I’ll never forget my first middle school dance. Sure, the details have blurred with time, an ink drawing someone spilled iced tea all over, but the structure is there – the blueprint of my shame, the foundation of my inadequacy – these feelings resurface like artifacts of a lost civilization.
That night, it was warm. At least, I think it was. I remember being hot, but maybe it was just hot in the gym. I think it was early in the fall. Perhaps it was a grotesque reflection of the glitzy homecoming dance enjoyed across town by the high schoolers, a moment in time caught in a carnival mirror. Of course we’d all heard about dances, read about them, but we’d never been to one.
I had a pretty friend. Erin. You know that friend. The one who’s thinner than you, so much cuter. And you can’t even be mad because she’s so nice and really a damn good friend. She’s always there to lend you a top you kinda sorta fit into. Yes, that night, Erin loaned me a white, dark blue, and lime green tank top (yup, it was like 1996). We got ready at her house, carefully curling our hair, applying our first ever coat of eyeliner, and smearing ourselves with body glitter.
When we walked through the doors of the gymnasium, a retinue of Bath and Body Works scents faithfully attending us, all was hope, all was possibility. The tunes were groovy (nothing beats a gaggle of middle schoolers dancing to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in a circle) and maybe tonight would be the night — the night that a boy would notice me.
After the choo-choo train song, some Backstreet Boys, and “November Rain” and several country ballads, the dance was almost over. And I had yet to dance with a boy, to lock my slick fingers behind his sweaty neck and sway back and forth, each of us looking opposite directions in a two-step of ultimate awkwardness. Then the lights came on. I went home, the bass still tingling my eardrums, and within me was the absolute hollowness of space, a void with pinpricks of stars.
This whole tween Sheol scenario is what it’s like to query agents or publishers. You get your cover letter and your sample chapters all dressed up and in the end, nobody wants you. You’re the nerd left sitting on the bleachers, sweating off your body glitter with tattered streamers draped at your feet.
So if this is the case, what are we supposed to learn from literary rejection? Well, middle school sucked for everyone. And we know J.K. Rowling, the homecoming queen of writers, got rejected plenty of times. In fact, a lot of writers did. Those that succeeded did so because they were persistent. Nobody’s going to dance with you if you stay home and watch Austin Powers for like the 15th time.
At later dances, I gave up on the boys and just concentrated on having fun with my friends. So don’t let rejections suck the fun out of writing, erase the reason we do it in the first place. Get in a circle and shake your ass to “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” You go, girl/boyfriend! Remember, A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T EVEN GET TO THIS PART OF THE PROCESS! They don’t finish the novel, or if they do, they never show it to anyone except a few friends who give them glowing but ultimately useless reviews.
I had a very cute date for junior prom, and you know what? I skipped senior prom to go see Incubus (yes, I know I’m old). It was amazing. So maybe you walk a different path and self-publish, or you turn that novel into a podcast or a screenplay and try a different route.
I work with middle-grade kids now, so I see their individual dramas play out everyday (side note, things you don’t want to hear in a middle school hallway “Yeah, dude, I got KFC in my locker!” and it’s 8th period). If I could go back in time, I’d give my younger self the same pep talk I give my students: be who you are, have grit, and be courageous. Speak up and let your voice be heard, and don’t live in constant fear of what others think.
And when the going gets tough, the tough watch Austin Powers, and start all over again.