Here’s a guest post from Bluestem Magazine contributor Carolyn Zaikowski. Her work can be found in the September 2011 online issue.
There’s a copious amount of lovely advice from veteran writers about handling rejection. Not so copious are musings about what gets triggered when work is accepted. The acknowledgement that acceptance, too, can be swathed in the life-debris of one’s personal psychology or social environment is not a conversation that’s often had. It’s assumed that acceptance is a euphoric pinnacle, the exhale after epic ascents up the publishing mountain, or, in some cases—especially when full manuscripts are at play—the unadulterated manifestation of a dream.
I’m sure many experience acceptances this way, and that’s beautiful. This anecdote is an offering to those who’ve had a more complicated experience. I wish to announce that yes, it’s okay and normal to have shameful, complicated, even panic-stricken reactions to acceptance!
My reaction to having my first manuscript accepted triggered more emotional unfurlings than any rejection I’ve ever received. I’m positive I can’t be the only one whose reaction to an acceptance was so thorny. My first manuscript, a semi-experimental/hybrid novel called A Child is Being Killed, was rejected so many times. This had to do with the usuals: Bad timing; presses that didn’t fit; editors who didn’t have the resources to publish everything they wanted; the fact that the book deals with traumatic themes and is written in a style some find inaccessible. I was about to stop submitting it and toss it in my locked chest—I actually have a locked chest—filled with discarded journals and writing projects.
When it was actually accepted, I started shaking and crying, not in the way that’s associated with excitement or a dream coming true, but the kind that accompanies having experienced trauma, sudden events that break the safety of your assumed narrative. The kind of shaking and crying that takes place in your reptilian brain, where physiological panic is activated. Unfortunately, you can’t logic yourself out of this state. When you’ve learned to be terrified of surprises, even happy ones, you hold body-memories of good things gone awry. The unpredictable pains of my past don’t make me special, but they’re why I’m panicked by surprises. To my survival’s biology, it just doesn’t register that happy surprises are different from terrible ones.
Meanwhile, my pre-frontal lobe was blasting meta-commentaries, summoning shame. The thing I wanted was going to happen, but I couldn’t navigate it happily—simply put, I felt like a brat. But I’ve learned there’s great risk in trusting, then handing oneself over, to happiness. Weary hearts know that something good or safe can be taken away on a whim. Often it feels safer to not bother with, or believe in, the good thing at all. These were not histrionic, self-indulgent notions; they were sincere veils upon my experience of being accepted. I only truly accepted my acceptance and consented to happiness when I held the book, the physical proof, in my hands over a year later.
Twisting this story further was my living situation at the time. When my book was accepted, I was living in a safe-house in Thailand, teaching undocumented Burmese political exiles. One of my Burmese students had been valiantly studying and writing essays for a lengthy application to a democracy studies training program from which she’d been rejected three times. She kept applying because, if she didn’t get accepted now, she’d be forced to return to the sweatshop she’d worked at most of her life as a child slave, sewing clothes for hours a day in violent conditions for little to no money. In the most profound way, this was her final chance. She’d taped her application pages to her walls. She’d stayed up nights obsessing, knocking on my door to practice her interviews and make sure the English in her essays was flawless. This situation was unspeakable—and not comparable, by any stretch, to anything I’ll ever contend with, even in my worst moments.
One morning, she burst into my room, shaking, in tears, carrying a laptop. All she could manage was a stilted mutter about needing me to read her email. She had been accepted. She asked if it was real or a cruel joke, if she was reading wrong, if they’d accepted the wrong person, if they were going to realize and take back their promise.
The very next day, I got my acceptance email. I found her, asked her quietly to read it. Asked her, in a clandestine voice, if I’d seen it right, if it was an awful mistake. She hugged me. For a bit, we shook and cried together.
There’s simply no escaping the vast, unjust gap between the violent, international political oppression that constantly threatened to destroy her, and my privilege to return home to relative comfort and the nearly absurd elitism of a book publication. She, too, deserves to tell her story, has risked her life repeatedly to tell it. Still, she had generous, real love and happiness for me. And I for her. My personal history and the agitated trenches of my nervous system interacted so perplexingly with our context, my glaring privilege, and my desire to honor her emotional generosity and our connection.
I can’t come to conclusions about any of this. Self-condemnations regarding melodrama, plus simplistic guilt over my privilege, are the easy way out. The only thing I can think to offer, which feels excruciatingly incomplete, is that being alive is so vastly permeated by having and not having. The conditions matter in which we are accepted or rejected. When we get or don’t get to tell our stories, personal and social histories are at play, matrix-like, whether or not we know or admit it. Maybe what matters is that we just keep fighting on behalf of the exquisiteness, the inherent worth, of our own and each others’ stories. The world needs to be safe enough for newly told stories—especially when, like my student’s story, they’re the literal ones of life and death.