Wednesday, December 29, 2010
The Open Door
2 April 2009
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph's Chapel, Kent School
I wrote this chapel talk, just yesterday, with our seniors in mind, the class of 2009. But I think it has broad applications for all of us, for anybody who has a passion and encounters obstacles in the pursuit of that passion. My talk tonight is about rejection, which is an experience that all of you will have in life; with the college process most certainly – and with the shape your life takes when you begin to follow your dreams. Following your dreams. Despite all the pragmatic talk about the economy right now, I believe that people who follow their dreams are the ones who will change the world, and shape the future.
But let’s get back to rejection, there’s no happy ending, not yet.
I have been doing something like a five year independent study in the field of rejection, the scope of which will surprise even some of my closest friends and colleagues. In order for me to share tonight my unusual and quirky wisdom about rejection, I will have to reveal my life secret to you. Now, no one should be worried or nervous, faculty members all have complex and intriguing personal lives (and if you don’t, you should get one, they’re still available). We weren’t always on study hall or weekend duty. There was a time when we wrote poems, not just comments. There were nights when we dreamed big dreams, had visions that could change the world.
As you know my day (and night) job is as the chaplain of Kent School. But my other night job is writing novels. I have written two novels, the second of which I am actively trying to sell. And here begins your entry point into my secret and disturbing anthropological study in the field of rejection.
Ok, get ready for it.
I have been rejected 423 times. Let me say again. 423 rejection letters. Seniors, compadres, you may know some of the language, the rhetoric of these rejection letters, but my favorites always begin with “Dear Author.” The personal touch always lightens the blow, right? It’s better than “Dear Jerk,” so who’s complaining? I am. I am that jerk. When I reached 100 rejections, I knew I was on an epic journey, so I kept precise statistics on my rejections. I could wallpaper my house with them, then. Now I can wallpaper the entire school. When I walk the halls in the dorms, I read with interest, and compassion, the rejections letters to our seniors. The impulse, the tradition, to put them on the walls is a very healthy one, I believe.
I will offer tonight the wisdom of my rejection experience (it is not insignificant), but stay with me for a moment, linger in this darkest place of human suffering that only a real romantic or the next Unabomber could withstand. What would it be like to be rejected 423 times? What kind of person would keep trying? I have had to answer these very disturbing questions because I am just that kind of person, and I hope you can be too, in whatever your chosen field is. You will succeed, wildly. Some of these rejections come in the mail, some by e-mail, which the colleges seem to like these days. Some are thoughtful about my work, some have no idea who I am, or what I have written. Some people never get back to you. It is not just a dog eat dog world—it’s a dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls world…There are several people – big shots in New York City – who began reading my manuscript in 2004, and I’m still waiting to hear from them. I have been addressed by the wrong name in a rejection letter, and even by a woman’s name. Interesting. Good to see somebody’s doing their homework; I do have a strong feminine side.
So what happened on the 424th time? Has anyone wondered that tonight? I got a literary agent, a contract, someone to represent me in my Don Quixote quest for justice and beauty. I was rejected 423 times by just agents. Now, I get to be rejected by editors. That’s progress, huh? But what about this agent of mine? Is she a chic female agent working in Manhattan, wearing fabulous clothes, with long legs and brains, somebody who reads manuscripts on her weekends in the Hamptons? Nope. My literary agent lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She’s a grandmother, and a big Kansas basketball fan. And now we get rejected by publishers. We get rejected together. I am approaching 500 rejections now, but I haven’t been to the mailbox today.
So what have I learned? I must ask, and certainly, answer that question before anyone gets too depressed tonight. But, perhaps, even the seniors are starting to smile. I hope so. You can even laugh at my experience. I have, it’s better than crying. What have I learned? I have learned that perseverance is absolutely essential to any success in life. It may be more important than talent. At any other point in my life, I could never have gone through an experience like this. It would have devastated me when I was younger. My first novel was rejected ten times in the 1990s, and that was enough to get me to quit trying. Now I know I will never quit. And I absolutely treasure the stories out there of people who keep going in the face of significant rejection. Nobody was looking for novels about a school for wizards in England, but now Harry Potter is here to stay in our world, an indelible part of your childhood. But there was a time when J.K. Rowling was rejected by everyone. There was a time when she was even homeless. There’s perseverance.
But perseverance is not blind faith, and faith should never be blind anyway. The hardest thing I ever did was this: I began listening very carefully to the criticisms of my writing, the thoughtful rejection letters anyway. It is easy to lampoon the publishing business, an industry that will radically change in this economic crisis. But, as I began to take my rejections seriously, a strange thing happened. The book got better, much better. It was a difference of night and day, lead and gold. It is one thing to find a mysterious gem in your own creative process, in the middle of the night, it is quite another to polish that stone for years. Adversity takes on a presence, a power; it becomes part of you, you don’t have to fear it anymore. You become its master; you become adversity. I don’t want to bore you tonight with English teacher talk about the writing process, but editing is the surest way to becoming a better writer, and perseverance has made me a better person, not just a better writer. Working every day at your craft is the best way to become an artist, an accepted force in the world.
A rejection letter seems like a door that is closed. It seems like a door that will never be opened to you. It seems like a judgment of you ability and worth as a person. This chapel talk is not about happy endings for those who persevere, it’s about much more, and much less. I don’t know if I will get a happy ending, but I am enjoying, more than ever, being a member of the human race. I am enjoying the written word, and literature, written art, continues to delight and dazzle me with possibility every day. I don’t stay up at night worrying about the economy. I worry about art and artists, and I pray for them. I dream dreams. I like my craft, and my challenge. I like working with all of you. I like this place we share, and we should not take it for granted. And I am having an extraordinary journey, with my fire hazard of rejection letters along for the ride. I would never trade my experience for an early or easy success, when I could be so much more through suffering. The closed door has opened me to the heavens, the stars beyond, above my own small architecture of rejection. I think this is how God works in our lives, in mysterious ways, especially in our mistakes and disappointments. The closed door can point you in a remarkable new direction.
When a door is closed to you, another one is opened at the very same time. That is the mystery, and the possibility, of rejection. Sometimes it is a better door than the one you wanted to go through in the first place. Sometimes you are knocking on a sacred space that is not a door yet, but it will be in the future, because of you – because of your presence in the world. Keep knocking, someone will listen.