Life lessons learned from gym class

When I was in elementary school and junior high, I couldn’t stand the days when we played team sports for gym class: flag football, softball—you name it, I didn’t want to play it. I wasn’t good at throwing. I wasn’t fast. I wasn’t enthusiastic. The worst was when the teacher would let two kids pick teams. These two kids, usually boys, would take turns calling out the names of the kids they wanted on their team, and the chosen kids would jog over to one side or the other, and the other kids would clap when the best players were selected. At least that is how I remember it. I stood outside in my oversized t-shirt and blue shorts and waited—because I was always one of the last to be picked. It did not help my cause that I flinched away from objects thrown in my direction and that I had no interest in tackling anyone or falling to the ground. I’m well aware I was only picked to be on a team because all the kids had to be picked.

This was my introduction to rejection. The truth is, it’s an easy way to be introduced. Not being one of the sought-after team players in gym class? Not fun, but not terribly tramautic, either. Rejection is a part of life, and we all have to learn it eventually. I was lucky: I had parents who loved me and softened the small emotional blows in my school life that came later—boys breaking up with me, girls ending friendships with me, the times I was not chosen for things but wanted to be. 

As a writer who submits work to publications, I now live in a world filled with little, sometimes daily, rejections. Fortunately, I am able to keep in mind that the rejections are of my writing, not of me. But I’d be lying if I said there aren’t those rare instances when the lines blur, and the occasional rejection feels like a commentary of how good (or not) a writer I am. This happens when I know with absolutely certainty that my submission is the best thing I have ever written, and it is perfect for a particular publication or press. Then I get an email that starts with, “Thank you so much for allowing us to read your manuscript” or “Thank you for sending us your work.” A letter that starts out thanking me is a bad, bad sign.

Recently, I read an article by a writer who aims to get 100 rejections a year. I decided I would aim for that, too, because then rejection feels more like a game. If I get that many, surely I will get a handful of acceptances as well. As of the writing of this article, I am up to 86 rejections in 2016. When you get that many, you start categorizing them differently. The personalized rejections are actually welcome: “We read your story with great interest” and “There were a number of things we liked about your piece” and “I really enjoyed reading this piece. . . . This is an important story and I'm glad I had a chance to read it.” That last was one of my favorites. That rejection actually felt good.

Amidst all those rejections, I have received seven acceptances so far in 2016, mostly for poems but also for the first short story from the story collection I have written. Another acceptance was from a publication I considered a long-shot—I was shocked and thrilled when that acceptance letter came to my inbox. 

Here’s the thing: if I wanted a profession that wasn’t filled with rejection, I should have chosen a different one. Even having received 86 letters from editors telling me they don’t want to publish my work (and that’s just this year), I would still choose being a writer again and again.         

I’m a long way from standing out in the school field in my oversized t-shirt and blue shorts, waiting to be picked because no one wanted to pick me. So someone doesn’t pick me? There are other teams on which to play.

This was originally published in the Johnson City Press on 10/5/2016. My count is now up to 90 rejections, but I also got another wonderful acceptance, which brings that number up to eight and makes me happy.