Writers and lovers, I have often observed, have something in common: Both must be willing to face, in the pursuit of their goals, the terrifying possibility of rejection.
Of course, in the case of the rejected lover, usually the party doing the rejecting is smart enough to pull his or her punches; to dress up the rebuff in some flattering, verbal ensemble.
Example: "I'm sorry, Hugo, but this just isn't going to work out. You're just too smart and handsome for someone like me."
Or: "Alice, this has nothing to do with you, but I've decided to move to Nepal and become a Buddhist monk."
Then there's my personal favorite: "The easy thing, my darling, would be to try and make this work. But I know you're too courageous to do the easy thing."
Writers, on the other hand, seldom find their work rejected in such a silky, flattering way. They are more apt to get a letter that attacks the very thing that marks their work as uniquely theirs.
Consider, for example, the following letters of rejection to these then-unknown writers:
To poet Emily Dickinson -- "Queer -- the rhymes were all wrong."
To Gustave Flaubert, rejecting his novel "Madame Bovary" -- "You have buried your novel beneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous."
To George Orwell, rejecting his book "Animal Farm" -- "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A."
But silky or sullen, rejection is still rejection. And no matter what anyone tells you, there are very few human beings who have mastered the art of being turned down. Which is unfortunate since, as we all know, life is 80 percent rejection, 15 percent acceptance and 5 percent undecided.
(The above poll, incidentally, is based on scientific research: I made up the figures and three of my best friends agreed with them.)
And since I was smart enough to fashion a life for myself that invites rejection at so many levels -- writer, lover, parent, ex-spouse -- I feel particularly qualified to make some timeless, although probably useless, observations on the subject.
First of all, it is important to recognize that you are the person responsible for inflicting a large percentage of the rejection on yourself.
Think about it. How many times have you critiqued yourself this way: I didn't get the job because I'm not smart enough. I got dumped because I'm not (select one of the following) sexy, interesting, tall, short, fat, thin, intelligent, hip enough. My short story was rejected because I don't have anything to say and even if I had something to say I wouldn't say it well enough.
Such self-rejection accounts for approximately 75 percent of the total rejection in an individual's life. The remaining 25 percent comes from outside sources: spouses, lovers, bosses, head waiters, cosmetics saleswomen, health club instructors, people with good hair, mothers with children who behave, admissions officers at Harvard and New Yorker magazine.
A word about that New Yorker magazine rejection -- which I received at the age of 18. Even now I remember the sting I felt when the rejection slip arrived. I had submitted a poem which had as its central metaphor the interior of a rotting tree trunk. In sonnet form I compared this -- the rotting trunk, weakened tree, etc., etc. -- to the spiritual damage inflicted on society by greed and materialism.
As best I can remember, the rejection slip -- which arrived almost by return mail -- said something like this: "Your manuscript does not fit our needs at this time."
Of course, I immediately fixated on the words "at this time." Writers do that -- search for, and find, positive messages in even the most blatant rejection.
Which, now that I think of it, is also true of lovers.
So, what have I learned from my encounters with rejection? One very important thing: That you eventually get over even the worst rebuff. Always, of course, just in time to move on to a new rejection.
Which brings up this question: Why is there so much rejection in the world? (80 percent, remember?) The answer? Because it's so much easier to reject things in life than to accept them. Acceptance, after all, implies commitment to a person or an idea or a poem about, say, greed and rotting trees. Rejection, on the other hand, implies the opposite.
By the way, did I mention that writer William Saroyan received about 7,000 rejection slips before getting his first piece published? Or that when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, he rejected it. The prize, I guess, did not fit Saroyan's needs at that time.