In 1968, composer Alex North walked into the New York City premiere of the latest film he had been commissioned to score, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was fresh off Oscar nominations for Sparticus, Cleopatra, The Agony and the Ecstasy and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
It was another chance for this extraordinary composer’s talent to shine and he arrived hopeful he’d receive accolades for a project on which he’d worked exceedingly hard.
Remember his name: Alex North. We’ll get back to him in a moment.
A few blogs ago I promised that I would share my worst rejection story. I had to take some time to remember a lot of the details. I’ve pushed it into the far recesses of my mind. But even successes don’t always erase the memory of failures.
At the time I was full of enthusiasm and ready to take on the world. Little did I know the world was about to beat me to a bloody pulp.
I was young when I began my publishing quest—hardly over twenty—and I looked even younger. I hadn’t figured out that a ponytail and Gap overalls weren’t exactly screaming “I’m a professional.” Sometimes I was overlooked just because of how I looked. But I was who I was and determined to make it as a writer.
I was lucky early on to have a few mentors, one by the name of Jim. Jim had insisted that I come to Kansas City for the big Christian book convention. He told me to meet him at the front and he’d give me a pass. I showed up in—you guessed it—my Gap overalls. Jim, in his sixties, looked me over and smirked. “That’s the outfit you decided on today?”
I glanced down and shrugged. I figured I should be comfortable. It was a big convention. I pictured myself walking the carpet, doing mostly recon work, maybe spotting a favorite author or two at a book signing.
Jim had other plans.
Fresh through the gates, Jim took me by the arm and marched me straight toward a booth.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“We’re being professional writers,” he said.
My heart skipped a beat. Somehow I sensed that something terrible was about to happen to me. The kind of terrible that you don’t want to be caught in overalls for.
The next thing I know, we’re standing at a table. I peer up and there is a huge sign announcing one of the big publishing houses. The rest of what happened is kind of a blur. Jim stuck out his hand. Another man stuck out his hand. These two men gave hearty handshakes while I stuck my own hands deep into my overall pockets.
Jim’s elbow nudged me—I think to wake me out of whatever trance I’d gone into—and he said, “Rick, this is Rene Gutteridge. And she’s got a novel she would like to pitch to you.”
I have a way better poker face these days, but let me assure you that whatever expression Rick saw on me immediately let him know that I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t particularly astute and I possibly might not even be in the game.
“Oh. Is that so?” Rick asked.
I mumbled something. I think Jim rolled his eyes at this point.
“Well,” Rick said, “I’m just on my way to lunch. If you’ll walk with me, I’d be happy to hear your elevator pitch.”
He had already started walking.
Jim gave me the kind of look that says, “You’re totally disappointing me far beyond your dress code.”
So I hurried after Rick.
And wouldn’t you know it—we stepped onto an elevator.
Jim just stood there and watched the doors close. Smirking.
Rick glanced at his watch again. I’m pretty sure it was just for effect.
I took a deep breath.
This was my moment.
I was a writer.
This could be my big break!
I rolled through all the different lessons I’d been reading about the thirty second elevator pitch—which was exactly none.
“Well,” I began, “it’s the story of a, uh, an…an editor at a publishing house who begins to…well, he begins to get, receive, this anonymous—“
The elevator doors opened. Rick stepped out. I kind of wished the elevator had just dropped but no such luck. So I followed him, my cheeks basically heat conductors.
Rick reached into the pocket of his suit and pulled out a card. “Tell you what, why don’t you just send me the proposal?”
I nodded and watched Rick walk away.
That, I thought, was the most embarrassing moment of my life.
Hyperbole is the quickest way to get the universe to prove you wrong.
It wasn’t long after that disastrous pitch that I went to a drama conference. I had been writing a lot of things for stage. I’d found some actors willing to muscle their way through my underdeveloped yet wildly on-the-nose attempts at dialogue and somehow we were managing to pull a few things off here and there.
I’d been working on a three-act play and it was the first time I felt like I was making some progress toward becoming a real writer. The actors seemed to want to be there for rehearsals. There was excitement in the air. Maybe…just maybe…I’d achieved something special.
So we all decided on a whim to travel to this drama conference. They were attending acting workshops. I was attending writing workshops. I think that’s the first time we called ourselves a “troupe.”
And it was the first time that I let anyone outside my small group of friends read my work. I had actually submitted it. And not just to anyone. To one of the better known playwrights around. He was a legend—you know, the kind that sit on panels and they give nametags to. He had an accent. Not foreign but academic.
I was so excited.
My appointment to meet with him was late in the day. Everyone had finished their classes and my one-on-one was the last thing we had to do before returning to the hotel.
