On Rejection and the Beautiful Blueberry

I was not in the best of moods the other morning. It was gray and sleeting, and I’m guilty of letting weather affect me. The to-do list seemed overwhelming, and the calendar said there were to be no babysitting hours to be had for four days. As I leaned over the two-year-old to change his diaper, in my worn black cabled sweater, he reached up and grabbed a knit bobble. “Booberries,” he said. “Iss pretty.”

 Anyone who spends time with children knows the little bits of gold that come out of their mouths. They can also spew mercury and bile like Linda Blair, and show you just what they think of your stinking rules with every cubic inch of air in their lungs. But sometimes there’s a gem that makes you smile, something they say that makes you see things in a way you never have before, and for one shining moment you realize it’s not true that there’s nothing new under the sun, not as long as there are two-year-olds who can see blueberries in yarn.

Happiness can be brought on by the smallest, most unexpected things. I’ve had my entire evening turned around by a stranger in a restaurant, usually an older woman, who after suffering at the table beside us for an hour says something out of the blue like, Your children are so lovely. It doesn’t matter how the kids treated me that morning or will again once we get home. She saw that I was trying, and that they were trying, and the result was something worth the tip of a hat. It’s possible to be blindsided by random bits of kindness, and the key is to let yourself give them more weight than the sleet and the bile.

This has been on my mind since I wrote the Acknowledgements for my novel not long ago. Most people have probably never done an official Acknowledgements page, but it’s a fascinating exercise, creating a little word-bouquet of gratitude… How often do we ever sit down and make an accounting of the people who made a thing possible, who supported us and shaped us and were involved in the whole confluence of events that resulted in achieving a goal?

And yet I’m aware of one person I wanted to thank in my Acknowledgements, but didn’t. To thank her would have been strange since we’d never met, never even spoken.

When I finished the first draft of my novel I was enormously pregnant with my fourth child, and filled with an urgency to progress in every way. This was my first time trying to write or publish fiction, so my mental timeline was that of a magazine freelancer: a) finish, b) publish, c) paycheck. I was not accustomed to improving something slowly at no fee or guarantee. So in my rush to cross “Get Agent” off my to-do list before the baby came, I sent off a handful of queries immediately.

The baby came, and so did the agents’ responses — some passes, but also partials and fulls, all leading to rejections in the end.

It’s easy to lick your wounds when you have a beautiful new infant. I put aside my manuscript and became absorbed with the unclear division of days and nights, much as I had after each of the previous three births, consumed with feedings and laundry and exhaustion and love. Months passed. What are you going to do with the novel, my husband would ask gently, because it wasn’t like me to leave something unfinished. But I couldn’t find a point of reentry, or a reason.

One day a letter came from the last of the agents I’d queried who’d asked for a full manuscript. I’d given up long ago, because she was a well-known agent who represented several authors I admired, and you often never heard back from important people. But when I pulled the letter from the envelope, it was three pages long. Three pages of thoughtful reflection on what she saw I had envisioned and nearly achieved, but not quite.

I read each paragraph with words like insightful and compelling, along with suggestions of where it fell short, and I kept waiting for the “but” that would really hurt. The turn-down came, but it came like this: “This was a near miss for me.” I could feel the reluctance in her words, and it was almost as meaningful as an acceptance. I was a rookie in the business of publishing fiction, but I already knew from peers that a pass like this was not really a rejection at all, it was a blessing. Agents are too busy to take the time to write long letters of rejection just to be nice. She was not my mother, my friend, or my writing instructor. She didn’t have to take the time to encourage me, or let me down gently. The only way this stranger would say it was a near miss and take three pages to say so was if it were true.

I dove into revisions with an energy I hadn’t felt since my second trimester. Someone had looked open-mindedly to see the promise of something real in my terrible first draft, had seen blueberry in the bobble, and taken the time to say so. In the low times I would think, This was a near miss for me. And it was enough to recharge my faith that someday, for someone, it would not be.

This entry was posted in On Faith, Hope & Love, On Learning, On Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to On Rejection and the Beautiful Blueberry

  1. Angie says:

    What a great story, Nichole. I admire you for having finished a novel when you were pregnant with your fourth, dealing with three in the house! I have three kids now, and I’m happy if I can finish a terrible draft of a short short story in a month. I’m curious to know, though – did you ever send the revised draft to the agent? Isn’t three pages of suggestions basically an invitation to resubmit?

  2. NicholeBernier says:

    You know, perhaps I should have. It struck me at the time that the tone in her letter had a finality to it, and as someone just learning the rules of the business, one thing I always heard loud and clear was, Abide by the submission rules. And the submission rules were, Don’t submit to the same agent twice unless there is an invitation.

    Rules are a funny thing. It’s as important to abide by them as it is to know how, and when, to break them. In hindsight, the best career advances I’ve had have always been when I pressed the rules a little bit — but only when I’d developed a small rapport to feel I could.

    But I am in such good hands with my agent that it’s a moot point. It was all part of the learning process.

  3. Joe Wallace (http://www NULL.josephwallace says:

    Loved this too. I know that my own writing life too has benefitted so greatly from these extra steps taken by others. You’re right: I could write pages of acknowledgments for people who probably don’t even remember their kindnesses towards me.

