Barbara Harroun, "On Writing, Rejection, and Janis Joplin," November 1, 2016

Joplin knew more about rejection than anyone ever should, and while high school was boot camp for most of us in regards to this subject, for her it was out and out war. Janis returned home for her tenth high school reunion and a reporter pestered her, trying to root out if she’d always been different. The moment that broke me was when he asked if she ever went to prom. She replied no. “Were you asked?” the reporter pressed. Janis, with feathers of fuchsia and purple in her hair, her oversized glasses slipping down her nose, seemed to crumple. “No, I never was. I don’t think they wanted to take me.” There is a pause, and pain is writ all over her face, until she cracks a smile and riffs, “And I’ve been suffering ever since.” In the January preceding her death she wrote to her family:

After you reach a certain level of talent, and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition, or as I see it how much you really need—need to be loved, to be proud of yourself…I guess that’s what ambition is; it’s not all a depraved quest for position and money, maybe it’s for love. Lots of love.

At the age of her death, 27, I was exiting Purdue’s MFA program. I was beginning to learn about rejection in terms of writing and teaching. I wanted to be a beloved rock star, if I’m honest—loved and admired and embraced for my writing. I hadn’t thought much about what it meant to work as a writer. Now, I see the finished work, once I send it out, as being of me but entirely separate from me. It’s my work. It isn’t me. If I do my job properly, then readers will immerse themselves in the piece and I will disappear entirely. I want readers to feel recognition and connection to my writing, not necessarily to me. Joplin did not have this luxury. Her art needed her entirety. There was something in Joplin’s letters home that returned to me how naked rejection can make us feel, and how unloved and unworthy. At 27, the rejection letters, returned to me in my own self-addressed, stamped envelopes seemed to rip out my heart and spine for days, and if I’ve learned anything, writing is a business where you have to show up with your spine intact and learn to protect your heart while simultaneously keeping it open.

I used to think of rejection as a door slamming in my face. Now, I think of it as a door to walk through. I read the letter/email of rejection and let the door slam, let it have 15 minutes of quiet that I fill with grumbled profanity and fretting and giving in to uncertainty and insecurity, and then I try to go for the doorknob with curiosity and humility and without my ego. I ask myself: 

Is the story/poem/essay finished? Have I served the story/poem/essay fully? Have I done the hard work?  Or does it need to be re-envisioned further? If it needs to be revised, has the editor been kind enough to give additional direction? Do I agree, if feedback has been provided? 

Is the story/poem/essay finished? Have I served the story/poem/essay fully? Have I done the hard work?  Or does it need to be re-envisioned further? If it needs to be revised, has the editor been kind enough to give additional direction? Do I agree, if feedback has been provided?

Do I need time, space, and distance from the piece before real revision can happen? Or has the essential story been lost in revising? Do I need to go back and reread saved drafts before proceeding?

Was this the proper forum for this piece? If so, how long do I have to revise and resubmit? If not, I challenge myself to find three additional publications that might be a more suitable home if I think and trust the piece is ready. This challenges me to always be reading and investigating not only new literary journals and magazines in print, but online, and to find new writers I might not otherwise be exposed to. It also means I have to be willing to work to labor the piece into the world beyond just writing it—I have to advocate for it.

Have I taken the fine sandpaper to it? Have I polished and proofread and edited to the best of my ability? Have I removed all of my clunky fingerprints? Have I made immersion possible for the reader?  

As writers, we have to determine for ourselves why we continue to create art, what drives our ambition. Maybe Joplin was right, that it is about “lots of love.” And I think I keep creating because it’s an act of love for me. It’s where I find myself. And maybe it’s about loving the world we inhabit with others—however terrifying, confounding, and breathtaking.

Barbara Harroun is an assistant professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Per Contra Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, and Text Magazine. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack.

Read Barbara's stories "What We Tell Ourselves" and "
Disembarking."