I published my first poem “Home is a Woman” in The Southern Review in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic.
Before that, I sent the piece out to literary magazines 27 times for two straight years before getting an acceptance.
There’s something extremely humbling about getting out of an MFA program, head fat with ideas of who and what you’ll become, and it doesn’t quite turn out like you imagined.
I graduated from the University of Baltimore in 2019 in the prepandemic, mask-less days (which seem like a lifetime ago) when I had wild ideas of where I would be and what I would be. Although I studied fiction writing in university, I was also reading and writing poetry though I didn’t tell my cohort. In the writing program, we had to choose one discipline but I couldn’t imagine separating prose from poetry. So I asked my poet-classmates many questions, got screenshots of their syllabi, and started doing a poetry self-study alongside my fiction writing program. I also completed several free online poetry courses. I wanted to be a fiction writer and a poet, in that order.
When I graduated from my MFA program, I started submitting prose and poetry to literary magazines and the rejections started rolling in, sometimes three or four in one day. The first one stung so much I had to get a glass of water and sit down for about an hour. I also Googled “how to do breathing exercises” because I was convinced my heart would fall out of my chest that day. That’s when I knew I had to create a plan on how to handle rejection because I needed a way to deal with the rollercoaster of emotions of having something I’d worked on for years be rejected in matter of weeks or months.
I decided to start a journal, scribbling the many reasons I wanted to write. Sentences like “I write because I wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old” or “I write because I love words and sentences and languages” are what I return to when I was down.
Sometimes I would write down 10 reasons and other times I would sit down for an hour and come up with 40 reasons why I write and jot them down into my worn notebook. When a rejection (or two or three) came in, I would immediately open my journal and read aloud the reasons until the sting of the rejection dulled with each repetition.
I remind myself why I write and that it’s okay when others don’t understand my work or find it hard to connect with my story or my voice. I go inward and remind myself that I would be writing even if I had no approval or no audience or any recognition. I do this until the first sentence of the rejection letter rattles less and eventually fades. Then a few days after reading the rejection letter, I commit to studying the story or the poem I’ve submitted, taking it apart, sometimes cutting it to pieces and rearranging those pieces on my floor. If there is feedback from the editor, I address it immediately, let the work sit for a few weeks, and come back again with fresh eyes.
That has been how I have handled rejection. I will continue this ritual until my journal is full of reasons why I write so that I have a compass to guide me when and if I doubt myself or lose my footing. It’s not perfect or pain-free but it helps me have a system and a routine on how to deal with constant and consistent rejection. I’ve learned that having a plan helps me regulate my reaction (and the amount of times I visit the ice cream shop). Having a plan on how to deal with rejection has also helped me put things into perspective. When my mother was alive, I enjoyed making mandazi with her, kneading the slightly sweet dough, rolling it, and cutting into squares before sliding them one by one into hot oil to fry. Whenever I failed at something, she would point to the dough and make me repeat “I rise like well-beaten dough kneaded with both hands.” A cup of tangawizi tea followed.
With each rejection, I rise.