my son and I are sitting on the rug in his room doing a laundry-folding blitz. Throughout this hectic season, during which he played two sports (varsity soccer and split-midgets hockey) and generated a steady supply of sweaty work-out clothes, he managed to wash his clothes but couldn’t quite keep up with the folding and putting-away. So today, we are tackling together the red and white mountain of jerseys, socks and Under Armor.

After winning nineteen straight games, most of them shut-outs, Thomas’s soccer team lost their first and only game of the season, 1-0. Although they were the number one seed this year, they came to the final game as underdogs, playing the team that has won the championship for the last three years. Thomas’ high school has never won a championship game and has only sent a team to the finals once before. The stakes and the hopes couldn’t be higher. I prayed to the soccer gods for a win for these boys, partly because they were a skilled team that worked together in a unified and fluid way that is rare to see, and partly because these boys, who had grown up and played together since the beginning, had folded Thomas, a homeschooler, into the team so seamlessly that no one would ever guess that he hadn’t been there forever.

2012 september soccerIt was not to be. Not this time. The bus, decked out with the boys’ names and numbers, was escorted back into town by two police cruisers with full lights and sirens. After some goodies in the school cafeteria and a speech by the coach, the boys had mostly regained their composure, goofing around and posing for photographs. They were the same boys after the loss as they were before it, just with a temporary burden of disappointment. Life goes on, high school hockey practice would start in two days, and the pile of laundry waited.

So here we are, folding and matching.

“Some of the guys were more upset than they showed,” my son says to me. I turn out another basket and pull out a sweatshirt. “And some, who I didn’t expect, were really upset. The defenders: I think they felt that we…. well, left them hanging.”

“A loss is always hardest on the defense,” I say as I smooth a pair of wrinkly jeans. “And everybody has their own way of dealing with it.”

“The police escort was the hardest part,” Thomas admits, and he is quiet for a while. “I tried to keep it together. I really tried,” he says, stacking underwear. “But I guess I can be glad that, as a sophomore, I got the chance to play a big role on a team that made it to the finals. And there is always next year. And hockey.” Then he holds his hands to his head, falls back and groans. It still hurts.

The last of the piles is tucked away into drawers. He gives me a hug as we head back downstairs. Hockey is less laundry-intensive, since most of the gear is pads, which don’t get washed much (ew!). I am grateful today for the opportunity the pile of laundry has given us.

Thomas heads out to get the mail and comes back in, handing me a manila envelope with my name and address written in my own hand. It is my essay about bullying that I had submitted to a magazine, returned to me with very kind rejection letter. This, too, is not to be. Not this time. “Oh, well,” I say. I am more disappointed, maybe, than I show.

With sympathy in his eyes, Thomas says, “I’m sorry, Mom.”

I am the same person now, with this next rejection, that I was before, right? I sigh and smile at him. It still hurts. At least I can count on laundry.

__

Lea Page‘s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Boiler, Krista Tippet’s On Being Blog, Tiferet Journal, Soundings Review, and Hippocampus, among others. She is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now (Floris Books, 2015).

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