Failure, Rejection, and the Road to Nowhere

by Catherine DiMercurio

This is the blog post I keep running away from. The reason? I can’t find perspective. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it, what insights to draw from it, because, to be candid, my writing life is filled with frequent rejections and persistent failure. My relationship with my writing is messy in a way that I learn to live with every day but don’t fully comprehend.

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I have written since I was about ten, when I began composing angsty tween poems, before being a “tween” was a thing. You were just ten, or eleven, or twelve. Then you were a teenager.

I often say that I love writing, which is true, but as with most loves, there exists a complex array of emotions for which the word is merely a cipher. The things we truly love cannot be separated from who we are.

Trying to Avoid the Pull of the Road

This identity-centric love happens to be a thing that many people have been able to monetize. Many people have found channels with which to share their work with others. It becomes expected that if you write, you do something with it. When I began my freshman year at U of M, I was interested in genetics. After I took my first science class though, and received the first C I’d ever gotten in my life, I wondered if maybe there were other career paths more suited to my strengths. I didn’t know what those were, however. I knew I liked to read, and I liked to write, but the whole point of college was to prepare myself for an actual job and I knew I didn’t want to teach. I’m sure if I’d had a little more confidence in myself I could have successfully pursued the career in genetic counseling I thought I wanted. Later, I would get a C in a poetry class and it didn’t slow me down one bit. In the end though, I sat with an advisor in a little room in Angell Hall. It was time to declare a major. He did the best he could with one more unfocused liberal arts student and told me I should do what I loved, because that was the most important thing, and things would fall into place. I’m still not sure if this advice was sound, but the idea was reinforced throughout the years after I graduated. I feel like for a decade or so the message many Gen Xers received, a message amplified by talk show hosts and self-help books, was do what you love.

Embracing the Longest Road Trip Ever

I declared as an English major that day. Still, I was afraid to take a creative writing class. I focused on literature, and I loved writing about it. A friend pointed me to a creative nonfiction class my senior year, and I was so engaged by it, I began seeking out the professor at her office hours to talk about writing. She encouraged me to write a story and submit it for the Hopwood award, a prestigious writing award at the University of Michigan. I did write. I did submit. I did not win. But the act of writing that story was a beginning for me. Something in me unlocked.

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After graduation, I landed a job as an assistant editor with a reference publishing company, hoping for two things: one, that the job would allow me time to keep writing, and two, that maybe it could lead to some publishing connections.

In a way, though it would take many years, it did both. I was only able to finish a novel after I left the company. I began freelancing, and with the power to structure my schedule differently, I was finally able to focus the way I wanted to. I wrote a novel and sent out dozens of query letters. The rejections piled up and the message I internalized was that the work simply wasn’t good enough. Perhaps all I needed to do was send out hundreds instead of dozens of letters. Perhaps I needed to get better. Later, still freelancing, and now raising two children, I tried again with another novel, and sent out query after query. The company I freelanced for had purchased a fiction imprint, and I was able to acquire the name of an actual person at the imprint to whom I could submit my query. Amazing Disgrace came out in 2006. The print run was small, but my foot was now in the door. I’d even contacted my former professor, who was still teaching. She came to one of my book signings and invited me to her class to speak. I couldn’t believe it; I finally had some momentum.

That momentum slowed and dissipated, a little ripple dying in the wet sand at the water’s edge. I wrote another novel. I revised that third novel over and over again and kept sending it out. Eventually I put it aside and focused on my freelance work, which now involved a lot of writing. Writing about literature. I was good at it, and I had a lot of jobs coming in. But, the work started to dwindle. At the same time, my marriage began to unravel. In the middle of it all, I applied to some MFA programs, thinking that maybe the reason I wasn’t getting published was because I needed to learn how to write better. It was a victory to be accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts creative writing MFA program. I felt like I belonged. I even did a post-grad semester so I could continue to work on my next novel.

When Things Don’t Add Up

All of the writing, the submitting, the rejections—each act is a lesson in vulnerability, in open heartedness, in loving the work rather than the reward. It would be a lie to say that the rejections don’t break my heart. They do. I imagine myself as a starfish, able to regenerate the necessary body parts to keep functioning. For the starfish, limbs; for me, my heart.

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Here I am now, two years post-MFA. I’m working full-time again at the same reference publishing company, squeezing in my writing time in the hours before or after work. In a way, I’m back to where I started. Currently, I have two short stories I’m submitting at various literary journals. They are getting rejected. But many of the rejection letters are detailed, positive notes that praise the work. I feel like I’m close, that soon maybe I’ll find the right person at the right time at the right journal. I also have several queries out for what is technically my fourth novel, and I’ve begun work on a new short story.

I wonder every day if the work is good enough, and if I’m trying hard enough. I’ve failed a lot and have seen so few successes. I lose sleep so I can write. I’ll be paying back student loans for the MFA for a long, long time. I have asked myself if it is worth it and all I know is that it doesn’t seem to matter. Converting the experience into tangible value in order to deem it a sound investment is like saying 2 + circle = purple. It doesn’t add up. I seem to be on a road that meanders in no discernable direction, and I’ve paid to be on it. So where do I go from here? Maybe onward is the only answer.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

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