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THE GOODBYE PROJECT: Letting Go is Good, Yo! Episode 16-Rejection Slips, Part One: KEEP YOUR FAVORITE!

About The Goodbye Project:

There are so many of us who can’t part with objects because of the sentimental attachment we have to them. You know—the graduation tassels, the barfed-on stuffed animal with the missing eye, the coat your late father bought for you because you begged. So what do you do when it’s time to let go of these beloved items because it’s absolutely necessary?

I’d read someplace that one of the best ways to let go of an object is to know that you have a photo. Sure, you can photograph it before you get rid of it. The Goodbye Project takes the idea a step further: go back and find photos of yourself actually with, using, or wearing that object, and blurb a bit about the memories it invokes.

Why? Everything has a story.

And because of that, the object deserves more than just a hasty trip to the Goodwill or the trash without a second thought.

EPISODE 16: REJECTION SLIPS, PART ONE: KEEP YOUR FAVORITE!

The current binder I use to keep track of my submissions. For a long time, I had five or six very large four-inch binders that contained rejection slips and acceptances going all the way back to 1992. I no longer have them; this is the only tracker I keep now, and I clean it out frequently.

The inside of the binder. Each sheet protector holds two submissions, unless there happens to be too much correspondence connected with one submission so there isn’t room for a second.

Are you a writer? If you are, do you remember your very first rejection slip? I do, and although I knew it was somewhere in my files, I wasn’t sure where. While going through everything I own and getting rid of stuff, I came across it in a file marked “Special Letters.”

I know, it doesn’t seem like a writer’s first rejection should be held in such high esteem, but to tell you the truth, this one was so magical because of where it came from and what it meant it is my earliest memory of writing-related correspondence.

It was 1985. I was fourteen years old, and had been writing short stories since I was five or so. The only places to which I’d ever “submitted” my stories were to my teachers (pretty much the only people who supported my writing besides my friends, my Auntie Del, and my cousin Maryanne), or to my elementary and middle school writing contests or magazines.

My favorite television show at the time was the new Twilight Zone series, which had just begun airing on CBS on Fridays as part of the Fall Line-Up (remember THOSE?). I had watched the original Twilight Zone whenever my mother had it on, but this new, updated series was much more hip to my teenaged eye. After watching a few episodes and loving the endings of each, I got the thought in my head that a short piece I’d written might make a nice fit for this TV series (oh, man, did I understand NOTHING back then!). I typed it up on the old manual typewriter I had at the time, somehow got my hands on CBS’ address (remember, there was no Internet; I probably looked it up in a huge directly in the library), wrote a letter to go with it, hitched a ride to the post office with my Mom so I could get stamps (she wanted to know what the stamps were for, I told her I was sending thank-you notes), and mailed it from school.

I kept a copy of the letter I sent.

Here’s the cover letter I sent with my story. I know, it’s pretty badly written and stiff. I have to say, though, I was gutsy for 14. Then again, I didn’t know there were rules, let alone what they were. Had I NOT been ignorant of the way these things worked, I probably would have been too terrified to send in anything at all—and it’s unlikely I’d be where I am today. PS-You can read the story in the next photo, but I don’t think it has the ‘twist’ ending, nor do I think it’s well-written or complete in terms of conflict or anything.

Here’s a copy of the story. It’s typed on onion skin erasable paper.

About a month later, I came home from school and opened the mailbox—and was surprised to see a familiar logo: that of The Twilight Zone TV series! I was shocked I’d gotten a response that fast (remember, this was the world pre-e-mail and pre-Internet). And it had also come from an entirely different address than the one to which I’d sent it. I set down my book bag, fished the letter from the mailbox, and, at first, held it in my hands in disbelief. There was a name typed underneath the logo: Rockne S. O’Bannon.

The envelope that came in the mailbox.

The back of the envelope. I find it interesting that the address from whence it came is completely different from the one to which I’d sent it.

Wow. Rockne S. O’Bannon himself had typed his name under the return address! Yes, of COURSE I knew who he was. His name appeared on the credits as the series’ story editor, and he’d written one or two of the show’s segments. Other writers for the series included names of people whose stories I read all the time, like Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury.

I opened the letter and, even though it was a rejection—and it stated my story hadn’t even been read—I wasn’t disappointed. Rockne S. O’Bannon himself had written a personal letter on his letterhead to little old me! And he was even nice enough to send back the self-addressed, stamped envelope, which meant I could re-use the stamp (of course, I never did; I wanted to keep my prize intact)!

