Written by Karen Rile
Published: October 3, 2013 at 7:15 PM [UTC]
A FLY ON THE WALL
In my college-level writing seminars, the most valuable lesson I teach isn’t about the craft of fiction. It’s about rejection, something every artist, every musician, every writer needs to deal with to move forward.
Several times during the semester, I ask the students to email me their homework a few hours early instead of bringing it to class. Let’s say the assignment of the week is to write a 200-word story. This is an exercise that’s tougher than it sounds because it takes a bit of skill to create a coherent, readable narrative in such a short space. When the emails arrive, I format a handout with all fifteen submissions presented anonymously in random order.
And then we have our little competition.
Here’s how it works. The students read the submissions aloud, taking turns around a circle. After each reading, the group critiques the story for style, substance, literary effect, and how well it fulfilled the criteria of the assignment. (According to the instructions, the miniature stories must contain exactly 200 words, and must start with a assigned phrase. Last year’s was “Because the sun…”). These peer critiques are honest and fair—and less diplomatic than when the author’s name is at the top of the page. Students tell me later that it’s hard to listen to their anonymous work critiqued by the group.
After all fifteen stories are considered, the real lesson begins. The students’ job now is to pick three “winners”: first, second, and third place. The rest are "rejected". There are two rules: 1, as a group, they must first determine their criteria for judging, and 2, the decisions must be made by consensus.
The class digs into to the task. Discussion is deep and heated. Someone’s favorite entry has only 197 words. Should it be disqualified categorically? Some think that the plot of #7 is exciting and fresh; others complain it has a hackneyed style. #11 uses language lyrically but, say others, there is no structure; it’s a vignette, not a real story. Which is more important, form or content?
Compromise is hard work. Our seminar is three hours long, but the minutes have flown by, and as it nears five PM, everyone is still pleading and bargaining for their favorites. They are exhausted, but they refuse to stop until the winners are picked. And why are they behaving like this, exactly? Not out of self interest because no one ever advocates for their own piece. (That would be just too embarrassing when the winning authors are revealed.) They do it from a sense of righteousness, and because they care about their art. But it’s just so darn difficult to come to an agreement about about aesthetics.
Sure, once in a while there is a clear, hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark brilliant winner. But for the most part, the three winners turn out to be pieces that unambiguously fulfill all the criteria of the assignment. They are the clean, well-copyedited pieces. The safe pieces. Those risky, inventive, exciting outliers rarely make it through the adjudication process.
Musicians, does this sound familiar?
Like you, for the rest of their creative lives, my students will be offering up work for judgement. I want them to see with their own eyes the slender margin between an editor's acceptance or rejection. I want them to witness that many of the non-winners had advocates among our committee. That they were argued for (and against). That they had the power to stir passionate debate (isn’t that one of the goals of art?)
I also want them to see how arbitrary factors, such as the order of the presentation, affected the reception of their pieces. If we take a break after 75 minutes of discussion, the stories that were discussed just before, when everyone’s caffeine and blood-sugar levels were flagging, have a tendency to be dismissed in favor of pieces reviewed after everyone emerges, refreshed, from Starbucks. It's plain bad luck to be evaluated before lunch. But factors like these are completely out of your control. (For more on this topic, check out this New York Times essay on “decision fatigue.”)
When we win a competition, be it literary, musical, or even a job interview, we’re buoyed with confidence. We celebrate the validation without worrying about what went on behind those closed doors. We don’t stop to imagine a scenario in which our win was the result of a compromise, that we were nobody’s first choice. Yet when we don't win, our insecurities burgeon, and the temptation is to deny our own artistic worth. It’s easy to take away the message: I suck. They all hated me. Why did I even try?
When my daughter was getting ready to audition for conservatories, she had a lesson with a famous teacher who told her, frankly, “As a panel, we would never all have the same opinion on a performer's interpretation of Bach or Mozart. So we base decisions on the objective qualities of the audition that we can all agree on: intonation and rhythm."
This is a valuable insight, easily misinterpreted. The point is not that you should strip your audition to bare technique. Yes: prepare yourself to play well. Yes, play with musicality and heart. But remember that not being accepted is not a repudiation of your hard work, skill, or talent.
Any time art is chosen by a committee, what rises to the top are the candidates that everyone can agree on when it’s time to go home. There’s a big difference between losing and simply not-winning. Sometimes you weren’t rejected; you simply weren’t chosen.
This is an important lesson for us all. Thank you for so clearly stating it. Sometimes it seems as if it is all or nothing when futures are on the line when, in essence, it was really just not our day to be chosen. It's not a personal reflection, no matter how much it feels like it.
Her response so clearly demonstrates how we can't know how our work was received. Keeping this in mind will help us not to lose momentum after a disappointing result.
Auditions were a strong suit of mine, and I didn't experience being rejected or not chosen. Had I decided to go pro, I would undoubtedly have had to face this. Like one of your daughters, I chose violin early but decided -- before the end of school, in fact -- not to make a living in music. Unlike her, I continue to play. Like her, I can attest that early music training positively shapes one's life and carries over well to other activities.
"… the producer … liked my rejected pieces -- submitted months before -- but they didn't fit with their bills and available actors."
This parallels my experience as a freelance writer. I first found out how tough it is to get pieces published on op-ed pages. Op-eds have to fit the publisher's editorial needs of the moment. A major event -- hurricane, outbreak of war -- can bar the door or push your material off the page overnight. But as Krista mentioned, "Sometimes … it was really just not our day to be chosen … not a personal reflection." Persistence paid off. Beginning about 2 months after the first attempt, I did get several pieces published in a 16-month period.
"… to write a 200-word story … is an exercise that's tougher than it sounds because it takes a bit of skill to create a coherent, readable narrative in such a short space."
Oh, and how! Some of us know the story of the man who wrote a 5-page letter -- with an apology to the recipient: "Sorry -- I didn't have time to write a shorter one."
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