Lessons gleaned from early failures, by Deb Katie

Whenever anyone asks me how I got my start writing, it comes out that I went to an arts high school. It wasn’t strictly a performing arts school, although all the rich old ladies who donated money seemed to want it to be. No, in addition to music, theatre, and dance, we had the counterculture Visual Arts department and the somewhat less glamorous Communication Arts.

I loved my time in high school, as I’ve mentioned before, and I can’t imagine spending my formative teen years anywhere else. I graduated as a veritable poster child for my department, and went on to a career directly shaped by my instruction there.

But here’s a little secret:

The first time I auditioned for the school, I was rejected.

Yes, I remember it well… it was seventh grade, and I was trying out for the visual arts and communication arts departments.

As for the visual, well… I’m a passable artist. I do very well at Pictionary, and I think I have a pretty good sense of visual balance. But as for a destiny as a fine artist, perhaps not. It seems that not only my talents but my temperament were aiming me elsewhere. All I remember from the audition is drawing the still life in the center of the room, finishing early, getting bored, and deciding to color it in gray and then make the background rainbow stripes. So.

Where were we? Ah, yes. My communications audition. See, this is where my heart really lay anyhow. I had started writing not just one, but two books, at some point in seventh grade. One was a Star Trek-inspired space epic about a girl named Kayli (and I seriously thought I had invented that name, by the way) who finds herself in all sorts of trouble. At the same time, I was writing a sort of Gossip Girl thing about the actors who played the roles of all the people in my other book on a show–like Star Trek! Get it? The whole thing was very existential. Poor Kayli never knew she was just a primetime character.

I’m getting to my point, I swear. I wrote hundreds of pages, longhand, in these books–filling tiny flimsy notebook after notebook, and as a way to show my dedication to my art, I decided to turn in the notebooks as part of my portfolio.

I guess I had a vision of myself dumping the books on the table and watching the awed reactions of the selection panel as they raised their arms to the heavens and shouted, “Yes! Yes! At last!”

Well, not so much. We had to turn our portfolios in early, so what I did was, I took my precious notebooks (just the Kayli story–which I probably called something like Space Journey) and dumped them into a duffel bag. Then I turned the duffel bag in as my portfolio, along with two short stories I’d written–one of which ended with, “It was all a dream!” and the other of which was about a mafia hitman named Marty Gelding who gets double-crossed at the end and dies.

So, shock of all shocks, the rainbow still life and the duffel bag full of notebooks failed to impress, and I was resoundingly rejected.

I had dealt with rejection before in my life–never did get a speaking part in the school plays, was the 16th-best girl at tryouts for the 15-player basketball team, and so on and so on.

But this rejection was different.

Because I wanted this. Some part of me knew I wanted to be a writer.

So I spent the next year working on my school’s literary magazine, writing up a storm (a typhoon of bad poetry and a maelstrom of questionable fiction), and preparing for the next year’s audition.

This time, I didn’t rest on my desire as a means of getting in. I actually did a little research. When I went for the audition, I had a tidy binder of well-written material, including an essay on how to care for your eyes and a short story about recycling written in second-person. I recited “America the Beautiful” and told the selection panel I wanted to be a writer.

(I also re-auditioned for Visual, though when, in the interview, they asked if I had done any modeling, I didn’t realize they meant “clay” and answered with something about getting brochures for the Barbizon School. I also auditioned for theatre that year, and failed to impress with my soulful monologue about a down-and-out jazz singer.)

But those rejections (do I need to say they were rejections? They were.), it turns out, didn’t bug me, because I made it into the Communications Department.

The moral of my story applies to writing thusly:

It’s not enough to want something badly. That is a wonderful start, but you have to make yourself into somebody who is ready for success.

artbowSometimes writers get excited about first drafts and send off queries before they’ve done enough revising (=notebooks). Sometimes writers don’t follow the submissions guidelines (=notebooks in a duffel bag). Sometimes writers try too hard to write in a genre or category that doesn’t suit them, because they think it’s what editors want to read (=jazzy monologue). And sometimes a book just isn’t what anybody is looking for (=still life à la rainbow), and the writer needs to put it in a drawer and get to work on something else.

But the important thing is, the initial rejection didn’t keep me from cleaning up my act and getting back in the game. What’s more, I learned a lot by going to my same old junior high for one more year. That one year probably influences more of my writing than any other time period.

So put yourself out there, put your best work out there. And if they knock you down, get back up and try again. But don’t forget to take a good, honest look at yourself between tries.

~ Katie Alender

PS – One day in eleventh grade, during lunch, I was called to the office, where I was presented with my duffel bag full of binders, which had been living at the school for four years! I’m not sure I remember what I did with them after that. But wherever she is, I hope Kayli never figured out that it was all a dream.

15 Replies to “Lessons gleaned from early failures, by Deb Katie”

  1. Great story, Katie. I liked how you came back (after a little research) and showed ’em. That’s the way to turn rejection to your advantage (as opposed to curling up in a ball and giving up). You were clearly meant to be a writer!

  2. This story is so funny and poignant, and recognizable!

    I’ve got tons of high school rejection stories I can tell but none as uplifting and funny as yours. (I auditioned for a citywide youth orchestra in middle school and got rejected…but because I was first alternate, I got in when someone else dropped out. That left me last chair in the second violins, right in front of the kettle drum. It was a humbling — and noisy! — experience.)

  3. High school is filled with rejection–from colleges, other high schoolers, mall jobs… I think of the happy arrogance it took for me to show up with a bag of handwritten notebooks, and I just have to laugh at myself.

    Right in front of the kettle drum! I can’t imagine. Can you still hear at all? 😉

  4. Huh, what was that? Speak up, Katie!

    Actually, it was really funny when we were running through one of the pieces for the first time and there was this huge booming strike of the drum right behind me. It startled me so badly my bow went sailing out of my hand and someone else had to hand it back to me. After that I knew it was coming and could brace myself.

  5. I think we’ve all gone through the ‘It was all just a dream’ writing phase. I remember mine. I was sooo excited to read my story in front of the class. “Oh boy, Mrs. Bruni won’t know what hit her!” Gotta love those teachers, though. Probably been teaching for twenty+ years, and every year she’s got at least two ‘It was all just a dream’ stories, but makes you feel like you’ve just written a Pulitzer.

    PS: I just received my first rejection letter. I feel… like I’ve moved up a step if that makes any sense. Now I’m in the rejection phase, and hopefully the acceptance phase isn’t too far off.

  6. Jason, that makes me think, if I were a teacher, I’d assign a story that was some sort of twist on the “It was all just a dream” convention. Like, “Oh, it was all just a dream!” and then the man-eating robots come in and say, “No, it was not all a dream, delicious human!”

    Or something along those lines!

    Congratulations on your first rejection letter, LOL. It appears our topic this week is timely. I like your philosophical attitude about it!

  7. This is a great story, Katie, and you should have taken even more time to tell it. S

    ome day, it would be a great idea to put all the rejection stories of authors into an anthology so that all the writer hopefuls out there can see that it isn’t a spontaneous, glorious process that just starts itself. Sure, it’s been done before, but the more of these stories, the better. I think I’m clawing my way out of the notebooks-in-a-duffel-bag stage myself, but I’ve certainly done every inappropriate thing in the book.

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