Wednesday, May 28, 2014

That is one picky universe

"I have a crush on the New York Times," I told a writer friend a few years ago.
"Ask it out,"  he said.

So, I submitted a piece to the Modern Love column. Kindly, they rejected it before I could get my hopes up.

"I was rejected by the New York Times,"  I reported to my writer friend.
"Everybody gets rejected by the New York Times," he said.

That's not true, of course, there are plenty of people at that party,  but I know what he meant. You need talent and the right topic to get in line and then you still might have to talk to the bouncer.

Many rejections ago, when I started writing and sending my submissions "into the universe",  here's what I did. I wrote a 1600 word essay and sent it on heavy bond paper to the Boston Globe. I never got a response and assumed it never arrived. 

What with snail mail.

Many rejections later, I realized that the essay was rejected not only because it was 1000 words too long,  or because it was submitted on cardboard, but because it was not well written, despite what my mother and husband said.

It was over-everything. Over-long, over-wrought, over-reaching, and of course, overweight.

I wasn't startled when I found out how hard it was to publish, I was stunned. Had I known how many rejections that  universe spits out before it accepts a submission, I may have quit.

But because I'm a writer and I love my captor, I soldiered on after the Boston Globe maybe-never received my piece.

I focused on  my fiction and submitted a completed novel which was rejected by everyone.
I wrote a second that was rejected by half of everyone
I wrote a third which brought a request for a full manuscript by a mega-agent the next day.

A week later,  and you'll be so jealous if you're a writer, I received the rejection  with a letter of praise and suggestions. I took the book back and rewrote it.

For six years.

Eventually, I discovered that writing better was more important to me than submitting, and that loving my work felt better than being noticed.  Most important, I learned that big goals are not met in a single leap, but by taking the smaller, friendlier ones along the way seriously.

And here's the thing about "eventually":

The ratio does begin to turn around. More submissions are accepted than they are rejected, and each rejection hurts less. If you don't become an Eeyore, you realize that you're probably further away from the submissions-on-cardboard days,  than the Big Goal.


I published a first piece, about two kids leaving for college at the same time  in  the Concord Monitor.
I focused on my blog and  my traffic increased until some readers were not even related to me, and, lived in places I had to look up on a map.
I sold an essay to a national publication
I published in three online magazines.
The Christian Science Monitor selected one of my pieces as a top ten in its category.
I got picked up by the Washington Post.

My novel and I are almost ready to journey into the universe once more.  "You again?" it will say several times before I catch it in a good mood.

And then, eventually, probably - not possibly - there will be another exchange with my writer friend.

"I did it," I'll say.
"I knew you would," he'll respond.

I would sometimes like to flee, but I can't. I'm a writer and I love my captor.

And I haven't been published in the New York Times yet.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The girl who didn't think she'd win

What do the judges want?

This day, it's the question on the minds of seven contenders for the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year title. Judges will choose a state winner from seven districts, and that winner will go home with $11,000.   

This day will be long, crammed with photo-ops, nervous small talk with political figures, speeches and interviews.

The kids arrive within the same five minute window, not late, not early. They walk a beat behind their mentors, taking in the surroundings, dog-eared speech pages in hand. They wear new suits, borrowed dresses, shoes that hurt their feet and haircuts they aren't used to yet. Their facial expressions are neutral and fixed with the question that has been steeping for months: "What do the judges want?" 

My charming mentee
Some seem terrified, some don't. Most don't behave as if they'll win. The ones who do, I know after last year's ceremony, probably won't.

There is palpable tension while the nominees shift awkwardly from foot to foot, their smiles quick, their eyes darting, their faces animated for only seconds at a time.   

A willowy, nervous girl dressed in a micro-mini, cowboy boots and a leather jacket is part of this crowd.  She has colored her hair in trendy strands of mahogany and fuschia and when she stands near the other kids she says nothing. She slumps as if her height might work against her.

I wonder how she'll do. The judges want poise. Confidence.

My mentee is here, but it's home court for her so she is putting the others at ease. There is not a competitive bone in her body. She's spent a decade learning how to engage with people - too long to put them at arm's length now. She doesn't think she'll win but is here to play anyway.

It's part of my mentee's charm. 

Halfway through the day, the judging starts. The door opens, they are called, they step in and the door closes.

Exactly 18 minutes later, the facilitator taps on the door indicating a two-minute warning, then knocks again at one minute. Not before or after, the door opens and out they come, looking even younger than they are with all that relief flooding their minds and bodies. They are smiling, hugging their mentors, the question of what-the-judges-want, behind them now.

My mentee goes in and uses the entire allotment.
The facilitator knocks at two minutes.
Knocks at one minute.
My mentee comes out, beaming.

The willowy girl goes in, she's out ten minutes later.

Another nervous nominee approaches my mentee. "What did they ask?" She whispers.
My mentee starts to tell her, but I interrupt, fearing the other nominee will fret over irrelevant questions:

"They'll ask different questions of everyone. Just answer truthfully," I say.

