I received my first manuscript request in fourth grade.
My teacher invited me and another student to write a short story. The prize for the winning submission was breathtaking: a trip to a young writer’s workshop, where we would learn from real writers and hobnob with kids who, like me, dreamed secret stories deep in our young hearts.
For a ten year old, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I poured myself into my story, sparing no imaginative fancy. I don’t remember many details, only that it featured talking animals, a charging knight, and puppy love romance. I thought it was spectacular, one of a kind. I submitted my story and waited for the happy news.
A few days later, the teacher called me to her desk. Her soft, sympathetic voice set my knees to trembling. Why did she sound sad? Didn’t she have good news to deliver? “I’m sorry,” she said. She’d chosen the other student’s story, a vignette about a visit to grandma’s house.
Oh, that rejection hurt. I cast green eyes at the winner and felt sick the day he attended the workshop. While he worked with grown-up writers, I solved math problems and filled out worksheets, just like every other school day.
If I’d been a stronger, more self-assured child, I might have pondered that grandma story. I might have learned the first adage of beginning writers: “write what you know”. I might have considered the fact that readers can relate to a visit to grandma’s, but no one can relate to talking ducks, fanciful knights, and puppy love. . .all in a single-page story.
I might have, but I didn’t. Instead, my young writer’s heart sported a big, throbbing bruise. But I didn’t talk about my writing, not to anyone. So I came to my own conclusion: I wasn’t good enough. And that was that.
I couldn’t stop writing, though. I wrote poems and journal entries, short stories and personal narratives. I wrote frantically, then tore my words to shreds. Sometime I tucked my writing under my bed or in pages of childhood books, never to be seen again, even by me.
Meanwhile, I learned to deliver what my teachers wanted. An essay with a topic sentence and three paragraphs? Done. A summary of The Grapes of Wrath? Done. I earned good grades, but protected my writer’s heart with layers of bricks and barbed wire constructed from that fourth grade rejection.
I protected too dearly, and finally stopped writing all together. For twenty years I wrote nothing but grocery lists until, a few years ago, the writing exploded out of me with all the force of a long-dormant volcano.
Predictably, I still face rejection on this road to publication. But I don’t hide my words or tear them up anymore. I expect the hurt of rejection. I even embrace it, if I can. Because I understand now: the best stories come from bruised and throbbing hearts that don’t hide, don’t shred, and refuse to give up.