My First Rejection: the Twenty Year Ache

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.

32 thoughts on “My First Rejection: the Twenty Year Ache

  1. What an encouraging post, Gwen. While I ache for the little girl you were, I love the way the writer in you persevered and is hard at work pouring your heart into your stories today.

    • Thank, Keli. Yes, eventually that rejection taught me an important lesson about remaining vulnerable while stil persevering. Too bad it took me twenty-some years to learn it…but everything in God’s time, right?

  2. I’m glad you didn’t give up. I keep hoping I won’t.

    “rotected my writer’s heart with layers of bricks and barbed wire”

    That’s a beautiful way to describe it. I think your teacher messed up. She should have had more than two submit, so more than one would not be chosen.

    • That’s a good thought, Donna. I’m a music teacher now, and often choose children for solos or instrument parts. I tell long stories before and after auditions about persevering and how every singer/musician (writer) faces rejection at some point. I figure if I get to the point where my students are rolling their eyes at me, like “we knoooooow, Mrs. Stewart, you’ve said this a million times”, I know I’ve gotten through. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. My first regection wasn’t a full out regection is guess. I entered a story writing competition during my first year in university. I knew there were hundreds of entries. Least to say I didn’t win, but I did get a polite letter saying that the quality of the entries was so high and that mine wasn’t selected. Regection no matter what kind is always a sad moment, but it depends on how to react or what you do after you are rejected. Its character building right? (pun intended). 🙂

    • So true, Nicole! Rejection never feels good. I had to learn the really hard way that how you react to it is what matters.

      Keep on keepin’ on, and thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Oh gosh I relate! Rejection hurts and our self esteem goes out the window. It’s a subject I tackled too in one of my blogs, which I wrote as a catharsis and like you I also won’t give up! Can’t keep this old dog down! I wish you all the best and truly trust that our hard work and positive belief therein really does pay off!

    • Thanks, Karen. I agree, rejection is always a let-down. When I was younger, I didn’t have the tools to separate the rejection of my talking duck story from rejection of ME as a writer. Boy, talk about a blow to my self-esteem! But now that I’m older, I realize that rejections come for many reasons, sometimes none of which we can control. So, like you, I just keep pluggin’ along.

      Best wishes for the journey!

  5. Ah, Gwen. Fourth grade just came back to me in all its “gory.” I loved my teacher, Mrs. Shook, but she made a mistake—a BIG mistake. She must have scored the tests incorrectly or gotten mine mixed up with someone else’s, because one horrible day she called me to her desk to tell me I was being moved to what the kids called the “dumb” reading group. Apparently, I suffered from poor reading comprehension, most likely because of being subjected to stories about talking ducks, fanciful knights, and etc, hahaha. The public humiliation was unbearable, since when it was time for the “Bluebirds” to circle up for reading, the Redbirds—MY Redbirds!—were watching. Within weeks, I was moved back to my old reading group with a firm resolve to make reading comprehension—not just reading the words—my lifelong goal. But the pain of Mrs. Shook’s seeming censure affected me for a long time. In fact, perhaps it still does.

    Your story today brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Katy, thank YOU.

      You remind me that I have a sacred trust, teaching young ones. Oh, I pray that I see those downcast faces of the “bluebirds”, and have just the right words to soothe the wounds. Those hurts last a long time, don’t they? Sometimes even decades.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. And thank you from my students, for reminding this teacher to soothe hearts wherever she can. 🙂

  6. My novel is entered in three contests right now and I’m holding my breath, waiting to hear – or not – how I’ve done. I know that it’s a subjective and necessary thing to have your work critiqued, and while I say that I’m ready for it, deep beneath my not-so-thick layer of skin, I’m really not sure.

    I go back and forth from feeling confident (I’ve written a great story and my critique group really likes it) to feeling totally inadequate (I could never write a story as good as those other writers. They will probably read mine and roll their eyes as they toss it into the garbage can and wonder how I could be so presumptuous as to think I might be a writer some day!)

    Notice how the bad thought was so much longer? Isn’t that how it always is? 🙂

    Horrible experience or not…I’m going to do it.

    • Good for you, Sherri!

      Yes, those negative thoughts seem to take root and grow a lot faster than the positive ones…much like pesky weeds. I pray you will keep weeding your garden while you wait for results, keeping the good thoughts close. I love the resolve in your last line! 🙂

      Best wishes for the journey. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. In a perfect world, we would all be spared the pain and subsequent wounds of rejection, but it is rejection that (can) spur us on to become better writers and then to fully appreciate the bliss of an accepted and published work.

