One of my writers just had a story rejected and we’re both thrilled for her. Why? Because the journal can’t use the story, but they love her work and suggested she send something else. Fist bumps all around. If only all rejections were this good.
So, I wrote a book in a year in which I was living mostly alone. Kids all launched at quite a distance, husband in Europe. I’d quit teaching at the University of Maryland thinking I’d be traveling to Europe as well, then changed those plans, and literally overnight, I was jobless and home alone in a very quiet 4-square.
When I finished the book, I sent a query and proposal off to 10 publishers. About a week later, I got a call from a small, independent publisher in North Carolina. He loved the description of the book and the next thing I knew, the pasta water was turned off, dinner on hold, and I was having the most exciting conversation of my life with Frederick B. Diehl.
We talked for an hour–about how large the first print run would be, (small), whether or not the book would be available online, (no). An advance? (No, again.) Royalties? To be determined. But published! By someone not-me! He told me to send him the entire manuscript and he’d get back to me by Friday. This was Tuesday.
I did what I always do in a situation that cautions objectivity. I became instantly enamored with Mr. Diehl, his publishing company, his wife and children, and his labradoodle. Soulmates! I Fed Ex’d him the entire manuscript the next morning.
But Friday came and went with no word. Two long weeks after our conversation, just as I was walking out the door to teach a writing workshop at St. John’s College, the Fed Ex guy tossed a package onto the doormat containing my entire book. When I opened it, the cover page wore a tiny stick-on note that simply read, “Not what I was expecting. Fred Diehl.”
I was gut punched. This was rejection-rejection. Not good rejection. Rejection with the added sting of surprise and confusion. And loss that is perplexing is always harder to release than loss that is understood.
But I had a class to teach. So, I drove over to St. John’s and as I organized their manuscripts for discussion, I gave 17 writers my embarrassed sorrow. We all laughed at the fact I’d practically moved in with the Diehls and I confirmed they were off my Christmas list. Then we moved on to the group’s work and as they shared the fruits of their imaginations and memories, I thought, I can choose how I feel about this. I don’t actually KNOW that getting that contract would have been in my best interest. How many times in my life has a disappointment turned out to be the best possible thing? (And yes, I’m talking about you Robbie Eaton). Maybe there’s no such thing as good news or bad news. If I take what I think I know out of it…
It’s just news.
And the feeling caught the wind, and the sails of equanimity billowed and by the time I walked from Barr Buchanan to the car that night, I thought, Maybe good fortune is winging its way to me right this minute– over mountains, over cities, over rivers and roads–streaming down from the stars overhead. Maybe a miracle is in transit–out for delivery to my life (or yours)–right this minute. We don’t know that it’s not, so imagine it is. An excellent lab result, the coveted job, the healthy child, the restored sense of wellbeing in place of despondency.
In the morning, I woke up, and as is my practice, said thank you for this new day before my feet hit the floor. I blessed Frederick Diehl. (Goodbye, Fred. Goodbye! I’ll miss you and the life we could have shared!) May he be happy and successful, I asked, may he sell lots of books and may his dog live many years. I said thank you to the universe on principle for this disappointment because thank you shouldn’t be selective any more than love, should it? “Thank you for this loss,” I thought, “for being in it with me. Make of it what you will.”
I poured a cup of hot coffee, added some milk, turned on my computer and saw an email from Penguin Random House sitting in my inbox. One of the five biggest publishing conglomerates in the world. The acquisitions editor apologized for the delay in responding to my proposal. It had been routed to their Indiana headquarters instead of to their New York editorial offices and had been delayed by two weeks.
“Is this book still available?” the email read. “I’d like to offer you a contract.” That contract included an advance, royalties, online sales from 20 countries around the world, multiple reprintings, a long shelf life in every Barnes and Noble in North America and a publicity firm for a year.
Plenty of things have happened in my life and yours that defy any other way of looking at them than as misfortune. Loss. Heartbreak. And I’m not a fan of “everything happens for a reason.” Stuff happens that hurts. Inexplicable, unfair stuff happens to the innocent, to people we love. Evolution itself is one accident after another.
But it feels to me that if you ask, presence can be called to join in the experience with you and that’s often transformative. The secret sauce is thank you on principal, unconditional thanks. Thank you on trust. Because in the moment, you don’t know good news from bad news.
It’s just news.
Your work is to untie the knot that binds you to disappointments you don’t understand by becoming clear about them. Then acknowledge this: we don’t know the endgame; we can’t see the goal line and we don’t even know the rules.
But if you ask, (and maybe even if you don’t), you are never alone on the field. And you can only catch a miracle if you’re looking up.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.