Monday, March 01, 2010

Facing Rejection

It's finally happened. I managed to get two pieces places in the upcoming anthology, Wait a Minute, I Have to Take Off My Bra, about all things breast-related. That would be women's breasts and not man breasts, which is a whole different subject.

I had heard tentatively about this last year, but didn't hear anything more, despite being told contracts would be sent to writers in January. Being the worrywart I am, I naturally decided to contact the publisher and ask if the two stories under consideration had failed to make the grade. I was told the announcement was coming, but it felt more like being told "The check's in the mail" rather than "You're in and you worry too much." When it comes to being published, I admit I'm still a little nervous and my first thought is that I've been rejected. I have so much experience with rejection and will probably never get over the years and years of collecting rejections. It's ingrained; maybe it's also genetic. It's certainly a learned behavior, one that was pounded, seared, scarred and force fed from my earliest memories.

Always out of step, I was the child most likely to be told, "No, you can't have/do/be that." And I was, a lot. Most of the time I was told I couldn't do something and to stop asking because I was a girl, and yet I still wanted to climb trees, run races, play with swords, carry machetes, tramp barefoot through the jungle with the boys, play first base, ride down zip lines and hang out with Green to make me a boy so that Berets getting their physical and jungle training on base. Every night I prayed for God to make me a boy so I could do what I wanted to do without constantly being told it wasn't appropriate for a girl or that girl's shouldn't even want to do thing like that. I was stubborn--still am--and I was determined to go my own way, even if I had to sneak around to do it, but it was easier when I was a child because my parents didn't worry about where I was. I was outside playing, usually two miles or more away at the main base climbing the jump tower and cadging Green Berets to lift me up so I could cross the bars in the training grid. I was fearless and took every opportunity for adventure.

Too young to get a license for life saving at the base pool, I talked them into allowing me to take the classes and the exam even if I couldn't wear the badge. One of the final trials was jumping from the high platform and swimming the length of the pool. I was only nine years old, but I did a swan dive from the high platform, swam the length of the pool and earned the grudging smile and respect of the head lifeguard. I dreamt of diving from the cliffs at Acapulco when I was old enough to try out for the Olympics in the high dive and the head lifeguard did his best to convince my parents that I was Olympic high diving material. And then the words came, "No, she's a girl. She can't do that." I didn't dare reveal the big secret, that I was writing a book about a girl lost in the jungle who discovers an ancient abandoned city. I was too afraid that dream would dissolve with the same words, "No, you can't do that because you're a girl." Instead, I kept writing in secret, glowing with pride whenever one of my papers was singled out for praise and I won a certificate of merit or an award. Awards, it seemed, were gender neutral, and treated with respect.

When I finally told my parents I wanted to go to college and be a writer, the same old words crashed into my dreams. "No, you're a girl. Your brother will have to support a family." It didn't matter that he was five years younger and six years behind me in school. All that mattered was that I was a girl and therefore not worthy of such an expenditure. "Stop dreaming. Learn something useful. You can't make a living as a writer." Even though the words weren't said, I still heard them, "No, you can't; you're a girl."

My world narrowed further and further until it was apparent the only way I'd be able to do what I wanted was to turn eighteen, graduate high school and get out on my own. I'd get no help from my parents who had done their duty by raising me that far. After I graduated, I was someone else's responsibility, some man who would take care of me, support me, and put up with my strange and inappropriate ideas. My mother told me to accept the first man who asked because I wasn't likely to get another offer . . . probably because I wasn't the right kind of girl, the kind of girl who is quiet and does what she's told and doesn't think she can do anything and everything she wants.

The thing about that kind of rejection is that it stays with you.

It took a very long time before I decided to stop wanting and start getting. I started writing and submitting my work. I knew it wasn't perfect, but I thought it was good. Editors sent rejections almost before the submissions went out, but some editors took the time to say I had something special and to keep trying. Rejection is a hard thing to overcome, even when it comes with personal letters and encouragement buried among the criticism. It's so much easier to see the rejection than to realize someone has just offered a hand up.

In spite of all the rejections, I kept at it, landing jobs to ghostwrite and edit and finally to sell articles, articles that turned into syndicated pieces and syndicated pieces that led to more articles and more clips and more publications, until, finally, in the wake of my father's death three years ago today, I broke through and several submissions to anthology markets were accepted. I could do this and it didn't matter that I was a girl because for all the editors knew from my byline I was a guy. I smiled every time a letter came with the greeting, "Dear Mr. Cornwell." I responded professionally and signed my contracts, "Ms. J. M. Cornwell." Subtle but effective. As long as they accepted a male, I didn't think they'd rescind the contract when they found out the "J" in my name stood for Jackie and not James or John.

The rejections keep coming even though I've had some minor success and I do not doubt that my first thought when I don't hear promptly from a publisher or reviewer is that the answer is "rejected." Some small part of me at the very hard core of my mind still fights and struggles and believes that it doesn't matter whether I'm male or female when it comes right down to it. There are women competing in the Olympics in the high dive, soaring gracefully from the cliffs at Acapulco and arrowing into the swirling waters just beyond the dangerous rocks hugging the base of those same cliffs. There are women among the tall, stalwart men of the Green Beret and women who have won Pulitzers and sit atop the best sellers lists. No doubt someone told them they couldn't have their dream because they were girls, but they ignored the rejections and found a way.

It's a small victory to be included in this particular anthology, not only as a writer but as a woman. I am uniquely fitted for this one because I know whereof I speak. Man breasts aside, only a woman truly understands the agony and the ecstasy of a physical feature that comes in all sizes and shapes and defines us by its presence or absence. After all, we have one thing in common; we are women writers who have faced the possibility of rejection and won.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Have you actually met me before?

