by Lisa Trank
As a writer, rejection is part of our lives. We submit our hard wrought words and send them out to the publishing world, fingers crossed for a story with a happy ending. We used to receive a slim form letter in the mail: “Dear Writer, Thank you for your submission. As much as we enjoyed receiving it, the piece doesn’t fit our publishing model,” blah blah blah. In this day of instantaneous communication, the rejections pile up in our inboxes, which certainly makes it easier to read and delete, read and delete.
I’ve never had an issue with being rejected as a writer, not because I’ve got an iron clad ego and komodo dragon skin. Quite the contrary. I did, however, receive early training in rejection that has made me more able to handle it as a writer and I’d recommend a short stint in this world to get over any problems you might have as a writer handling this painful, but necessary part of our work.
Become an actor.
For fifteen years, not including college, I pursued a career in the performing arts. If I count college, that gives me even more “life experience” in the fine art of handling rejection, considering that at my university, a place of high repute in theatrical circles, barely one percent of the student body paying to study theater actually got to practice that study in the form of performance. Once out of college, I returned to Los Angeles and experienced my share of face to face rejections. I was passed over for the role of Ondine, a water nymph. I rescheduled my first date with my now husband to audition for the role of a dancing can of spring peas, which I didn’t get.
After seven years in Los Angeles, I packed my bags and headed to New York City, where my daily diet of rejection was increased to auditions that started at 7:00 a.m. and ended when they ended. I turned from the study of acting to the study of auditioning. I read Musashi’s “The Art of War,” while trying to face down the competition, who turned triple pirouettes to try to intimidate me. I reconnected with an old beau turned Broadway director who asked me why I was auditioning for a role I was so unsuited for and I had no answer for him, other than to say, “because that’s what actors do.”
And those were just the auditions.
I experienced performance rejection when I appeared with a five foot coffee cup balanced on my head like some sort of Carmen Miranda on steroids, singing Peggy Lee’s “Black Coffee” to a punk rock crowd at the World Club. We were both expecting something very different, and the boos were definitely not in the same key as the song. I ended up using the coffee cup as my shield as the beer mugs and shot glasses came flying at me, and barely got out there alive.
But out of all these events, one rejection experience stands out like a septic thumb.
I call it “Rejection Wears Plaid.”
My first winter in New York City was cold and very hard. I moved from sublet to sublet, from an apartment near Columbia University where my roommate told me the voices in her head said I shouldn’t be living there anymore, to an unheated studio walkup in mid-town shared with porn stars and crack heads. In between sublet stints, I’d go back to the already talked about now husband’s five story walk up on the Upper East Side. My vintage fake fur coat wasn’t warm enough and I was always cold, so when the first warm spring day appeared, I was so happy to switch out the fake fur for something sunny.
I had an audition and the warmer weather made me feel confident as I looked through my wardrobe. I chose a cheery lemon yellow cotton shirt dress with just the right amount of cinched waist, shoulder pads and lapel width (it was the late 1980’s) and that hit just below my knees, with a mid-thigh slit up the back. It was a 40s kind of dress that I paired with a funky set of heels and a wrap around sweater. I took one last look in the mirror as I headed out the door and with the approving nods of a couple of garbage men and a bus driver, I felt like a million bucks. That feeling grew even stronger as I waited in line for the audition. Someone compared me to a crocus. Another person said I was like the first daffodil blooming in Central Park and in fact, everyone standing in line seemed to be smiling like I’d just ushered in spring.
Finally it was my turn. I took off my sweater and squared my shoulder pads. I took out my headshot and turned my music to the right page for the pianist. I walked confidently into the audition room and shook hands with the casting agent, and gave her my headshot.
She was wearing plaid. A drab flannel plaid in browns, oranges and blues, visibly wrinkled, ill-fitting jeans and hiking boots with caked on mud. She looked like she’d just stepped off the set of an all female cast of Sam Shepherd’s “True West.”
I took my place in the far end of the room. I sang my heart out, filling the space with my voice, which was also feeling the turn in the weather and had responded with depth and tone. I sang my first 16 bars, and the casting director motioned to continue singing. Before I knew it, I was through the second piece. When I finished, I just stood there, allowing the last notes to hang in the air.
“That was lovely, Lisa, really lovely.”
I was happy the dress covered my knees because they were shaking. Was this it, my lucky break?
The casting agent in plaid looked at me intently. I imagined she was imagining me in a variety of starring roles and thinking deeply as to just how many musicals she could cast me in at once.
“Only one thing,” she said.
“Yes?” I answered eagerly.
“Don’t ever wear that color again. Please send the next person in.”
I’d been passed over for lots of roles, for a whole host of reasons. My boobs were too small, my ass was too big, I was too tall or too fat, my hair was too curly, I was too old, too young, too Jewish, not Jewish enough!
But I’d never been rejected because of a color I’d worn. Especially not the color yellow.
I was stunned. Had I brought up some post traumatic response to yellow that had caused this woman to spend the rest of her life in dumpster dive plaid shirts?
I mumbled thank you and gathered my things up. I nodded to the accompanist who shrugged her shoulders as she took one last drag on the cigarette she’d somehow balanced in her mouth the entire time she played.
So when I hear writers discussing the difficulty of handling rejection, I think of when rejection was so much a part of my daily life and the life I’d created that I decided to leave that life so I could find out if I could do something else and that something else became writing. I think of all those years I devoted to not being able to do what I was trained to do and what a negative impact that had on the entirety of who I had become and what I thought of myself. When you’re an actor and no one hires you to act, what do you do? Monologues and scenes in dark theaters, endless workshops, all of which hone your craft, but are vastly different from the real thing. The act of being an actor onstage, in front of an audience, or in whatever format, changes your DNA, if done enough.
As a writer, I write, regardless of whether anyone publishes my work. Don’t get me wrong, I love being published and get a very specific thrill at seeing my words in print. But after all those years of others deciding whether I would be able to do what I loved to do, when I first began writing, the excitement of holding something I’d written in my hands was like all my Chanukahs rolled into one. Magical, eternal, mine.
Sometimes rejection comes in the form of a letter, corporate and impersonal. Sometimes rejection comes in the form of a plaid shirt and ill-fitting pants, sharing the same space, time and experience. I’ll take the former any time.
Rejection is much of what life as writer is all about – don’t we reject our own work, writing and re-writing draft after draft? Karen Kissel Wegela, a Buddhist teacher and professor at Naropa University, once said that life is about insults and disappointments. I’d like to add to that list to include rejection. Face it, rejection is just a part of life, from jobs, to lovers, to cats who choose someone else’s lap. When I begin to take my writing rejections personally, I try to remember what W.S Merwin wrote in the poem “Berryman,” about his teacher and great American poet, John Berryman: as for publishing he advised me/ to paper my wall with rejection slips.
If you run out of wall space, try wearing yellow.