By Lauren Gordon
I spend seventy five percent of my day saying “no.”
No, you cannot touch the stove. No, please do not touch the Christmas ornaments. No, it’s not time to eat yet. No, don’t touch the knife. And recently, NO screamed at a hysterical decibel as I watched my daughter reach for a piece of dog crap my husband unknowingly tracked on to the kitchen floor.
She is at the age where she is learning limits, pushing boundaries to figure out what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t; patting the dog nicely on the back, yes. Slapping the dog like you demand satisfaction, no. It’s a process, one that will undoubtedly take us into the teenaged years and beyond, and I’m surprised by how many ways I can actually say “no.” Not right now, maybe later, that’s not ok, nope, nope, nope. Each No seems to elicit a different emotional response, but it’s the noes my daughter expects that are the easiest.
I recently received a rejection letter for a poetry submission and when the rejection came, I wasn’t surprised. I was familiar with the work of the journal and while I knew my poetry wasn’t really in the style of their journal, I sent on a whim. I think these kinds of risks are necessary sometimes, if not for the sake of art then for the sake of my ego, because when the rejection inevitably comes, I can feel nonchalant about the No and good about trying. I tell myself this is a brave submission, sending to a journal you know is a poor fit, that maybe I’m shaking things up over there in Contemporary Poetry Land — but that’s as crappy as what I slapped out of my daughter’s hand last week. When you can expect the no, and it comes, it’s a bit of a relief.
So my daughter likes to play with all of the drink coasters in the family room, taking them down from the end tables and stacking them up. This is an approved activity. I get a kick out of seeing her on her tip-toes, blindly grabbing around for a little circle of cork. Occasionally she will reach one of the square wooden coasters and take them to the coffee table. There is a strict “do not put objects on the coffee table” rule being enforced in the house right now (until she has finer motor control), so of course she likes to tap the wooden coasters on the coffee table and then look at me or my husband questioningly. She doesn’t have the verbal acquisition yet, but if you’re reading her expression, it says: “Hey, do you guys see what I’m doing? I’m tapping this coaster on the coffee table and it’s making a fantastic noise. Is it cool if I do this?” We start out with a soft but firm “no.” If the tapping continues, the no gets a little louder. Third time no means Coaster Intervention. After a few tries, she now stops at the first “no.” She’s smart, this kid. She’s figuring out which behaviors earn emotional reactions and then she can respond in kind. She’s testing the waters. When the expected No comes, it’s satisfying to her. She predicted a No and getting that No is a validation of her expectations. It’s safe rejection.
Ah, you see the pickle that is twisting in its vinegar though, don’t you? The emotional response to rejection varies greatly. Occasionally she wants something so very badly and is so hell-bent on getting it, that when the no comes, it’s as if I’ve destroyed the very fiber of her existence. One hundred year old china tea cup does not a toddler toy make. And yes, I know that oven is an inviting bright red, but we mustn’t touch. Sorry, darling. This is one of those cases of Mother Knows Best and You’ll Thank Me Someday. Her reaction to those noes can be frightening to witness if you’ve never seen it before; first she throws herself to the ground dramatically, head banging the wall/floor loudly, and then she goes limp, red-faced from screaming. When I pick her up, she runs in mid-air, like pulling a paddling dog out of water suddenly.
Yeah, I’ve received those rejection letters, too… the ones that leave you swimming in the air. Those are the ones that really cut. You spend so much time babying your submission, quadruple spell checks, years of reading the journal so closely you can practically recite Vol. 24, No. 1 in its entirety. You’ve edited the poems with precision akin to removing a hair from a house fly’s back with a miniature pair of tweezers — I mean, serious magnifying glass appreciation here. Your submission couldn’t BE a better fit. Hell, you have the same first name as the editor’s oldest daughter. That must be a sign. This is IT.
And then the rejection letter comes. And it’s a form letter. And they don’t even encourage you to send again.
And you let that take the wind out of your sails. As a poet, it isn’t that I don’t have appreciation for the massive amounts of work editors do. I don’t begrudge the form letter. I don’t really even begrudge the form letter sent to me addressed to “Rahim” (true story). I’m used to the “it’s not you, it’s us” rhetoric of these rejections. I don’t add insult to injury when a rejection letter ends with “and all archived copies are currently 25% off in our store!” This is just the business of art. I tend to internalize a rejection as “what was I thinking sending here in the first place?” And this can be just as detrimental to the process (yes, No is a process!) of publishing.
Once in a blue moon, I receive a personal rejection that is encouraging. It’s a bit of a Willy Wonka moment when Charlie finds the last golden ticket. Even though you’re being told no, you’re still being assured that what you’re doing has worth. That you should keep going. For the editors that have the time and gumption to write letters like these, and for the poets who are willing to hear without filters, sometimes rejection letters like these can keep you going.
It’s the promise and hope in the “next submission” that compels me to keep trying. How will we ever know our own limits or possibilities without extending ourselves and being open to the No? The tenacity of my daughter sometimes, my god. I hear myself say ridiculous shit to her: “How many times do I have to say no?” Really, Lauren? As many as it takes until your behavior or hers is altered. Incidentally, let this be a lesson to the other parents out there: There is no way to sugar coat saying No when a No is a No. My daughter reached for a pen at our vet’s office while I was holding her and I gave a quick “no” before moving her away from the pen. She burst into tears immediately, of course, and I said “what’s wrong? Are you mad because mama said the N word?” Cue the gasps from the receptionists and yours truly wins humanitarian and mother of the year. Yes, sometimes the mouth moves without help from the brain and trying to soften the effect of a “no” did not help soften the blow; it led to an incredible social gaffe and me hunting the yellow pages for a new vet who won’t tout me as “that one racist mother who brings her dog in for nail trims.” But do you think me saying no and my daughter’s tears and the receptionist’s gasps would be enough to stop her from reaching for the pen again? Of course not.
When I first started sending out submissions in earnest this year, it never occurred to me to be tenacious; that if a journal sent me a rejection, I could wait and send another submission. I knew enough to not take rejections personally, although that can be challenging when you get three rejection letters in a row in the span of an hour (the definition of paranoia; did all the editors meet up and decide to send out letters at the same time?!) — but to buck up and send again to the very journal that said no? That is tenacity. Or is that Einstein’s definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Well, there is some truth in that. It’s a fine line between reality and hopefulness. It’s the difference between touching the hot stove or banging a wooden coaster on a table. As a poet, I hope I can discern the difference.
If anything, my daughter is teaching me to keep reaching for that pen and waiting on yes.
An inspiring and well-wrought piece of writing. The way that you have skillfully intertwined narratives is lovely; the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
What a pleasure to read while sipping tea and considering paper submissions for upcoming conferences. I just sent one off — waiting on that yes (or no!).