It's a question I've asked my family many times (not Beanie, of course) when they say something or characterize something I've done that is completely foreign to me. It's as if all the years we've spent together, and apart, have been meaningless and they just have not been paying attention. I expected my immediate family to know me better. I was wrong.

I can excuse someone like Beastly Bobbie, my ex-sister-in-law, to be so ignorant as to go to my brother The Idiot and ask why he couldn't control me better. No one who has ever met me and paid the least bit of attention would even consider the possibility that I can be controlled. No wonder The Idiot laughed in the face of her tears and recriminations when she shoved my letter to her in his face. Well, she did ask for it when she asked for my address so she could send me a wedding invitation to Alisha's forthcoming day of days after decades of ignoring me and making it plain I was not welcome in her home or as part of her life. She was merely trawling for gifts and figured I'd be sure to give her a really good one since I'm a rich author. Right. Just goes to show how greed can overrule any and all common sense. Having not invited me to her children's birthday parties or family get-togethers, she must have been drunk or high or just plain stupid to think I'd respond to an engraved wedding invitation with sweetness, light and a pricey wedding gift. I don't do nice and I don't stay silent when I have something to say. No one controls me or my words. It's a given -- if you've ever actually met me before.

When I relate this story to casual acquaintances or to people who have come back into my life after decades of living their own lives, and after having read my stories in anthologies or my novel, they laugh when Beastly Bobbie demands The Idiot control me. They get the joke. My family still doesn't. How could I be so cruel, so rude, so uncontrollable? Because I can and because I am too old now to be anything but honest. I have nothing to prove and no one left to impress. I am simply -- as Popeye says -- what I am, and that's all that I am. Read my writing and you'll know me better than the people who claim to be family.

But I know why they're so clueless. It's the same reason I still think of my cousin Ellen as the beautiful little girl with the long golden ponytail wearing the "I Dream of Jeannie" costume I made for her from a yellow satin and chiffon dress Mom picked up at Goodwill the year she represented Iraq in our annual summer beauty pageant. Ellen is still little, but her hair is a deep dark brown, almost black, and she is no longer a child, although she still remembers the harem costume I made her. I think that year I represented Monaco, but I don't remember the costume I made for myself. I do remember I won that year, beating out the girl whose mother had her costumes and gowns made by a dressmaker. The girl was furious, but not nearly as furious as her mother. They thought it was rigged for me to win and thought I'd cave in, but they didn't know me very well. They found out I was no pushover and wasn't about to give up my hard earned crown, whether it was covered in diamonds or glass. It was mine.

My appearance and voice are perhaps deceptive. I smile easily, laugh easily and sound innocent. A classmate from high school wrote me this morning to tell me I sounded like I was in my early twenties, and he knows how old I am because we're about the same age. He can count. He's met me before. I am playful by nature and especially like it when people loosen up enough to say what's on their mind, like another classmate who called me a smart ass last night. For the first time since we became reacquainted he unbent a little and let the real person show through. He'd asked if I was still there and I responded, "No, I'm here," to which he responded, "Smartass!" It was the best part of a very technical and involved discussion on global warming and historical evidence of socialism in an otherwise democratic republic, not that I didn't enjoy the discussion. He's an engineer and a guy (obviously from the "he" part of the sentence) and I enjoy lively debate, even when we don't agree. I surprised him that I'm not a lightweight when it comes to politics and environmental issues and he paid me by giving in to his sense of humor, something I remember he had in abundance. He always smiled and laughed easily, a little deceptive in his appearance since his affability disguised a bright wit and a brilliant intellect. I got to meet him all over again and I hope he looks forward to our next encounter.

We all have preconceived notions about people from appearances and demeanor, but it doesn't take long before the real person comes out from behind the curtain to take responsibility for the holographic shill center stage spouting fire and calling names that protected the soft chewy center of the soul and psyche. Brash, preening peacocks turn out to be dun-colored killdeer pretending a broken wing to hide their vulnerability from potential predators or cruel jibes delivered with deadly aim. Duck and cover. It's doesn't always help, but often minimizes lasting scars and pain.

As we grow older and learn to recognize predator from casual onlooker, we loosen up, unbend and stop worrying about what people think. Well, many of us do. The rest remain behind the curtain, hoping beyond hope that they will be overlooked and ignored while their alter ego is center stage full of bluff and bluster or coy looks and seductive poses to throw everyone off the scent, emotional chameleons. Some people are so caught up in their camouflage they don't pay close attention to the image they project or care to get closer to anyone else to look behind the facade until they are brought face to face with the truth. They have lived in a dream world where nothing is real and everything and everyone are shams. It's hard to get to know someone who never lets down their guard or care about anyone else when caught up in the need to hide who and what they are. I'm sure most people find themselves asking, "Have you ever really met me before?" to spouses, friends and, yes, even family. It's still frustrating, at least for me.

Yank off the bandage, forget about your chipped nail polish or lack of war pain and just be yourself. It may be one of those Jane Jetson days when you instantly reach for the mask so the caller doesn't know you look like hell and haven't put on your face or you've been so intent on finishing a difficult part in the latest story you are still wearing the ratty robe that should've been washed a couple days ago, but it's all right. Everyone has bad days, weeks, months, even years. It's best to let the worst be seen so every good day after that is a bonus. When you've seen the worst, everything else shows up in a much brighter and more flattering light. Face it, the worst will come out eventually. Get it over with right up front so the cowards can run, the phonies can excuse themselves to tend to a sick relative they just remembered was in the hospital and may die at any moment and the people who matter, and the ones who love and care about you can relax and call you a smart ass so the laughter can begin. Those are the ones worth having around, the ones who have actually met you and still think you're worth knowing, warts and all.