Months ago, my seven-year-old climbed into the car, long faced and teary eyed. "Charlie doesn't want to be my friend," he blurted, before burying his face in his little hands. At first, I gave him a few clichéd parental responses about how people's opinions of us don't really matter. When that didn't work, I pulled out a tried and tested fable we cite regularly to our kids. We call it the "shopping for fruit" story. Alec, our eleven-year-old, has heard it so often that his eyes roll to the back of his head every time it's mentioned, but Vaughn, our seven-year-old, is still at that magical age where everything I say is wise and good and wondrously relevant. (Anyone have a freeze gun?)
Whenever one of our boys gets rejected by a friend or gets a no he wasn't expecting, we remind him that he is a ripe juicy apple and the person saying no is either allergic to apples, can't handle any more fiber, or, more likely, just felt like eating oranges that day. Rejection is rarely personal, we tell them. It has very little to do with what's being chosen or not chosen, and everything to do with the person choosing.
"It's subjective, honey," I told Vaughn.
"Like your rejection letters, Mommy?" he said, eyes wet.
Though he is only seven, our youngest is well aware of the red folder full of rejection letters that sits in one corner of our kitchen. In my quest to get an agent for my novel, I tried desperately to publish a short story in a literary journal. There are over forty no's in that red folder, and another thirty listed in a spreadsheet I keep of electronic submissions. By the time I finished my novel, I had received a rejection letter from almost every literary journal in the country, and a few from Canada.
Though I knew most would be rejections, I always opened these slim envelopes in front of my children. I'd tear away at my own handwriting, remembering the hope with which I'd dutifully self-addressed and stamped each one. (That's right, I pay for my rejections. How sadomasochistic is that?) Why? Because I wanted them to see me fail and get back up again, to go for what I wanted despite what the world thought. I wanted them to know that Mommy and Daddy get no's too. The no's don't magically disappear when you become an adult, you just learn to deal with them better. More importantly, I wanted them to know that the no's are what inevitably leads to a glorious yes and then more yeses, until you reach someplace vaguely labeled "success."
A few weeks after the Charlie incident, I opened yet another letter from a literary journal. The journal, which shall remain nameless, hadn't even bothered to insert the form rejection letter into the envelope, so all I got was a self-addressed envelope with nothing in it. I wanted to cry. The boys watched my face crumple, and then Vaughn whipped out the "shopping for fruit" story. Alec, our oldest, tried to persuade me that it wasn't personal. Some intern or editor simply forgot to include the form rejection letter.
Here's the thing. None of it made me feel any better. How could I explain that this rejection was not about me, but my writing, something I thought I was good at? I could no longer hold back the tears. What if my writing isn't a juicy apple at all. What if it looks and smells more like a rotten, worm-infested kiwi? Seeing me cry, my seven-year-old dragged a chair to where I was standing, and climbing it, wrapped his fleshy arms around my neck.
"It's okay, Mommy," he whispered. "We like your fruit."
I laughed. My mind went back to the afternoon of the Charlie incident. How inadequate my words must have felt to Vaughn, who was, in a way, suffering from a broken heart.
I realized then, that personal or not, rejection stings and it's okay to allow yourself to feel that sting, at least for a little while. I vowed that the next time one of my kids got rejected, I'd wrap my arms around them and give them what they really need: empathy.
A few weeks after the empty envelope incident, I received the mighty yes I'd been waiting for all along. Glimmer Train, one of my favorite literary journals, chose one of my stories as a finalist for the Short Story Award for New Writers. There was a lot of screaming with glee that day. We jumped on beds, (yes, all four of us) and toasted each other with apple cider and champagne. My boys celebrated that yes passionately and with abandon because they knew about all the no's I'd received in my journey to publication. I've had a few more mighty yeses since then. And that red folder? It's still somewhere in our kitchen. I keep it there to remind me to keep my fruit stories to myself.