The rejection letter comes late, and I'm confused at first. I have to read it a few times, check the sender's name and the position referenced. It's been so long since I applied, since I gave up waiting, that there's no sting in the "no." Like giving up on someone in May, and having them tell you it's over in October, the rejection doesn't register.
* * *
As soon as I started college in 2004, I wanted to be a professor. I loved school; I was good at it. The idea of devoting my life to books and research and teaching felt natural, like some kind of destiny. Grad school gave me the chance to teach in libraries and community-college classrooms: just enough of a taste of the real thing to make it all seem within reach. It was all I wanted.
I had the education, I told myself. I had done the work and paid some dues. All I had to do was apply.
I wasn't thinking about the thousands of other MFA-holders who were more experienced and just as hungry. I wasn't thinking about the tenuous and insecure life of my peers who were struggling to break into academia. No, I was thinking about the idyllic-yet-totally-attainable future I had crafted in my mind over the years: grading mountains of papers and inspiring new writers, with summers off to write books and sabbaticals abroad. You know. "The Dream."
The rock-solid, crippling dream.
Writers pin a lot of their worth on dreams: mostly on dreams of acceptance. Acceptance into a master's program, a conference, a residency, a job. We know it won't be easy, but the pain of rejection is worth that one "yes." We're artists, we say. We're built for the pain. It makes us better. It makes us feel as if we've "earned it" when the Universe finally gives us a win. The rules of insanity don't apply to us; we must do the same thing over and over, because, eventually, there will be a different result.
But sometimes, what we pursue is insane. Sometimes it slowly kills us. And we need to know when to stop.
A few months back I was looking to move out of Rhode Island. I knew I needed a new job, and I thought, yes. Now is the time! At last, The Dream will come true. I will find a professorship at a university in Massachusetts and my life will finally begin. The fantasies came back, vivid and blinding as ever. I applied for every writing-teacher job I could find, some as far as ninety minutes from my new home. The long nights and drives would be worth it, I told myself, because I would be living The Dream at last.
But all I got was silence, from each and every one.
In a fit of desperation I side-stepped The Dream and looked elsewhere. I applied for writing jobs in marketing, social media, public relations. For the first time in years, I got a phone interview.
And then another.
And then another.
Then an in-person interview.
Then, a job offer: a really good one.
But! But! The Dream! I whined. I still had writing-professor applications out in cyberspace. What if one of them said yes? What if I took this job, and a few weeks later The Dream came through? I had been rejected every single time I had tried to break into college teaching, but the vision of that life had become so rooted in my purpose as a human being that it still hung there, waiting.
But here was something else, something real: placed in my hands without weeks of silence or agony. I could see it; I could feel it. And I had made it so, by forgetting The Dream and pushing on something else for a change. The grip of the abstract loosened; the haze of delusion lifted. I saw how far away that other dream had been all along. I could never have stretched my arms far enough.
Not every dream is good. Giving up on bad dreams doesn't make us quitters; it gives us back our energy and lets us put it where it truly belongs. Every day now, I shoot out of bed as I never have before. I come to a workplace that is quiet and calm and full of brilliant people. I write and read and edit, all day. My brain stretches and opens to learn, to process, to create. I am exhausted yet energized. If this isn't the actual dream, I don't know what would be.
When I see the boiler-plate email rejection, I am tempted to reply. Go break someone else's heart for a change, I want to tell them. I've moved on.
Instead, I delete it and go back to work.