I spent about four months on an essay about prejudice, Afghanistan, healing, history, and peace. When I say I put my heart into it, I don’t just mean I wrote over seven drafts. I mean I descended into the pit. I read accounts that left me sobbing. I searched my memory and poked into sections of my life that are still raw, that I still don’t totally understand. And I wrote, and cried, and drank tea, and curled up in my chadar, and revised, revised, revised.
I submitted this piece to a contest and crossed my fingers. Today I found out I didn’t even get an honorable mention.
For a second, I was surprised. Then came the other side: “Why should you be surprised, loser? You’ve never gotten published in anything but college magazines.” Which is true, but sort of a lousy thing to think.
Being an unpublished writer sucks because it’s a balance act between pride and despair. On one side, I freely admit I do think my essay was better than the honorable mention about childbirth in America. I’ve got pride in my work. I still think it’s good.
On the other side, I think it’s no surprise at all that my work has been rejected. I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never have my own voice. I’m just the sidekick Hufflepuff who’ll sit on the sidelines and wave a flag while other people save the world. Huzzah.
The reason I’m writing this at 12:15 AM isn’t to blow a horn and announce my mental state, or boo-woo over not getting a prize that was a long shot anyway. It’s to remind myself, and other writers like me, of why the balance act is a lie.
Being an unpublished writer is okay because it’s not about being “good enough” for a panel of judges.
Being an unpublished writer is okay because I don’t write to be published.
Being unpublished is okay because unpublished stories are valuable.
Each story that doesn’t meet the public’s eye is precious because it means I have worked, I have grown, I have pushed myself.
I can count my life and my progress in unpublished stories.
I’ll keep working at it. I’ll always keep working toward publication, because I want to share these stories with people. I want people to read about the widows in Afghanistan and have their prejudices challenged, as mine were. I think that’s important.
But the gold star of publication isn’t as important as the afternoons I spent bleeding onto the pages or the insight I gained into storytelling and into my own heart.
A panel of judges can’t put worth on that. So I’m not going to let a rejection letter take it away from me.