The meeting was held in a room. I remember it as stark white. Maybe not. But it felt sterile to me. I think it’s because all the warmth in the room got sucked right out as I set foot toward destiny.
He sat against a wall, motioned for me to come sit, and what happened in the next fifteen minutes can only be described as a literary bloodbath.
I remember red ink. Irritation. And anger. His eyes flashed with the three D’s: disapproval, disdain and disgust. He turned the pages of my play, pointing at this and that and barking at how many simple mistakes I could’ve avoided had I paid the least amount of attention to what I was doing.
He was offended at some of the religious points I was trying to make too, he said.
I don’t think I heard another word after that. Not until he finished by saying, “Keep the first page, toss the rest.”
He scooted the pages to me and just stared. I gathered up the papers and hurried out of the room only to be met by something even worse: six smiling faces—my friends—all eagerly anticipating the good news I was going to share.
I did the only thing I could do.
I burst into tears.
Rejected. Not just my work. But me. Apparently I was so bad I was offensive. That’s a whole other level of bad.
It took me many months to get over it. Even while we toured with that show—and had scores of people tell us how much they loved it—I was haunted by that day. By the look in this man’s eyes. My heart. My soul. Right there on the page—it had disgusted him.
It took special people to help me out of the gutter of self-doubt. It wouldn’t be the last time I was to be rejected. Many more were around the corner. And as I became published and built my writing career, they weren’t confined to sterile white rooms near walls, but some were public. Real public. Receiving criticism, it turned out, seemed as much a part of the job as the writing.
At this point I would love to say that if you stick with it long enough, eventually you’ll grow this really thick skin and it’ll roll right off your back.
I guess so. If you ever stop caring.
I’ve never been able to stop caring. I write because I care. I care because I believe in what I’m writing. I have not ever been able to find that comfortable, aloof zone that many high profile writers brag about.
It stung on day one. It still stings. I think it always will.
My skin is not thicker. In fact, I think it’s worn down pretty thin at this point.
But I learned something else: I must really love to do this thing called writing. Because why else would I keep enduring this? Rejection, I found out, ends up making you understand that you have a calling—a deep love—for it. You keep coming back for more, even though you can’t explain it. And somehow, you keep getting better because something far inside of you wants to prove all your critics wrong.
Alex North. Remember him?
As Mr. North walked the red carpet of the New York City premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I imagine, though he’d had many successes, it was always a nerve-racking experience. Will the audience like it? Will they understand my artistic choices?
Camera bulbs flashed. He shook hands with old acquaintances and was dressed to the nines.
He sat down in the theater, the lights dramatically lowered, he settled in for a two hour show and then the unthinkable happened.
He realized that his entire score had been replaced. Stanley Kubrick, at some point, decided to use classical music instead.
It’s just that no one remembered to call Alex North to let him know.
It was reported that North was devastated. And who wouldn’t be?
The score would remain unheard, until, decades later, Jerry Goldsmith would rerecord it for the world to hear. And many critics who heard it agreed that Kubrick had made a terrible choice by not using it.
I bet you thought that my rejection story ended with me walking out of that room and bursting into tears, didn’t you?
Not so fast. There’s more.
Fast forward ten or so years. I’m a well-published novelist by now and I’m attending book conventions not as a young, naïve girl in overalls, but rather a seasoned writer who has been invited to sign books.
A group of my friends decided to meet one evening in a hotel lobby to catch up. We had a great time, but always the first to turn in, I said my goodbyes and went to the front of the lobby to catch a cab back to my own hotel.
And that’s when I saw him.
The man who nearly ended my writing career before it started was walking toward me.
I could never forget his face as long as I live. It was seared into my soul!
Clearly, though, he’d forgotten mine, because he smiled at me as he approached and asked which hotel I was staying at. I told him and he said, “Oh, that’s mine! Care to share a cab?”
We climbed in and he glanced down at the badge I still had around my neck. His face lit with surprise. “I know you!” he said. I swallowed, a little breathless, afraid of what he would say next. “I know your books. You’re a terrific writer.”
And we chatted all the way to the hotel.
I watched him walk to the elevators as I stood in the hotel lobby. I’d always imagined him to be quite a monster. It turned out he was just an ordinary man. Maybe I had caught him on a bad day all those years ago. Or maybe he’d grown some tact and generosity. Whatever the case, it was a surreal moment. And it taught me an important lesson.
Rejection, however difficult and however cutting, is only that. It does not define who we are unless we let it.
Alex North went on to compose many more scores, and receive an honorary Academy Award.
Rene Gutteridge went on. And that might be my greatest achievement of all.