    • Well said, Peter. And the truth is that writing, and music, is hard, hard work which requires a boatload of discipline. Rejection is almost inevitable, even for the best and most talented writers, whether it’s stacks of unsold books or a single bad review. My twenty-year ache taught me that it’s not the rejection, but what you DO with the rejection that matters in the long run.

      Keep on keepin’ on…and here’s to hoping for blissful days ahead! 🙂

  8. I so get the volcano force that occurs. It happened for me after I stopped nursing my youngest. As soon as the last drop left me, stories began taking over my brain and I had to get them out. But like you, a dream had been planted years before. It just stayed quiet until it was time to scream out of me.

    Love how you refuse to give up. Those are where the best stories originate.
    ~ Wendy

    • Wendy, isn’t it funny how the timing works itself out? And yes, the RIGHT story does feel like it “takes over your brain” and eventually “screams out of you”.

      I can hear the heartbeat of stories that must be written when I read them, like an inexorable thrum that weaves throughout the novel, blog post, memoir, or non-fiction. It’s an amazing thing to witness.

      Blessings to you, and I’m so pleased that you’re part of the Word Serve group!

    • Erin, your kind words are deeply appreciated. Thank you, and best wishes for the journey ahead!

  9. The anecdote of your early writing experience captured me and led me into the larger point. I would say you’ve learned a thing or two about writing. I do wonder, however, why we are so destroyed by rejection, even kindly delivered rejection. Maybe we need to teach that rejection is normal and we must use all our coping skills to change that rejection to acceptance. Thanks for your insights, Gwen.

    • What a fabulous point, Elaine. I do try to pass this on to my students. I thought long and hard about having auditions for “special parts” in my concerts and, in the end, decided to go ahead with it. So, I usually choose one soloist among two dozen or more hopefuls. But I talk at length with my students about my experience, both in nabbing solos and in not being chosen. I teach them that life is full of achievement and rejection–but it’s what we do with the rejection that matters. I also express that their audition results is a reflection of their performance on that ONE day, NOT a comment on their total ability as a musician. I hope my long “lectures” help young people understand that they can be rejected and still persevere. I hope I spare them the “twenty year ache”.

      Thanks for your insightful input. Much appreciated!

  10. Ah, Gwen! Your story as a little girl breaks my heart and yet encourages me at the same time. A lovely post and a good word for us writers or for anyone, because no matter what we’re doing, rejection is always a reality. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Jessica, for your kind words. Yes, I think rejection of some type or form is always a reality. I’m glad I have some better tools for dealing with it now than I did in fourth grade!

      Best wishes to you.

  11. Gwen, what a beautiful, heartbreaking story! It’s amazing how long we carry childhood scars. I’m so glad your bricks and barbed wire came down to reveal the wonderful writer you truly are. Blessings!

  12. What a beautiful post. Rejection is hard to accept, and although it makes us want to give up at times, it is when we continue to believe in ourselves, in which we become stronger, more resilient and know in our hearts that our time will come when not giving up will pay off. Your students are blessed to have you.

    • Thank you so much, letty…your last comment is especially appreciated. I have become stronger and more resilient, for sure–unfortunately, I missed decades of writing because I *wasn’t* so strong as a teenager and young adult. *sigh* But it does no good to look back; looking forward is the only productive and healthy way to go, right?

      Best wishes and thanks again!

  13. Gwen, I love your thoughts here. And I also love your comment about the bluebirds (and Katy’s original anecdote). Being a teacher is such a sacred duty. I’m always glad to think someone like you is in the classroom touching children’s lives.

    • Thanks, Rosslyn. Do you remember when reading groups were given code names? I surely do, and for some reason, they were usually related to birds….goodness knows why. Perhaps to avoid the obvious meaning of the “cheetahs” and the “tortoises”?

      At any rate, your kind words about teaching mean a lot to me. Thanks again.

    • Jeanette, those hurts are so easily remembered. I’m glad my little vignette touched a chord…and I hope your “ouchie” didn’t last twenty years.

      Best wishes for the journey!

  14. It’s amazing how many yearnings of our heart come out through the fingers in the words we write. Perhaps your words are so lyrical and sweet because they had so many years to be perfected in your heart, dearest Gwen. May you never miss a one of all the blessings He yet has in store for you!

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