How Rejection Made Me a Serious Writer
Getting told no—by lovers, bosses, schools—is never fun, but sometimes you have to hit bottom before you realize that becoming who you want to be is all on you after all.
Don’t date someone you work with, because, if you date someone you work with you’ve substantially increased the chances that you will get dumped while you are at work. I can give this advice because I once dated someone I worked with and then that person who I worked with dumped me at the place where we worked.
After-work drinks with a co-worker had led to making out, which led to a relationship. The sneaking around we had to do enhanced the fun. I fell hard. She did not. Three months in, she dumped me. At work.
The dumping wasn’t a screaming match in the lobby or a crying session in the supply closet; because she did not want to make a scene, the breakup took place over Gmail chat. Because we sat in cubicles next to each other, this meant I was dumped remotely by someone five feet away. With nothing but a thin fabric divider between us, I could hear her typing before the words showed up on my screen. It was like hearing my killer load the bullets he was about to shoot me with.
The process took over two hours because workday tasks kept interrupting our breakup. I’d go from typing a plea for a second chance by online chat, to helping a co-worker figure out why the printer wasn’t working. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME. I don’t know Bob, did you try turning it off and on? I left early that day, with tears in my eyes, telling people on the way out that I was suffering from bad allergies.
There was more rejection to come. A few months earlier, I had applied to MBA programs and over the course of the week following the breakup, I received rejection letters from all of them. Up to that point in my life, I’d faced only minor rejection. I’d gotten into all of the colleges to which I’d applied, gotten every job I’d gone in for, and been the one to end my previous relationships. Now, in the same week, a woman and several major American universities were telling me they didn’t want me inside them.
From the time I read The Great Gatsby in eighth grade English, I wanted to be a writer. When it was time for college, I choose one with a film program, having decided that instead of writing the great American novel I’d write the great American blockbuster. I graduated wanting more than ever to be a screenwriter.
Here’s what I thought would happen after film school: I’d be at a party and I’d meet the head of a studio and the studio prez would say, “I like the cut of your jib, kid, why don’t you write me a script,” and then I’d say, “I don’t know what a jib is, sir, but I’ll take your money!” and we’d both laugh and that summer I would learn about jibs while sailing with my new mentor (and his beautiful granddaughter) on his yacht the Sarafina.
This didn’t happen. Apparently, the heads of major media corporations don’t attend parties where beverages are served in red Solo cups. I did find work in the film industry, but at an entry-level position for a small, failing film company. Five years removed from college, I was nowhere close to making a living as a screenwriter or any other kind of writer.
During those post-college years I wasn’t writing much. I couldn't get motivated. If I finished a screenplay, how would I sell it? I didn’t have an agent or a manager and didn't know how to get one. I didn't know anyone important in Hollywood and, as every knows, it’s all who you know. (It didn’t occur to me that if you “know someone,” you still have to have a good script to give them, which I didn’t).
Since my lack of success clearly stemmed from my lack of access (and definitely not the fact that I wasn’t writing), I came up with a plan to get around this problem: I would get my MBA, use that to get a job at one of the film studios, work my way to an executive position, and green-light my own scripts. Instead of being a starving artist, I’d be a rich and successful artist/executive. How had no one else figured out this loophole?
I took the GMAT, collected letters of recommendation, and submitted my applications. I was excited for the new era of my career to begin, especially once I got the new girlfriend, who I was sure would follow me to whichever school I decided to go to.
But then I got dumped. And denied. Unwanted for the first time in my life. It felt like a referendum on my very worth as a human being. The glorious future I'd been picturing for months disappeared, leaving a blank space.
Writers are the Michael Jordans of procrastination. (I was going to come up with something less cliché than the Michael Jordan thing, but I kept putting it off). My attempt to get an MBA is proof of this, because that’s all it was really, a very elaborate way to procrastinate. I didn’t want to get an MBA, didn’t want to be a businessman. I wanted to be a writer. That had never changed. I just convinced myself that business school was an easier way to become a writer than writing. (I know spending $60,000 and two years in business school doesn’t seem easier than just writing, but the blank page can be very daunting.) With my (very ambitious) procrastination scheme a failure, I realized that to become a writer I was going to have to write. And probably like, a lot.
I started doing it every day. I did not like it. Whenever I’d thought about being a writer, what I’d envisioned was the time when a writer is not writing. I'd pictured the drinking, the awards, the witty banter with fellow authors, the summers on the French Riviera, the beautiful admirers. This was not that. This was me, alone, in my tiny New York apartment, working for a couple hours before I did a full day of work at my paying job. It was not glamorous or fun. It did not come naturally. It was hard, tiring work that drained me mentally and fatigued me physically. For the first month, I was popping Advil like an arthritic octogenarian because my wrists, back, and neck were so sore.
Fueled by wanting to prove the girl and the schools wrong, I kept at it, and the feeling that it was hard work faded as I got better. My aches and pains went away, as did the mental aversion to sitting down to start. Writing didn’t become fun exactly, but the practice became fulfilling. On the good days, the session had a meditative quality, and on the bad days I was still glad I’d made the effort. I began to feel a compulsion to do it every day, feeling grumpy when I had to skip.
I wouldn’t see tangible, monetary success for years, but it was during that period that I became a serious writer. I don’t say serious to mean I write weighty or important material (there is—honest to God—an eggplant emoji on the cover of my new memoir Available), or even to mean I’m any good. When I say I’m a serious writer, I simply mean I take writing seriously. I’d been waiting to be discovered, to be hired, to be given permission to write, but the best thing about writing is that you don’t need anyone’s permission. To be a writer, you just have to write. I finally understood that, despite never having been on anyone’s yacht. (Turns out, you can be a writer without knowing what a jib is.)
When we were breaking up that day, my soon-to-be-ex had told me she thought we made better friends than lovers. I had disagreed, certain we were in love, but she was right (we’re still friends now). And the schools had been right, too—it would have been a mistake for me to be there, I just didn’t know it yet. Most of the time, when we get rejected, it’s for the best, it just hurts because the other party figured it out first. It sucks when they figure it out first. So I’m glad the girl and the schools figured it out. If they hadn’t, I might have spent the rest of my life procrastinating.
Matteson Perry is the author of Available: A Memoir of Heartbreak, Hookups, Love and Brunch. He is a screenwriter, performer, two-time winner of the Moth GrandSlam storytelling championship, and the host of the monthly Moth StorySlam in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, College Humor, and other publications. His work has been featured on NPR and Funny or Die. A Colorado native, Matteson lives in Los Angeles with his wife.