by Jay O’shea
Recently, I was rejected for a fellowship for which I was asked to apply. This isn’t the first time I’ve been invited to put myself forward for an honor of some kind – an award, a job, a publication opportunity – only to receive a rejection. I am aware of this and, yet, every time I receive one of those requests-to-apply emails, the cogs of the fantasy-generating apparatus in my mind start to turn. I reflect on the benefits of the award, publication, or job and how satisfied I would be on receiving it. Each of those rejections sting even as I tell myself that rejection is part of the writing game and that rejection is, as we’ve all heard so many times, a sign that we’re making our best efforts to add our voices to the conversations we long to be part of.
Like many writers I reassure myself with all those tales of great works rejected. Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected a stunning 121 times. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness was dismissed as “unreadable.” More recently, Booker Prize winner Marlon James’ John Crow’s Devil received 78 rejections.
The pattern of high quality writing getting rejected is so common that it’s easy to assume that rejection is arbitrary. And it is.
Except for when it’s not.
To keep our equilibrium as writers, we need to recognize typologies of rejections. In doing so, we can, I think, take a lesson from self-defense.
The Empowerment Self-Defense framework, with its attention to violence as a tool of social control, is particularly useful for thinking about categories of aggression and how they suggest different responses. The idea here is that we can better counter violence if we anticipate what an aggressor intends their cruelty to accomplish, altering their script with our defensive actions. We can observe, for instance, that women face predatory violence from men whereas men encounter territorial violence. Because men see women as prey, not as rivals, they frequently lure potential victims into temporary relationships of trust and launch an assault from that point. It is frequently effective for a woman to counter a male aggressor by assertive boundary setting, first verbal, then through the use of physical force if necessary. A male aggressor attacking a female target usually expects cowering and pleading; he doesn’t expect a jab to the eyes or a palm strike to his nose.
Because men typically see other men as opponents, an aggressor often draws his target into a challenge fight. The temporary relationship an aggressor establishes is one of rivalry, drawing imaginary lines that he insists his target has crossed. A man attacking another man expects his potential victim to take the bait that’s offered; he expects “what’re you looking at?” to be countered with “you got a problem?” not with an unflustered “just thinking about something that happened at work.”
A woman’s boundary setting and a man’s refusal to engage can be effective because they diverge from conventional gender behavior. They provide an aggressor with exactly the opposite response than he intended to provoke and subvert his expectations, potentially leaving him struggling how to respond. They are also, particularly at first, hard to execute because they contradict years of strictly enforced gender socialization. For these reasons, working with typologies of violence is a good place to start with self-defense.
Thinking back on my own experiences of conflict, I see that it’s not a great idea to end there.
One time in particular stands out in my mind. I was walking down a crowded street in Amsterdam. A drunk British man checked my shoulder. I turned, expecting mutual apologies but he was already in my face, shouting. He yelled some barely coherent insult; I yelled back. He shoved me. I shoved back. He pointed in my face. Without thinking I pointed back. We postured, we shouted, we countered one aggressive action with another, raising the stakes gradually and almost imperceptibly. Finally, my partner grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me from the conflict as the drunken man’s friends took hold of him and moved him away.
It came to me only gradually: that was not predatory violence. My safety did not depend on scaring that man. In fact, he wanted to be scared so that his aggression would be justified.
That was a challenge fight. And I walked right into it.
I gave a drunken idiot exactly the response he hoped for. I let him write the script for my interaction with him.
Now, when I teach and write about self-defense, I talk about violence as gendered but also point out that we may end up in situations where we face kinds of violence we don’t expect. Extracting ourselves can be harder if we expect predatory violence and wind up in a challenge situation or we expect the challenge and face predation. Our chances for emerging unharmed are enhanced when we can identify the typology of violence before us. Our chances for coming out of it safely are better yet when our ability to recognize violence is adaptive, responsive to what we see before us rather than based what we think we’ll see.
I call this ability the wisdom to know the difference.
Rejection is not the same as violence. Few people who reject our work intend to hurt us. In the case of violence, both ends of the spectrum are cruel, violating, and dangerous. The binaries of rejection consist of joy on one end and disappointment on the other.
There is, however, a certain commonality in the way our responses bifurcate. It is all too easy to fall into either-or responses: bad writing gets rejected; good writing does not. Or, conversely, it’s the good writing that receives rejections, precisely because it’s challenging and new. Bad writing slips through all too often, seemingly without anyone catching it.
Exciting, provocative writing sometimes does get rejected. Work sometimes gets rejected because it’s innovative and a reviewer second-guesses it, assuming the writer can’t pull off what’s in the proposal or the query letter. Work gets rejected because a reviewer is having a bad day.
Writing that is poorly crafted or not fully realized also gets rejected. Writing gets rejected when there are flaws in its execution that an agent or editor can’t articulate or doesn’t have the time to comment on. Writing gets rejected when it’s just plain not ready for publication.
It’s up to us as writers to figure out when our writing is rejected because it’s unsettling and when it’s rejected because it’s not up to par. We need to know when to change and when to keep plugging on with submitting until our work finds a home. We need the wisdom to know the difference. Unlike in self-defense, our safety doesn’t depend on this wisdom. But our happiness and our resilience as writers might.
Author, martial artist, and amateur neuroscientist Jay O’Shea lives and works in Los Angeles. A Professor at UCLA, she is currently working on a project entitled Risk, Failure, Play: What Martial Arts Training Reveals About Proficiency, Competence, and Cooperation. She has written and edited several books on dance; her essays have been published in three languages and six countries. Her short fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Toasted Cheese, and in the anthologies Bloody Knuckles, Death’s Realm, and The Female Complaint. She is about to send her first novel, The Alchemy of Loss, out into the fray of agentive and editorial evaluation.