Later, the judging is done, the kids are themselves again. Everyone's hungry, their gone appetites back with a vengeance . They're silly and boisterous and a bit sassy  now that they are off display. Tension leaves the atmosphere like air from a balloon.

Later, through a dinner which precedes the big announcement, new energy sizzles in the room. There are speeches and thank yous and acknowledgments and winners in secondary categories.

Two well dressed teens talk about overcoming absent parents, social awkwardness and unhealthy temptations to craft futures of college and, of "giving back". The girl in the cowboy boots talks about overcoming the low expectations of others to be accepted at the NASCAR Technical Institute to study auto mechanics. A polished, poetic nominee compares her life and role in her community to that lived by her grandmother in a Kenyan village. My mentee talks about her crippling shyness that kept her isolated for years.

But few are fully listening. Everyone's waiting for that MC to open the envelope and now she does.

And the willowy girl in the cowboy boots wins.

The applause is instant and sustained.
She stands up and breaks down.
She turns to her father who wraps her in a hug.
She drifts, dazed, to the podium in tears.
She looks around, eyes on everyone.
She wipes her eyes with a Kleenex and, barely able to speak says, "God, I don't know what to say. I just never thought I'd win. I just didn't expect this. Thank you so much. Just... thank you."

Words fail her and the governor begins a new round of applause to rescue her.

"I never thought I'd win," she says again.

And yet, didn't she show up and walk the walk and talk the talk as if she would.

The faces of the other nominees react, some are smiling and some aren't. Some of the coaches look surprised, others delighted.

But if hearts have been toppled I see one that sings, and if minds are racing, I see one at rest,  that question of what the judges want, answered.
She was wrong

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I was raised by a single mother and I am not a prostitute

I know it isn't Mother's Day yet. Close enough.

Recently, a story appeared in the New York Times about Terran Lyons, a third shift worker at McDonald's  who is trying to raise two children on minimum wage. Each night, Ms. Lyons shuttles her children to evening caregivers and each day she balances the tasks of parenting on little or no sleep. She works the less preferred night shift because that's where the opportunity lies to work up to a supervisory level. She is twenty-four.


I commented on the article: "This brave, focused paying some huge dues now. But among the rewards I believe are in store for Terran, is seeing those kids grow up loved, strong, and driven to make a success of themselves. They don't have much, but they have a lot of the right things." 

Here was one response to my comment:  "This is something of a fairy tale response. If Ms. Lyons lives in a low income area, once the kids are old enough, the neighborhood will come calling and if mom is at work a lot, the kids will face peer pressure like they have never known. It's just life. You'd understand if you grew up without."

It wasn't just the "growing up without" comment that gave me pause. It was her assumption that the family is fighting a losing battle.

My parents divorced when I was in grade school and my brother and I were raised by my mother. She worked all day, and we spent a lot of time after school in respective activities which, for me at least, did not include a heavy amount of homework. 

Often, following a parent-teacher meeting, my mother would come home and report that I was performing at an "average" level. I started to dislike the word.

"Don't tell me anymore that I'm working hard and doing average work," I used to say. "There's nothing special about average."

"Well. Maybe you should be sure you really are working hard," she suggested, with her nice mother smile. 

I reacted to this by stomping upstairs and slamming the door, and she reacted to this by starting dinner.

But after that, I worked harder. And she didn't call me average again.

Despite my mother and father's agreeable relationship, and my regular contact with him, this was at a time when single-parent homes were considered "broken" and children living in them were considered juvenile delinquents in the making. Nervous women in the neighborhood kept a closer eye on their husbands when we moved in.   

Many outcomes of our situation were possible. If I'd believed my classmate in the third grade, who leaned forward, shook the back of my chair and whispered "I know what you're going to be when you grow up. A prostitute. My mother told me last night,"  I might have feared I was destined to prowl dark alleys like a feral cat. But I reported the comment to my mother who, with impressive restraint, only iterated her own expectations of me, and made me understand that ignorant and cruel people didn't become that way because of me. She modeled work ethic, independence and class. Moreover, she modeled the ability to turn a deaf ear to people like my classmate's mother every day.  

However hard Terran Lyons works to create an example, she will be dogged by the assumptions people hold about other people living with risk: poor, single-parent households will produce unsupervised children who will meet their need to be loved by becoming pregnant or seeking out the closest gang.

Does that happen? Yes. And those outcomes break lives in half. But when we talk about the underserved in our society it strikes me that it isn't just poverty or the privilege of others that keeps children of disadvantage behind the ropes. Very often, it's the expectation that their circumstances will fail them more than their own resilience will free them.  

The assumptions behind the New York Times comment bring home the reality that people still view hardworking, challenged people like Terran Lyons  and her children  in pass/fail terms. It might have been the way people thought of my brother and me.

But in our house, there was no "probably won't" about it. My mother expected nothing less of us than complete success and to nobody's surprise, we went on to build productive, happy lives, and raise strong, loved children.

My fairy tale experience is that children are resilient, strong creatures. They know more intuitively at young ages than they ever may again. If you tell them something, they will believe it, maybe forever. But when it is modeled for a child that a better life is within one's own control, it is more than hopeful. It is the key to that child's castle.