Yesterday I went out to get the mail. In our box were one of my Etsy trades, the latest Martha Stewart Living, and a thin envelope from Hedgebrook. I walked through the garage, forgetting to close the door, and called to Erik, “I don’t think I got in to Hedgebrook. The envelope’s too thin.” He emerged from the kitchen and met me in my office as I fetched the letter opener from the drawer, and together we went back to the kitchen and sat down. I slit open the envelope, and as I removed the single sheet of paper, I knew I’d been right.
Dear Ms. Hsia, Thank you for applying to Hedgebrook. We received a record number of applications this year — close to 800 — for our 2011 session, and we anticipate being able to accommodate approximately 38 writers for that session. A panel of readers has reviewed your application and I am sorry to say that you were not selected for a 2011 residency.
I ran my finger from “800” to “38” and murmured, “Craziness.”
“That’s what, 4%?” Erik calculated. “Isn’t Harvard, like, 13%?”
I smiled at him, thinking how grateful I am to have a partner who knows just when and how to offer perspective. (As it turns out, this year Harvard’s freshman acceptance rate came in at a record low of 6.9%.) I read through the rest of the letter until I got to the director’s signature (blue ink, real handwriting, not a printout or a stamp). It is a very nice rejection letter, full of encouragement to apply again and look into other options in the meantime.*
Intellectually, I don’t mind not getting in. I put together a good application that I’m proud of (and which helped jump-start the family history), the odds were insane, and I can apply again as many times as I like. I’m new enough at my creative life that if I had gotten in, there would have been a real risk that I’d spend my 2-3 weeks of residency twiddling my thumbs and doing lots of yoga along the shore. But, of course, we’d all rather get into things than not get in! I could tell, after I read the letter, that I was going to feel a bit crummy for the rest of the evening, so I posted the news on Facebook (and got lots of encouraging messages from my VONA friends and others), did some yoga, and had a good hot dinner while reading children’s fiction.
It’s helpful to remember, now, the time when I auditioned for beginning modern dance in college. I bought a new fitted top and pants for the occasion, and a dancer friend gave me a quick prep session the morning of, but otherwise I was unprepared. I really wanted to get in, but as soon as the audition (a dance class) started, it was obvious I wasn’t very experienced. I couldn’t follow along, and my arms soon got tired in port de bras. When the teacher told me I hadn’t gotten in, I was disappointed, but also relieved I wasn’t going to have to go through daily renditions of the same 90 minutes I’d just experienced. Over the rest of that semester and the following break, I took up yoga, and when the next term rolled around, I auditioned again, this time in a proper leotard and tights. Yoga had taught me about my body, and now the movements made more sense; I still had trouble, but I wasn’t floundering. By the time class ended, I knew I could handle an entire semester of it, and that’s when I got in. It strikes me that this is probably applicable to Hedgebrook as well. I can write, but is my daily practice ready yet for a concentrated, solitary residency of at least 2 weeks? Probably not… but it will be, if not next year, then the one after, or the one after that.
A few days ago I was browsing Nicky Marone’s website — author of the lovely book What’s Stopping You? (which I read in its earlier edition as Women & Risk) — and I discovered she now has a blog. One of her recent entries, a response to a reader’s questions about failure, begins with this brilliant declaration:
In our culture, we don’t like to talk about failure—as if failure were the opposite of success, rather than a part of success. In other words, when an individual does achieve success, we rarely see the many failures they had to endure along the way. So, don’t take a snapshot of this moment in time and label it as “proof” of your failure. Think of yourself as still in process.
She goes on to tell a great story about Thomas Edison having to go through 10,000 wrong filaments before he came up with the right ones for the light bulb. I remember at VONA one of my lovely fellow writers, Maryam, said, “I can’t wait to start getting some rejection letters!” I approached her afterward to tell her how much I admired that way of looking at it. It’s very much in line with Marone’s wisdom about failure as a part of success. So! This letter from Hedgebrook isn’t a rejection, it’s one step of a long journey to becoming a mature writer, and it’s exciting because it means I put myself out there in pursuit of my goals.
*Through one of their suggested websites, I learned that there are residencies available in China…!!! How amazing would that be, once I get further along with the family history?