Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Rejection Means

I remember reading a short fiction piece in Seventeen magazine (when I was fourteen, of course). In it, our hero goes to the mailbox to check for a letter from the college he applied to and finds a small, thin envelope decorated with official school insignia.

At the end of the fifth week of compulsively checking my mailbox daily, sending up little prayers to the mail gods that something, something would be there, I turned my key in the lock yet again, almost on a whim. It had been nearly three months since I turned in my application, and not a word. I started to imagine wild possibilities -- maybe they never lost it, maybe they think since I turned it in late I actually meant to apply for next next year's program, maybe my letter got lost in the mail, the way emails disappear into an internet void - only this was a dead letter closet or worse, simply the wrong mailbox.

But yesterday, when I swung back the little gray door of my mailbox, there was a letter. A real, tangible, school-insignia letter, and the words of that short story ran through my mind the moment I saw it:
Too thin to be an acceptance letter. Rejection.
It was indeed too thin, a single piece of paper folded business style inside the envelope. Even so, I held my breath a little as I opened it, then unfolded the paper. Maybe grad school doesn't send big giant acceptance packets; maybe I got in after all.


Dear ___________:
I am sorry to inform you that your application the MFA Program in Creative Writing was not accepted by the faculty admissions committee. The competition level for admission to the program was high this year, with many writers competing for relatively few slots. Our decision to admit is based on -
I skipped over the rest, until this -
We wish you the very best as you continue your writing career.
_________, Director
Creative Writing
I had been preparing myself for this - I knew I might not make it in, I knew I might not have my portfolio quite tight enough, that I might not be the kind of candidate they were looking for. Heck, for the past few weeks I'd been joking I was only waiting for my rejection letter. Still, I honestly had started to think I might have gotten in - why else would it take so very long for them to respond? Surely if I wasn't at least waitlisted, they would have told me by now. But now, with the open letter in my hand, I knew, and to tell you the truth, my first reaction was a kind of happy shock. No more guessing about my future, now I can finally make plans, now I finally KNOW.

As it settled in, however, I started to get worried. What will I do after graduation? How in the world am I ever going to accomplish all my plans, my overthought life schedule, my practical, perfectly laid-out plans now? What am I going to do for a job? By the time I got in bed that night, the shock had fully dissolved, replaced by an angry anxiety. I felt frustrated and dissappointed, and I couldn't see how I was ever going to make things work out so I would achieve anything greater than the perfectly average, middle-class American existence -- not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you, but when you spend your whole life dreaming on an epic scale about your own special-snowflake-ness, "settling" for something so pedestrian can seem like a pretty big downer.

This morning I went to church - yes, it's something I do occasionally, and no, I'm not looking to convert anybody here -- in fact, the reason that I went had nothing to do with the letter (more on that reason in an upcoming post). And as it so often turns out in the movies, this morning's service was apparently written all about me. The hymns spoke to my passion for making a difference in the world, the sermon to my sense of being suddenly lost without a GPS to get me back onto the Interstate of my life, the scripture and confession text perfectly attuned to my inability to let the universe take its course without my bothering it all the time. And then I went back out, accomplished my day's mission (no, I already told you, that's for a future post!), and got through the rest of my day.

So what does my rejection letter mean? In my most dramatic moments, I imagine it to be a boulder blocking out the path ahead, leaving me without a way to turn around, the hill beneath me slippery and steep, the cliff above me jagged and impassable. If I'm feeling optimistic, it's just a small impediment, a life suggestion that I take a step back from everything and reassess -- maybe it's even a gift, a clearing of my next year's schedule for new exciting experiences I can't see coming yet. In reality, it's just another moment in my life - and not even the most important moment, so why get all stressed over something that won't matter in a couple years anyway?

Ultimately, it's a combination of these second two possibilities that I'm working towards - fastening my rope to that one last sad-looking leafless tree stuck twisting from the rock face, bracing my feet against the boulder and grunting as I pull my body up, hand by hand. I still don't know what's in the future. I still don't like not knowing what my plans are going to be, or where I'm going to be working, or whether I'll try again next year to go to grad school. But no matter how I'm feeling now, I need to get back onto the highway, and I'm damn tired of looking at this rock.


  1. Blah to rejection. I got rejection letters from: University of Colorado- Boulder, UCLA, University of Washington-Seattle, University of Texas- Austin, and I feel like there was another one... oh, and UCLA's rejection letter was electronic- they couldn't even send me a small skinny envelope with a school seal on it...

  2. Nice! I love this!! I've had so many church moments like that- like the entire service was directed right at me, so glad it inspired you =). I can't wait to hear about the rest of that day and what you start to formulate your plans to be now ^_^ . Que inspirational, "Mrs." =D

  3. Oh you go girl. You are much, much bigger than that little letter! <3

  4. Apologies in advance for the novel-length comment! But I think this is an important topic to discuss. :) In dealing with rejection (at least where school and job/career things are concerned), I always have to keep in mind that being rejected means that it just wasn't the right place for me. It's not a reflection on who I am or the work I produce--it's a matter of finding the right place to learn and grow, and finding a community that's fueling and supportive as well as challenging. I applied and auditioned for something like five Dance BFA programs, and only got accepted to ASU's. And their program ended up being a great fit for me.

    Of course, keeping this mindset isn't easy, especially because I tend to take things so personally. But we're working in a field where rejection (and LOTS of it) is a basic inevitability. Someone posted this on Facebook awhile ago, and it has stuck with me ever since: "Go where you're celebrated, not where your tolerated." SO TRUE. I always try to remember that.

    P.S. I had no idea Blogger had this pretty bookshelf background! I mayyyy have to copy you. :)

  5. Aghh, I got carried away and ended up with a grammar fail! I meant "Go where you're celebrated, not where *you're* tolerated." Oops.

  6. Preach it, Katy!! Grammar fail or no ;)