07/11/2012 06:41 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2012

The Power of Rejection

The day I graduated with my MFA was one of the most discouraging of my life.

My divorce was finalized that morning. I spoke to a real estate agent about listing our house shortly after; there was no way I could stay and maintain it on my own. Built in 1925, the place had rattly old rope windows and a huge, ancient octopus boiler in the basement.

Plus, this was Iowa City, Iowa; I was one of hundreds of newly-minted creative writers. I'd lost my teaching job along with my student status. If I stayed, there was no way I'd be able to find work.

In the afternoon, I had a meeting with a very important editor from Little, Brown that had been arranged by my department. Each creative writing student had one shot to "sell" her work to a visiting publisher and this was mine. I dressed carefully. I arrived at the appointed time. I pushed open the door.

Inside the office of the English chair sat a small, brown-haired woman. She looked up at me and scowled behind large glasses.

"Is this yours?" she asked, holding up the 25 pages I'd submitted for review.

I nodded and sat, prepared to hear her critique.

"This is dreadful," she said. I swear, she almost smiled. "You're graduating today?"

Again, I nodded.

The woman handed me my pages and I took them, though she'd made no notes. "My advice," she said, "is to plan a non-writing career."

Of course, this story works only as the precedent to a punch line.

Those pages the Little, Brown editor handled like a turd became -- every word, every line -- the first chapter of my debut novel, A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, which the Washington Post called "a triumph of good writing."

But the time that would elapse between my slinking out of the chair's office and the publication of that book? Three long years filled with rejection of every kind.


It started with my ditching my own graduation ceremony. What was the use in going? I wasn't going to be a writer, anyway. I'd just wasted my time and the university's fellowship. In fact, I was qualified for exactly nothing. I was 35 with three young children. I couldn't even be a waitress! I was too old, too tied-down. Besides, I routinely dropped plates and burned my own feet.

When my house sold in a matter of hours on the condition that we leave in a month, I threw myself on the only opportunity I could find: a job teaching summer school to prep school kids in Rhode Island. The pay netted out to about minimum wage and I'd have to use savings to rent a place where the kids could live. But it was a move forward. So I went.

It occurs to me now how stupid that was. Anyone with a brain would have hunkered down, kept the house and collected food stamps. This is what roughly 50% of my graduating colleagues did.

But I am pathologically unable to sit still and deal with the status quo. So I road tripped my kids out to the east coast, juggled them madly with my teaching schedule and spent every spare moment (there were few) on the phone trying to find a permanent job. There was nothing. It was nearly the end of summer and I had begun lying awake, rigid with terror, staring at the ceiling as our vacation lease ticked down.

Finally, there was only one possibility left: I was up for a position as an assistant editor of a magazine back in Minneapolis, my hometown. I'd given up on writing, remember. But editing real, competent writers... that I thought I might be able to do. The salary was laughable but it came with benefits, including health insurance -- and I was desperate. I figured I could live with my parents and work another part-time job nights. Maybe at a gas station. Believe me, I was aiming low.

The woman who interviewed me by phone was pointedly articulate and famously good at her job. We seemed to be forming a relationship so I went for broke, telling her how much I needed the job -- not my whole story, but enough. I wanted to impress upon her how grateful I'd be, what a hard worker. I hung up certain we were moving home. The next day the editor called to say she'd chosen someone else.

She was very kind. She apologized and told me, frankly, that we were too similar: both white, masters-bearing, Midwestern women on either side of 40. She needed a voice and sensibility that was different from ours. In other words, she'd hired someone younger, more exotic and less educated.

Now THAT, let me tell you, led to a very bad night. But I'm glad I had it, for many reasons.

Mostly because of everything that came after: my total fluke of an offer from Brown University one month later; my year out east and eventual return to the pages of my novel; my connection with a remarkable Boston-based literary agent who today guides both my writing and my career. All of these things can be tied back in some way to that devastating phone call.

But also because I understand on some level how the millions of unemployed people who are reading June's tepid jobs report must feel.

Here's the great irony: One of those people is the woman who turned me down for her assistant job in 2003. Oddly, we became friends when I did finally return to the Twin Cities. She took a perverse pride in having rejected me for a low-level job and forcing me back to writing. No one has celebrated more enthusiastically than she when my new novel, The Forever Marriage, came out.

Bur after two decades as an award-winning editor, she got bumped out of a deflating market and has spent the last few years struggling to get back in. It's painful to watch, the hope and serially lowered expectations and near misses. But she remains resilient. Always pleasant, cautiously optimistic. And every once in a while, she reminds me of how we met.

"Three years after I rejected you, you came out with a novel," she'll say with a smile. "I've had tons of rejection lately. So I figure I'm about due."