The letter I received from Mr. O’Bannon. It’s typed, on a typewriter—undoubtedly the most modern one available in 1985—and is on a dark gray 100% Cotton 32-lb. stock.

My story was returned to me in exactly the condition I’d sent it. It was quite obvious it hadn’t been read.

The SASE he returned. I’m not sure if you had a choice in what designs on the stamps you wanted back then, but I find it amusing it was a whelk, which means if I DID have a choice, I probably deliberately picked it for good luck.

So there it is, my first rejection. That letter should have crushed me, but instead, it fueled the fire. Because to a lonely fourteen-year-old kid who didn’t get any support for her writing from her parents, this was not a rejection: this was communication. This was response.

I started looking up magazines and sending my short stories all over the place. I became addicted to checking the mailbox, to receiving rejections, or even just ‘we don’t accept fiction, read our guidelines’ from those invisible, God-like beings called Editors.

I attribute my entire career to Mr. O’Bannon’s letter.

What’s more interesting, though, is to think about what I’d done, as well as the response I got, in the context of my own maturity, how things have changed in the submissions process over the years, and how my experiences during those years have altered my once-naïve view of it all.

As I’d mentioned in one of my photo captions, I had no awareness of rules. No awareness of ‘type it this way’ or ‘this is how you write a business letter’ or ‘oh my God, you do NOT send your unsolicited ideas to television!’ Being my fiancée works in television, I understand now it’s an entire process that, in itself, has changed since the 1980s—and had I not been ignorant, I probably would have been too embarrassed to send anything. It was a true case of ignorance is bliss.

What I also find amazing is that at that age I just had no fear. I had no fear of anyone saying ‘no,’ but it seems like, when everyone did say no, I somehow just accepted it as “part of the business”—well, it certainly couldn’t be because my stuff was BAD, right? There had to be some other reason, yes! My typical teen arrogance, in essence, saved my ass—I never questioned the quality of my own work. I was really lucky I started when I was so young and bold and naïve, because that attitude never changed. It just grew and matured along with me (now I certainly do understand that yes, my stuff can be bad). But I’ve been submitting for so many years it’s literally become routine, like paying bills. Yes, once in awhile I have that stab of disappointment because I got rejected by something I REALLY wanted to get into, but it goes away with a glass of wine and then it’s on to the next. I often wonder, if I hadn’t started all this when I was ignorant and bold, would I still be doing it now? After all, I know adults today that have all their writing hiding in drawers because they’re afraid of rejection. Would I have been like them?

Something else that, in retrospect, is amazing: this letter, in the days before e-mail and Internet, got where it needed to be and came back in just about thirty days. First, it was sent to a general address for CBS in Hollywood. No name, no attention of, nothing. The fact that someone at CBS opened it, took the time to read it, probably had to figure out where the hell it was supposed to go, and THEN took the time and effort to make sure it got into Mr. O’Bannon’s hands is incredible to me, especially when I think of how our world now is so fast, so computer-based, that I suspect sometimes snail-mail that isn’t specific is just tossed at a lot of places.

Second, Mr. O’Bannon HIMSELF then stopped what he was doing to actually peek at the envelope’s contents, recognize an amateurish cover letter composed on what-was-even-then-considered an outdated, shitty typewriter, recognize that this was unsolicited material—and still sat down and dictated a courteous, respectful, professional, NOT condescending and polite response to his secretary to type up and send back to me. My letter was part of three people’s normal course of business. I was on a to-do list. What’s amazing about that? Well, first, we know now that submissions of any sort have to go through channels. Guidelines must be followed. If you don’t do it right—and especially if you send unsolicited material that could be potentially a legal land mine for them if your idea is ever used and you notice—you’re likely to not get ANY response at all, let alone one that had some thought put into it AND made a point to be considerate of the recipient’s feelings.

Which brings me to my next point: Mr. O’Bannon’s kind response was my very first experience with rejection, and I’m glad it was. In the years that followed, every once in awhile I’d get one that was nasty (yes, really), or vague, or upsetting in some other way (like full of misspellings), and I’d think, ‘gee, if this one had been my first rejection instead of Mr. O’Bannon’s, I wonder if I’d even be doing this at all.’

So, you’re asking me now what this has to do with The Goodbye Project? I’ll tell you in Episode 17: REJECTION SLIPS, PART TWO-BURN THE REST!

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