  4. Becky Sain says:

    This was just wonderful Nichole. I’m not a writer, but, I can so relate to this. I’ve submitted a few poems along the way and received countless rejections (Okay, well they’ve all been rejections… but that’s not the point!). It’s the things happening around us that drive us to do what we do, whatever that may be — it’s good to be surrunded by love and to be able to see it.
    Can’t wait for the book!!!!

  5. Erika Marks (http://erikamarksauthor says:

    Nichole, I too have one of these wonderful stories–and they do make all the difference. As you so aptly said, agents aren’t our mothers–they don’t have to say things to make us feel better. Any glimpse of encouragement–or any offer to resubmit–is a true and sincere gift, and one to be treasured. I have a letter from an agent from the early 90s, typed and speckled with added notes in the margins, that I still treasure. For that agent to have taken the time–time she knew wouldn’t necessarily yield her any income–changed so much for me and I will always be grateful to her for that. I hesitate to call it a “rejection” letter, too, honestly (even though it ultimately was)–because to me, it was much too encouraging to be considered a rejection.

  6. Julia Munroe Martin (http://www NULL.wordsxo says:

    I love it when people go out of their way to make someone’s day better — whether it’s the 2 yo’s inadvertent sweet moment or the woman at the table or the letter… it reminds me to do this more often myself — to say some nice things randomly. I also love this post because I’ll be starting to query soon, and I’m preparing myself for disappointment — but I also want to prepare myself realistically. Thank you for giving me an idea of how to do that.

  7. Kathy Crowley (http://www NULL.beyondthemargins says:

    Nichole —
    Lovely piece. You make rejection sound so… poetic!
    The next rejection I receive for anything, I’m pulling this out and reading it again.

  8. Javed says:

    Nichole – beautifully said and inspiring. Totally agree about the gold from the mouth of kids – I worry that when my own kids get too big and know better, I will miss the nutty dialogue that gives me so much grist for the mill…

  9. Becky T. (http://www NULL.TheReviewReview says:

    What a beautiful story, Nichole, and a lovely reminder about perseverance. I’m so looking forward to reading the book!

  10. Pam says:

    Your post really resonates with me. I received two caring, candid rejections for my novel that have made me really think. In the silence now of not submitting for a while, I am listening for how the agents’ words will affect mine.

    • NicholeBernier says:

      Caring rejections without the cliches are such a gift. Though it’s always hard to square others’ revision advice with your own vision of how the novel should go, I always felt that if a certain bit of advice cropped up time and again, it might be worth considering. Best of luck with your revisions and queries.

  11. Barbara Sissel (http://www NULL.barbarataylorsissel says:

    What a lovely post, Nichole. Having received such advice offered in exactly the same way and received the benefit from a person I will never meet, I know how you feel. I so often wish for a way to say more than thank you. But thank you for this post. And I’m glad to have found your book too.


  12. robin black (http://www NULL.robinblack says:

    Love this post. I love the idea that our careers can be helped even by people who aren’t “our people” just by the care they show and time they take. Beautifully told, too.

  13. Natalie Serber (http://www NULL.natalieserber says:

    Thanks so much for this post. Your perseverance and trust to see a long project through is inspiring for all of us. I recently wrote about my own long search for the right agent and publisher and the ability to trust your own best impulses on the page. Congratulations on your book. I look forward to reading it.
    ~Natalie Serber

  14. Valerie (http://purplegallinule NULL.blogspot says:

    Beautiful post and message. Your honest perspective is refreshing. I am new on my writing path. One luxurious side effect of meeting writers is how tall my reading list is growing. Looking forward to more of your words.

  15. Kirsetin Morello (http://KirsetinMorello says:

    This is the kind of story that renews my faith in the basic goodness of people. It’s so easy for all of us (me included) to focus intensely on our own schedules, kids, lives & To Do lists. I can’t imagine how busy that agent is, or how many proposals she receives. It speaks both to the quality of your work and the strength of her character. What a great encouragement to all of us! Thanks for sharing.

    • NicholeBernier says:

      I agree, Kirsetin. And it’s so important to recognize encouragement even in the disappointments! I’m going to be sending that agent an early hardcover in a few weeks, with a copy of this piece.

      Best of luck to you with the schedules and the kids. I DO know….

  16. Stephanie Elliot (http://www NULL.stephanieelliot says:

    Thank you for this. I recently chose to end my relationship with my agent and am now searching for a new one. I feel like I’m starting all over again. It’s so hard, but I will never forget my first agent and the confidence and support she offered to me. But it’s still so hard!

    • NicholeBernier says:

      It is! Upheaval and new beginnings seem to be the nature of publishing these days for everyone, even seasoned writers. Susan Orlean once wrote a piece in her blog for The New Yorker about how many editors she went through once…on a single book. Reading that, and going through this long process on mine, reminds me of what my mother always said: You always have to be your best self leaving your best impression everywhere, partly because you never know under what circumstances you’ll meet that person (or their colleagues, or friends) again. A friend just gained as her new editor — through firings and hirings — someone who once passed on her manuscript at another major publishing house. High road always. New opportunities. And sometimes even for the better, though it doesn’t seem that way at the time!

      Good luck with your search for a new agent. Kudos to you for having the strength to leave something that wasn’t a good fit for you.

  17. Hallie Sawyer (http://www NULL.halliesawyer says:

    This is such a great testament of how an act of kindness can make a big impact. Thank you for sharing this behind-the-scenes story of your novel.

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