Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

I got a rejection from a literary magazine the other day. It was simply awful. It was awful because they’d had my essay for eight months, and because the assistant had emailed me three times to tell me that she was grateful for my patience and was passing my work on to the editors and would get back to me soon. For those not in the know, that kind of language usually means, “I have read and liked your piece, so I’m passing it on to the big guns, and I hope they agree with me that we should publish it, but of course we’re all disorganized and the meeting keeps getting postponed.” Sure, the waiting was tedious. But mostly, the rejection was awful because—well, here, read it:

So, I touched base with our assistant editors and they decided it wouldn’t be a good fit at this point for our magazine. After reading it, I tend to agree. You can take this or leave this, but I do want to encourage you to keep writing, and perhaps even put this piece away for a while, and come back to edit it after you’ve written other things. The challenge with this piece is making something that didn’t happen become just as climatic as what ends up happening. Writers that seem to know how to do that well— Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” and pretty much anything written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Thank you for your patience, and good luck on your endeavors.

Dude. I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years. And in one small paragraph I was reduced to….eighteen. Inexperienced. As if I hadn’t heard the whole “put it in a drawer and come back to it later” thing before. As if Kerouac was news to me. As if I hadn’t already “written other things.” But thank God she encouraged me to keep writing, because in that moment I did have the thought that if I can’t fool someone into thinking I have an iota of experience and talent, I probably should just

stop

writing

right

now.

But as my new philosophy for 2014 is to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided that instead of strangling with the desire to write back that if she didn’t think the essay was any good herself, likely she should not have wasted all of our time by passing it on to the editors in the first place, I’d share that rejection here on my blog. There it is, folks. Eat your heart out.

And I got to thinking about rejection.

I have a folder in a file cabinet labeled “Rejections,” and I pulled it out this morning and sifted through it. There are 282 rejections in the folder, which predates electronic submissions and thus represents a small fraction of those I have actually received in my lifetime (now I keep track on an Excel spreadsheet). In that folder I found form slips; form slips with a human signature or a brief quip; and longer, typed, personal letters telling me how close I had gotten. There are rejections from lit mags, from literary contests, from writing fellowships, and from famous magazines that actually gave me the time of day before telling me I just didn’t quite cut it. There were rejections that it was very hard to see again—like the one from 2004 telling me I’d been a runner-up in a prestigious book contest but that ultimately, the judge had chosen the other poet over me. And of course, The Fulbright committee telling me that even though I’d made it to the last stage of the process, they couldn’t fund my year studying poetry in England.

And there were quite a few little gems.

This one, from a famous literary agent, cracked me up not because she said no—I’d expected as much—but because of the dangling participle in the third line:

photo-11

“While interesting, Ms. X did not have enough enthusiasm to take on your book.”

I’m bummed Ms. X is not enthusiastic about my memoir, but I’m sure glad to learn that she’s interesting.

And I loved this one, so chatty, so kind, about an essay I’d written (and forgotten about entirely!) on the poet Louise Bogan:

Bogan

And then there was this one, from a tiny literary mag I am quite sure does not exist anymore. I felt sad that the man’s wife was “gravely ill,” but I thought the gesture of returning my stamp entirely human and kind:

FreeLunch

Thank you, editor. You can see I used the stamp. Probably to send out more poems.

This trip down rejection memory lane has brought home a couple of things for me. The most surprising was the wistfulness I felt, not about having been rejected so many times, but for the period in my life when I felt so optimistic as to send out hundreds of poems every year. For a time when editors wrote sweet notes about moving offices and sick wives. It reminded me that my poetry seemed to get close a lot—many of the rejections are kind, handwritten ones—and it makes me wonder if I gave it up too soon. On the other hand, it reminds me why I did: poetry, with all its rejection, and a readership the size of a rejection slip, was beginning to feel like a dead end.

And I thought about how much better it is to know than to not know. One thing that folder gives me is—I hate this word, but—closure. Nowadays you’re as likely to hear anything at all as you are to hear that you’re being published (which is to say, not likely at all). The radio silence is the worst.

Of course I ruminated on the part that rejection plays in my work and in all writers’ work. In order to get published, you have to send out, and usually, you get rejected. It’s depressing, it’s demoralizing, it’s sometimes soul-crushing, but at the end of the day, it’s also the only way. Some days, I have better luck remaining dispassionate.

