The most devastating rejection I ever received came when I was a junior in college. I had been writing and submitting stories to magazines for about 9 months. I started a modest collection of form letter rejection slips, but already I thought of myself as a writer.
I was minoring in journalism and since journalism fell under the creative writing umbrella, I opted to take some creative writing classes as electives. One such class was a with professor Stephen Minot. I was clear from the start that I wanted to be a science fiction writer. Professor Minot came up in the literary fiction tradition. He was a fan of Raymond Carver. I can still recall him reading to us aloud Carver’s short story, “Boxes.” He could not seem to understand why I’d want to write science fiction. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would write literary fiction. I imagine many creative writing students have experienced this.
This course was a kind of buffet of writing lectures and exercises. One of these exercises was poetry. I have never thought of myself as a poet. I don’t understand most poetry, but I am much more comfortable with metered verse than I am with free verse. Naturally, our assignment was to write a free verse poem which would be critiqued by our classmates.
I wrote a poem called “Train of Thought” which was about nothing more than a train ride I’d taken once from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. In the middle of the night, as we hurtled through the desert, my brother and I were certain we could see wolves racing up to the track, and then running back, as if they were trying to chase the train. It was all in our imagination, but it kept us entertained. I wrote my free verse poem about that train ride.
When I got it back from Professor Minot, before the class critique, he was in raptures over it. I got an A+. I was surprised, but delighted to write something that the professor actually liked. I had been nervous about the class critique, and Professor Minot’s feedback boosted my confidence and made me feel good about what I’d written.
Up to this point, I’d collected perhaps a dozen rejection slips from the magazines. This included the science fiction magazines, but also magazines like Cat Fancy (“Cat Fancy does not publish fiction about cats.”) and Playboy. The thing about the rejection slips is that there was essentially an audience of two: me, and the editor or slush reader who rejected my story. No big deal. And, of course, I never took them personally.
The creative writing class critiqued my poem, and for the most part, they hated it. They tore it apart. Cheap imagery, clichéd, unclear. You name it, they said it, and the opinion was pretty much unanimous. I could deal with it. I was, after all, a writer, and I’d received real rejection slips from real magazines. It wasn’t the best critique but my ego survived.
When the last student had finished, Professor Minot turned to me, and in front of the whole class, said, “Jamie, having listened to what your classmates have said about your poem, I have reconsidered my own opinion about it. And I’m afraid I have to agree with them. It stinks.” I may be doing him an injustice here. He may have said, “It is terrible.”
The point is, he did this in front of the entire class. The class had no idea what grade he’d given me, only that he’d changed his mind about my poem, and that it was bad. That stung a little, but I smiled and sucked it up, and ultimately persevered in the class (and in my quest to sell stories). In all the rejections I have had since—whether from writing, job applications, you name it—the rejection I received that day from Professor Minot was the most devastating, and I survived it just fine.
I thought the poem I wrote for the class was lost forever, but it wasn’t. Poking around, I found it buried in an obscure corner of my file system. I reread it and I see a lot of what the class saw some 23 years ago when they critiqued it. But I believe it was the best possible poem I could have written at the time. I did not enjoy writing it, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the critique, so I haven’t written much poetry since. I am fine with this. It is important to know what you are not good at, especially when you don’t enjoy it.
In any case, here is the poem for which Professor Minot gave me an A+ on, and for which my creative writing classmates later convinced him that it was terrible.
Train of Thought
I watched closely and it followed
Though at a hundred miles and hour
I don’t know how —
Perhaps my weary eyes deceived me
Playing with the passing shadows
Of a sinking desert sun,
Which moved like a second-hand
To the clack of the tracks
Paining the desert sky
Plum pink and provocative.
I watched closely as the shadows loomed larger
Caught a glimpse of its thick gray coat
Charging through the underbrush
With a billow of smoke
Puffing out its mouth from the cooling air
Which slowly darkened
With the sinking sun
Until I lost sight of it
Disappearing in the dusty shade.
I strained my eyes to watch the dark desert
For a single glimpse of what I saw,
That my eyes had not deceived me
With deserted shadows,
And the constant clack of the track.
And from the corner of my eye
I spied it, a gray coat silhouetted by a graying sun,
Peeking up from behind the passing brush
I could not sleep though the lights were out
And the stars
Were hidden above a mountain tunnel,
Where sounds grew louder
The clack of the tracks
And the howl of the whistle
Of the wolf —
But I don’t know how.