You Can't Ride the Dingoes: What I learned about rejection from a childhood obsession with Australia
Thanks to the book "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day," I had, lets say... an affinity for Australia as a child.
Okay, I was obsessed.
So obsessed, in fact, that I once pretended my beanie baby family and I were going on a trip to Australia, where we were going to do all sorts of Australian things like:
-Eating Golden Grahams
-Riding dingoes across the beautiful landscape
-Probably something with kangaroos?
Despite the obsession, I only fixated on what I thought Australia was like, and I never actually researched it. Hence how I ended up hopping around the house on a couch pillow, claiming to be "riding a dingo."
In fifth grade, my teacher assigned each of us a country for a diorama project. Weeks before countries were distributed, I begged her for Australia. I probably even tried to bribe her. I had to have Australia, or my life would lose all meaning. Plus, I'd researched it some by then, and I could use my Zoobooks as a reference for the flora and fauna.
Reader, I--Got--Australia. It remains to this day one of my most cherished victories.
Until the time came to actually make the diorama.
Now, I'm a fairly creative person. I majored in "Creative Writing," and I was the kind of kid who changed the default settings on computers, mixed up the colored pieces on mechanical pencils, and... well... hopped around on a pillow pretending it was a dingo. So this was supposed to be a cinch. A creative like me? I could build this diorama in my sleep.
Except... I couldn't actually draw. And for some reason, the only thing I could think to do was to draw the animals, cut them out, and place them in a shoebox covered in brown paper with AUSTRALIA scribbled on the side in permanent marker. I recruited my artistically-inclined oldest sister, and by the time I went to bed the night before it was due, I felt pretty good about it.
I felt pretty good as I carried the shoebox to school. I still felt pretty good as I entered the classroom. Took my seat. Placed the box on my desk.
Then, I looked around at everyone else's dioramas. And reader, I didn't feel pretty good anymore.
What I'd thought had been a good idea--drawing the animals and making them into little two-dimensional standees like at the movie theater--was, in reality, the least creative approach I could have taken. The other kids had used animal toys in their dioramas. Lions, tigers, (not bears because they don't live in the same place)... Stuffed animals. Why hadn't I thought of that? I had a ton of stuffed animals? And I could've conned my way into a quick jaunt to the dollar store for those figurines. If only I'd thought of that, I wouldn't be sitting here with a paper box full of paper animals, feeling like I too was made of paper. Wishing I could float away in the breeze like an old post-it note or candy wrapper.
I went home that day and announced that I needed to "wash off the stench of failure," because I'd heard it on the Rugrats recently, and because it felt true. It didn't matter that my sister had given up her evening to help me with the artwork. It didn't matter that 24 hours ago, I was proud of what I'd done. It wasn't good enough now.
Now that I compared it to someone else's work. Now that I wasn't the only one determining its value.
That diorama was twenty years ago. I probably destroyed the thing during a shame spiral, so I no longer have my paper animals or the brown-paper-wrapped box with AUSTRALIA on its side. But I will always carry that project with me.
Through creative writing workshops in college, where That One Guy said my nonfiction piece was "boring" and he "didn't understand why the best friend would even like the narrator (who was me)", I carried that diorama. Through the one-page rant my professor gave me, detailing exactly how unbelievable and unsympathetic my story's main character was because it lacked any specific details whatsoever--as I sat in my beat-up
'92 Dodge Shadow and cried before I went into my apartment, I carried that diorama. Through unsuccessfully querying one book, applying to mentorship programs and getting rejected, querying more, writing and querying a new book, FINALLY getting an agent (I'll write a post about that one of these days), and being on submission.... that diorama is still here with me.
The thing is, while we might create on our own, the second we send our work out into the world, it stops being entirely ours. It's now open to ridicule, misinterpretation, scrutiny, and... yes, rejection. And it feels like I'm sitting at my desk, surveying the classroom of everyone's superior dioramas all over again.
But I've accepted a few things through this process: The narrator in my nonfiction piece was selfish and self-centered because I was too at the time. And yeah, my best friend probably could've done better, but we changed each other for the better in so many ways that didn't show up in that piece. My professor was right to criticize my lack of details. Seriously, it's like I was trying for this bare stage effect, where the only things you see are important and nothing else exists. And that doesn't work so well in a short story. Though I was (and still am) immeasurably proud of my first novel, it wasn't ready to be queried. If I want to see it on shelves, I'm going to need to revise it from the inside-out, and I'm just not there yet. I disagree with some of the rejections my second novel received through querying, but much of the feedback resonated with me and helped me in later revisions. And ALL of the feedback was valuable, whether I agreed or not.
Rejection hurts, but it doesn't change the work you put into your art or the pride you have in it. Maybe there is something in the story you need to change. Maybe you're too close to it to see that, or maybe that person's opinion just doesn't match your vision for the story in your head. Maybe you're sitting there with a paper diorama, looking around the room and wondering, "Why couldn't I do that?"
Here's the thing: You've already done that. Fellow writers, what you've created is miraculous. You've taken words from the air and made them into a story--your story. You are the only person who could've done that, exactly the way you have. It's practically alchemy. It might feel like flimsy paper animals to you, but to someone else, it's bursting with life and vegetation, and if you listen carefully, you can hear birds calling in the distance.
Whether you're applying to a mentorship program, or querying, or on submission, or any of the countless acts of torture we writers subject ourselves to... remember this: You made a diorama. And it's already incredible.