And, of course, I thought about the rejection slip as metaphor for life: how many things we fail at, every day. How many times each of us is told no—by a boss, a boyfriend, a crush, an editor, a publisher, a friend, a bureaucrat, a teacher, a student, a kid, a parent, a loan officer, a landlord, a blood test.

I’ll close with one last rejection, that I read and remembered fondly. It’s from a poet who’s pretty well known, who worked for a journal that was also pretty well known, and I recall approaching him at a reading a few months after I got this note. He remembered me, and I thought how cool he was. Though his journal didn’t take my poems, it helped me to hear that at least he thought I was writing “very sweet, very good lyric poems” that he happened to like.

NiceRejection

Here’s to rejections. And lemonade!

On Hunger, Fullness, and Self-Everything: An Interview with Author Kimber Simpkins

Note: this post originally appeared on Popcorn.

———————

Several months ago I had the great pleasure of taking an early-morning yoga class in a field by a creek on a farm in Northern California. The teacher, Kimber Simpkins, mentioned after savasana that she was about to publish a memoir called Full: How One Woman Found Yoga, Eased her Inner Hunger, and Started Loving Herself. I was intrigued (and blissed out from her class). I’m always on the lookout for a candid personal story, and the subject matter and title totally drew me in.

Better versionFull, Simpkins’s first published book, details her struggles with body image from her days as a teenage anorexic to her life as a budding yoga teacher who just can’t seem to nourish herself adequately. Eventually, through yoga, self-reflection, more than a little humor, and a hundred other techniques (think Ayurveda, motherhood, and meditation), she finds a tentative peace with her body and her hunger—and a lasting realization that she is more than enough.

Kimber Simpkins graciously agreed to be interviewed, and we caught up over email.

Q:  I’m sure you’re asked this all the time, but from having met you, and seeing your truly gorgeous author photo on the back of Full—well, do people express surprise that someone as fit and attractive as you has struggled so much with her body image?

Yes, I hear it a lot! What I’ve learned from my own experience and from working with hundreds of women around body image is that you absolutely can’t tell from looking at someone’s appearance how she feels about her body. Someone who has an ideal body in your opinion may utterly hate herself, and someone who is unattractive to you might feel very content and happy with her body. We just can’t know, because body image functions in what I call the black box of the mind, where no one ever sees in, and little light ever shines. At some point in my childhood I unconsciously started believing a story that I was unattractive because of my weight, and then that story played in my head no matter what the “truth” was of what I looked like. My natural weight and body type place me out of the range of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, which was what I thought I had to look like or I was unworthy. Because of unrealistic comparison, it took me an embarrassingly long time to start to see the beauty in myself, just as I am, without having to live up to some outer expectation or ideal.

Q: My memoir is about my journey through anxiety, and often, old friends are shocked to learn that I was a worried wreck my whole life. Many of us are so closeted about our own demons that people around us simply don’t know. Was writing Full a bit like coming out of the closet, or have you been pretty open about your anorexia and recovery throughout the years?

Yes, Susie, I can relate to that! Part of being anorexic was “looking perfect,” and even now it’s sometimes hard for me to let down that facade. In my line of work as a yoga teacher, there’s also a tendency to idealize and put teachers on pedestals, so there’s an unconscious drive to conceal the things that aren’t pretty and shiny and ready for prime time. Lately I find myself in the middle of a conversation and the person says, “I read your book,” and I have this moment of feeling utterly naked and exposed. But then I realized it’s a great shortcut for me: “So you know all about my demons, tell me about yours!” Coming out about my eating disorder and body image history has happened in layers, little digestible bites at a time, one person here, a small group there, so that I’ve slowly built up my resilience and willingness to be vulnerable over many years.

Q: You write so authentically about overeating while still inhabiting the mind of the anorexic. You say you had “the worst of both worlds”—you couldn’t stop eating, but were constantly judging yourself for eating. For me, that was a very powerful part of your memoir because I could totally relate, having had my own issues with body image and overeating. Was it painful for you to write about those periods in your life when you felt so out of control?

Yes. Writing about those periods was painful, and cathartic. For years I felt this weird loyalty to the binge-eating/starving part of myself, this idea that if I left her behind, I was leaving an important part of myself behind. Full is sort of a memorial to her. I will always remember her, but she’s no longer running the show. Sharing her story satisfied my need to remain loyal and not forget, but move on.

