–by Katherine Riegel
1. I got one rejection yesterday (all rejections come by email these days) and promptly forgot it. Then two this morning, and I remembered yesterday’s like a stone thrown into a well.
2. Chinese restaurants used to have paper mats with the Chinese zodiac on them—I always wanted to be a Horse—with little descriptions for each animal. For mine, the Monkey, it said some stuff about being clever (which I suppose I am, though I’m terrible at riddles), and then “is easily discouraged.” Oh, how that used to make me mad! Because of course we remember the negative. Because of course I had to wonder, “Am I easily discouraged? What a terrible character trait.”
3. Now in my forties, I can admit that I am easily discouraged. When I get rejections of my poems and essays, my first thought is, “Well, this is another sign that I’ll never be a successful writer. I should just give up.” I immediately try to think of other careers, other ways to be in the world. I fantasize about winning the lottery and putting all my writing energy into just reading—an inarguably noble pursuit, supporting other writers and enlarging my own soul.
4. On the other hand, I got my MFA in poetry at 23. I am now, as I said, in my forties (despite my insistence every year on celebrating my “39th birthday”). I’m still writing. Still sending out my work. Still teaching, earning a middling-pathetic salary (not the slave wages of adjunct work, but not the mostly middle-class salary of tenure track professors, either). After all these years, I may have earned the right to throw feces at that phrase “easily discouraged,” like any good monkey.
5. The truth: I am in love with every new poem I write. Even if I ultimately decide the poem isn’t very good, in the first flush of writing, I love it. I don’t love it because I think it’s good, or because I think I’m clever, or because I think it’s going to get published in Poetry magazine. I love it because one more time I pushed against my own urge to keep silent. One more time, I persuaded myself that my voice was important enough to merit my time and effort. One more time, I tried hard to say something that was complex and confusing and true, something about myself and the world that struck the deep gong in my chest and resonated. I love that new poem because it took courage to write at all.
6. There are so many reasons to keep silent, to not write, to not try to publish. Some reasons are the needs of others and our need to show our love: dogs, cats, sisters, brothers, parents, children, lovers, friends, students, causes. Some reasons are the world showering us with glittery and grim distractions: television, advertisements, buying, envying, car repairs, doctors visits, insurance. Some reasons feel like thrown hammers, and make us crouch down, try to be as small as possible, to minimize the bruising. Those reasons are usually found inside, in the dark places started by a seed of unkindness or neglect near-forgotten in our pasts and having grown terrifying. Rejection—impersonal as it truly is, and I say this as an editor as well as a writer—tends to pick up the terror of those dark places and hit us with more force than we can rationally explain.
7. And so we get discouraged. We eat that pint of salted caramel gelato. We lament on social media, and gratefully accept the kind words of those we know. We go back to bed at 10 in the morning, or we don’t. We make lists. We make schedules.
8. I don’t know how to end this. When it comes to poems, I’m a sucker for a great ending. I want that dive and swoop of understanding, that punch of image. I want to give that to you, here. I want to send you away wiser, changed.
9. I don’t know how to do that.
10. When it comes to submission and rejection, speech and silence, motion and stasis, hope and resignation, it’s all a big cycle. I can’t provide the answer to interrupting the cycle. You’ll go through it all. So will I. Again, and again. That’s the wheel we’re caught in, my darlings. All I can say is that this Monkey is choosing, again, today, this moment, not to hop off the wheel. We’re going around and around— beautifully, painfully—together.