“I don’t understand,” I said out loud as I read the email on my phone, alone in my company’s break room. “I’m a good writer,” I continued, shaking my head. “I don’t get it.”
But the thing was, I did get it. As a writer, my world was full of rejection. On my Submittable profile, the gray “declined” boxes sorely outnumbered the green “accepted” boxes. I’d received rejections from MFA programs, literary journals, anthologies, fellowships, contests, and now, for the second time, the Memoir Incubator. For some reason, this rejection stung worse than the others.
I knew the selection process was subjective. All writers face rejection, I often reminded myself. No writer is immune. Sometimes repeating those statements helped, but in this case it didn’t. I began to wonder if writing was a waste of time. I thought about all the classes and workshops I had taken over the past three years, and wondered if my instructors and classmates had been humoring me when they said they liked my work. Maybe no one had the heart to tell me that I was a terrible writer. What scared me most of all was that maybe the community of writers I had come to know through GrubStreet weren’t my people at all.
I recounted this to my friend Lauren, as I sat on her couch, in the throes of a full-blown pity party. I was staying at her apartment for the weekend to make the commute to the Muse a little easier. But at that moment, I considered not going. “I’m a fraud,” I told my friend. “A complete hack. My whole life is a lie.”
“Oh, Tar… you know that’s not true,” Lauren said as I covered my face with my hands. “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?” I peeked at her through the crack between my fingers. She had a gift of seeing straight through my bullshit.
“Maybe,” I said into my hands. I knew she was right. She usually was. Lauren suggested we get some sleep; it was late, and we had to head to the Park Plaza first thing. I lay on the air mattress in the spare room and listened to the city traffic two stories below, exhausted, but unable to sleep, wondering if I should ditch the conference and spend the weekend learning a new skill. I dozed off sometime later, annoyed, after coming to the sad conclusion that I’m not very good at anything else.
In the morning, I set off to the conference alone. Lauren and I would meet up later. As I walked to the T, I did my best to steady my breathing and not pick at my cuticles. The anxiety I felt was the same variety I got before going anywhere with crowds: concerts, movie theaters, work meetings, family reunions. I remember feeling this way in school until I got my bearings. I felt this way before my first workshop at GrubStreet. I was so nervous I thought I might throw up. Three years later, the fifth floor of 162 Boylston Street felt like home.
At the hotel, I checked into the conference and scoped out the scene. It wasn’t as crowded as I thought it’d be. In the grand ballroom, I found an empty table and sat down. No sooner had I pulled out my laptop was I approached by a woman clutching her conference folder, a cloth tote bag slung over her shoulder. She looked to be around my age, mid-thirties. Did I mind if she sat with me?
“Not at all,” I said as I waved at the seven empty chairs. We talked about writing, our families, and other conferences we’d attended. It was her first Muse as well. I surprised myself with how easy it was to talk because I usually choke around strangers. I panic and sweat and stumble over my words, terrified that I’m not interesting enough, preparing for rejection. A few minutes before the keynote began, a woman who turned out to be a literary agent joined us. She told us about her career in New York and we told her about our work, and in these moments I thought, this is why I came here. This is what the Muse is for.
I never saw these two women again at the conference, but I wish they knew how connecting with them soothed my anxiety and gave me a burst of confidence that propelled me through the day.
The connections continued throughout the weekend. I met up with former classmates and instructors in the hallways, in conference rooms, on the streets of Boston. I struck up conversations with the people sitting nearby before panels began. I talked about writing as if I knew what I was talking about. I attended panels with writers I admired and wished I knew personally: Annie Hartnett inspired me with her advice on how to write like a badass and embrace rejection. Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s lecture on structure brought me to the brink of tears when she explained the three-act model and I had a moment of clarity regarding my own project.
And then there was the moment I met one of my favorite memoirists, Lidia Yuknavich, who signed my filthy, tea-stained, dog-eared copy of The Chronology of Water—a book I was so grateful for, and one I learned had been rejected for publication some absurd number of times. “Sorry this book is so gross,” I said, holding it gingerly so the cover wouldn’t fall off. “I spilled tea all over it.” I wanted to tell her how much her writing moved me, but couldn’t find the words.
She laughed. “Did you see me spill water down my front just now? I’m a mess.” Lidia opened the book, signed it, and placed it gently back into my hands. “No need to be embarrassed,” she said. “I love it.”
At a panel later that afternoon, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich and Mike Scalise talked about how they almost gave up on their books. There had been so much rejection—dozens and dozens of rejections between them. But they kept plugging along and eventually they succeeded. It was then I began to feel better about rejection—that maybe I was on the right track after all. If nothing else, I was certainly in good company.
On Saturday night, I had time to kill before heading over to the ICON nightclub for the Grub Turns 20 party. I walked into the Lit Lounge, but turned on my heels about 10 seconds later when I felt my chest tighten. “Nope,” I said out loud to no one in particular. Went to a lounge in the Park Plaza lobby, aptly called “The Library”: a wood-paneled room decorated with leather armchairs, a couple oversized hourglasses, and several chessboards. And books, of course. Lots of books, and though I had the urge to pluck one off the shelf, I didn’t. I settled at a table in the middle of the room, opened my laptop, and dove into my writing. I spotted three other lanyard-wearing Muse attendees, also flying solo in The Library. I imagined they were introverts like me, enjoying their time alone, recharging their batteries.
Later that evening, I walked to ICON. I ordered a drink and waited to see a friendly face. That night I saw many. Former classmates, instructors, and familiar staff members filled the club. We mingled and drank, listened to accomplished writers read their juvenilia, and we raised our champagne-filled glasses in a toast to GrubStreet.
And then there was dancing, and that was the point I almost called it a night. As much as I wanted to be a person who didn’t give a shit about what people thought, I did care. I had no rhythm, so my dancing pretty much consisted of flailing limbs and head-bopping. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people I respected so much.
I stood at the edge of the crowd, too afraid to work my way in. I found my bag, looped it over my shoulder, still trying to find a reason to stay. As I headed toward the exit, I heard my name called. I turned to see Dorian, one of my favorite GrubStreet instructors, standing near the bar. I shuffled over to him and we talked for a few minutes before I admitted how anxious I felt. “This really isn’t my scene,” I said, shouting over the music. “Dance clubs are my worst nightmare.”
Dorian leaned in and said he understood. “I think that’s probably true for most of us.” It was exactly what I needed to hear, and in that moment I knew I belonged to this group: awkward, anxious, introverted, self-conscious me. If I learned anything at the Muse, it was that most writers felt this way at least some of the time, and there was comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone.
I ordered another vodka soda, put down my bag and slipped into the crowd. I danced late into the night, laughing, belting out the hits of the 90s, brushing elbows and shoulders with my fellow writers. None of us were particularly good dancers, but no one seemed to care. At one point, I bumped into Tom Perrotta (or more specifically, I flailed into him) and in a brief moment of excitement and confidence, I had the urge to grab his hands and blurt, “I LOVE THE LEFTOVERS!” Thankfully I didn’t.
It was close to midnight when I stopped to take a breather, and from the sideline I looked over the crowd of my GrubStreet people under the flashing lights. My writing family. My community. So many talented voices tearing up the dance floor. I felt hopeful and proud and inspired and so, so thankful to be part of this tribe, and that despite my recent rejections (or maybe because of them), I finally felt like I belonged.
I smiled and worked my way back into the crowd.