Q: I was intrigued by the structure of your memoir. There is a clear journey, from anorexic/overeater to a woman with a healthy, loving body image, but there is also more of an episodic feeling, with chapters organized thematically rather than chronologically. It read in some ways like part memoir, part contemporary philosophy a la Pema Chödrön or Eckhart Tolle. Was that intentional?

Oh dear. If you had only seen me trying to make any sense of the 400 pages of raw material I started organizing the book from several years ago. At one point I printed it all out and literally sat in the middle of it with scissors and tape, desperately hoping to emerge with a book someone would actually read. I still have a big piece of poster board where I used a different color bar for each chapter to show how it contributed to the overall arc of the story. So much had to be left out.  The first version I had people read wasn’t chronological at all, and I got feedback that it needed a lot more structure, so some chronology ultimately made it in. For me the experience of living the story wasn’t chronological at all, but vacillated between time periods as past memories became relevant again and recent events started to fade.

Q:  I had the sense, reading Full, that the journey was unfolding for you and the reader at the same time. Did you write the book while you were on the journey, or did you write it years later, reflecting back?

The answer is definitely both. I was in the midst of the journey during the writing of the book, and pulled from my memory those things that seemed to explain and elucidate what I was feeling now.

Q: How long did it take you to write Full? What was your process like?

It took almost ten years, for that very reason that I was writing the book as I was figuring out how to feel full. I decided to just start asking the questions: why am I so hungry all the time? Why do I hate my body so much? And then followed the questions where they led me. The great thing was being able to consult an expert and say, “So I’m writing this book….” It gave my journey an urgency and legitimacy that helped keep me going and keep me honest.

Q: What kinds of experts did you consult?

To answer my questions about hunger and body image, I talked to an eating disorders specialist, a nutritionist, an Ayurvedic doctor, a Western medical doctor, a yoga philosophy professor, a meditation teacher, a massage therapist/psychic, a Chinese herbalist, and an acupuncturist, among many others. I was open to a lot of different options and opinions. Many of those encounters didn’t end up in the book. The one thing I didn’t want was a one-size-fits-all answer from a book or seminar. Part of my journey was the desire to be seen and understood as a unique individual with her own past and longing for freedom.

Q: You decided to self-publish. Could you talk a little about that decision and the events leading up to it?

I spent two years contacting agents and publishers and got lots of rejections, lots of silence, and just a few nibbles of interest, one of which turned out to be very helpful and made the book a lot better. But I never closed a deal. The book still had to be birthed somehow! We had come too far together to give up. I feel lucky to be alive in an era when self-publishing is so readily available.

Full Cover jpegQ: Why? What are the strengths of self-publishing, in your view?

I loved having control over the cover and what it looks like, being able to set the price myself, contracting the interior design out, working with editors of my own choosing, and having the final say over nearly every aspect of the book. It’s interesting—more attention is coming from agents and publishers now that the book is a real thing, and not just an idea, proposal, or manuscript.

Q: That’s good news. What should someone contemplating self-publishing know? What resources was it important to cultivate?

Be persistent and patient. Find out what you don’t know and who can help you for free or low cost before paying thousands of dollars. Think of yourself as a contractor/architect who is building a house. The manuscript is the foundation, and you’ve got your editors to help you make it really firm. Then you need the walls, the folks who are actually going to publish your book, and make it a real thing, with the exterior and interior. Then you need the painters and designers who make it look all nice; these are the marketing people who help promote your book and get the word out and make it someplace folks want to visit/read. It’s a lot of work, but think of yourself as bringing together a team of talented individuals to serve this act of creativity you’re birthing.

Q: What has been the response to your book? Do you have any readings or events planned?

Response has been great! The Amazon and Goodreads review are wonderful and I’ve enjoyed invites to speak to many different groups. Just this week I’ll be speaking at a community-supported kitchen in Berkeley and next week at the university to a group of women there who are doing important work around eating disorders, body image, and activism. Plus, March 8-9 in Berkeley, I’ll be teaching a Love Your Body Workshop for women to develop the tools for loving your body just the way it is.

To learn more about Kimber Simpkins or Full, to see her yoga schedule and learn about her workshops and readings, visit kimberyoga.com. You can also follow her—and get a daily love-your-body tip!—on Twitter (kimbersyoga) and Instagram (loveyouryoga).