Song #5 // Mitski, “Fireworks” [Puberty 2]

There are two of them that I can recall. Each one is roughly the size of a brick, and surprisingly nearly as heavy as one, too. Each is mostly white, billowing and fanned at the edges, and though strapped down with a red or green tie, still bulging at the middle.

Each time I think of those bricks I’m reminded of one of my favorite Hip lines:

We’ll live to survive our paradoxes

Those bricks, hidden away in the middle drawers of my old oaken writing desk now covered in a bed sheet in our storage shed, represent no less than 16 consecutive years of rejection. For me, rejection is a paradox even though I’ve spent nearly half my life cultivating a resistance to its effects.

Each brick contains dozens of envelopes containing single-page, short letters informing me that an anonymous committee carefully read my materials, was impressed by said materials, had to weigh said materials against their personal needs and those of other candidates, and have determined that those materials don’t fit their needs at this time. Sometimes they wish me luck in my career.

(Though it’s a fun game to read the letters and see how long they can go without referring to me through any use of a personal pronoun. My application, like my materials, is rejected far far more than I ever have been.)

It seems quaint to still have those letters now. I collected collegiate and publishing letterhead the way people used to collect stamps and coins. Early on I tried to save emails and other automated digital artifacts, but that lacked the sentimental appeal of those often hand-signed form letters arriving thinly to my many mailboxes over the last two decades.

The story may be apocryphal but I believe I started the routine after reading that Stephen King speared each rejection he ever received on a big nail in his office. While I never had a nail, I have to admit that I entertained romantic thoughts of one day plastering an office wall with my many rejection letters (perhaps posting just one acceptance letter on an opposite, spartan wall; who knows.)

But the paradox part comes into play when I consider just how much rejection I receive on a yearly, if not weekly, basis. Up until recently I was applying to dozens of jobs a year. Many I’d never hear back from. Some I’d receive a brief email. Some a letter. And some–some of the most dramatic–were ones where I’d go through a months-long process of interviewing and flying out to visit people, knowing along the way that I’d separated myself from 150+ other initial candidates to be one of the final three. I’d form relationships, build hopes, and begin plotting a new life. And then all of the handshakes, hugs, and phone calls ceded way to a thin envelope awaiting me at home after some anonymous workday. Finality.

In other words, in most cases I expect rejection as soon as I submitted. This isn’t just for jobs, either. As an active writer I’m constantly pitching stories to magazines, stories to publishers, and book ideas to agents. My hope is like one buying a lottery ticket. Of course I don’t have high expectations of winning but I have enough to go out and buy a ticket, and likewise enough to start daydreaming about how much I’d give away to charity and how much I’d spend on cowboy boots.

So as soon as I hit “send” I’m automatically rejected. The sliver of hope is a shot of dopamine that quickly drains.

And then a few weeks or months later it’s official, again. Rejection. Finality.

And somehow it’s soul-crushing all over again. Every single self-doubt comes to the fore. Every personal fault must be publicly owned. Every hopeful plan I had for the future must be scuttled as I reassess my bleak surroundings that seemed just fine only yesterday.

You don’t get used to rejection. Even when it’s commonplace and expected it still burns. My fingerprints are black and sooty with all of the hot ashes I’ve held in my hands over the years (including a particularly seething email received just this morning, two days after Christmas!)

But you learn to accept, if not the rejection itself, then the paradox of getting exactly what you expect and still feeling shocked.

We live to survive it.

This is an excerpt from my “Self, Help!” manuscript How to be a Good Dude.

I can hear Frank Sinatra mumbling from 6 below telling me to “Swing baby!” as I match this song with this entry, and as much as I can imagine the disdain for navel gazing and admit that mostly through some very potent drugs I’m able to avoid that action anymore I can still admire the emotion and motivation for lyrics such as:

I will go jogging routinely
Calmly and rhythmically run
And when I find that a knife’s sticking out of my side
I’ll pull it out without questioning why

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry

There’s a simple poetry here in noticing a paradox and moving forward. Stumbling just long enough to register the emotion as you keep running from something else.