Last week I opened an email that began, “Unfortunately, Joanna, you did not win…” It was lottery tickets to see Hamilton, which just opened in Seattle. The tickets have been at scalper’s prices since like five seconds after they went on sale. This lottery is my best hope of seeing what some have called the best work of art they’ve ever seen while it’s in town.
I sighed. And submitted my name for the next day’s lottery.
Later, another email: “We had many qualified candidates that applied, but unfortunately we could only select one…” That stung. It had been a long shot, but when I had clicked “send” on that application, it felt like I’d released it straight at the bullseye. I hadn’t even heard back from them before this.
And then it all began to snowball. I found myself trawling emails from two years ago when my first book was out on submission. My agent reported back about the “really regretful and complimentary rejections” we received over those agonizing months. As well as that special form of rejection: the ones who stopped responding. The ghosts who leave you never knowing if there still might be a possibility, or if you were simply too unremarkable to warrant a response. Maudlin, I remembered even farther back to fellowships and residencies I’d not been granted. Grad programs that didn’t accept me. Ex-boyfriends, fruitless auditions, lost causes.
By the time I got into bed, my chest felt concave with burden. Not even sure what I was sad about, I lay beside my husband in the dark and felt deep pools of tears gather in the hollow at the bridge of my nose until I fell into unrestful dreams.
The next morning on my way to work, I drove past a house that I had once applied to rent. It was gorgeous—a turn of the century craftsman with built-ins and lead-paned windows. It was five years ago. We had been renting a condo that the bank was foreclosing on: the upshot of our landlord’s messy divorce. Our little family of four (our youngest still an infant) was soon to be homeless if we didn’t find somewhere else to live. The Seattle housing bubble had decidedly popped and rents were priced to pay upside-down mortgages.
This house had everything I dreamed of, and we could afford it. I made sure to charm and chat up the landlords at the open house to ensure our application was chosen—only to discover the next day that they always accepted the first viable application they received. Several had been turned in while I had stood there gushing.
I was furious and disappointed. But eventually I had to admit that the house wasn’t exactly ideal. If you walked out the front door and across a grassy median, you would find yourself on the city’s most crime-ridden highway. The closest neighbors were an office building and a 24-hour pharmacy. Around that time, a girl had been nearly abducted on her way to school less than two blocks away.
Losing that house was what finally pushed us out of renting and into buying. We ended up in a 1920’s farmhouse with a third of an acre of trees and grass for our children to make worlds in and neighbors we adore. The rejection forced us toward something we lacked the courage to do before.
As I prepared to teach my classes that morning, I ran into someone else’s rejection. I teach Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and she mentions offhandedly in her afterward the many manuscripts before Wizard that came back from publishers “with a dull thud on the doormat.” It’s like a telegram from the trenches: rejection is just an unavoidable casualty of writing. These books we once believed were beautiful: we could not save them. We wrote on.
LeGuin’s presence, like an elder sister, seemed to place gentle hands on my shoulders and say: Even if rejection doesn’t push you toward some better path, rejection can also be a blade that sunders the desired from the essential. It clarifies what it is you really want, what you’re willing to keep doing even if it doesn’t yield the results you hoped for. In Big Magic, Liz Gilbert says this: “You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.”
I wept when I read these words.
While this exhortation might apply more to artistic pursuits than to, say, Hamilton tickets, it’s ultimately true. Sometimes rejection makes us release what we were never meant to have, but sometimes we discover that the only yes that really matters is our own.
Last week I was in a coffeeshop on a week night, in a library carrel on Saturday—back at work on my current manuscript, which is something I believe in infinitely more than any vote of confidence from a stranger.
And as for Hamilton, the lottery may never choose me, and I may not suddenly come up with a cool $500 to see the show before it leaves town. But it will probably be back. Or I’ll be in New York. And the hotness of this ticket can’t last forever. Remember when Cats! was all the rage?
J.M. RODDY is a freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, a mother of two, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.