Wanda Coleman and My One Hundred Rejections

I began writing poetry my freshmen year of college and I never felt the need to let on that I wrote poetry, and, as it happen, it never came up in a huddle or scrum or in the bar after a game or match. I had written behind closed doors for eight years when I met the poet Wanda Coleman, and it was she who gave me the, figuratively, swift kick in the behind that sent me on the road to becoming a published writer.

I wasn’t embarrassed of writing poetry but rather believed it to be personal. My father suffered a stroke my freshmen year and I remember sitting in a music appreciation class and writing a paragraph in my notebook on life and death  titled  it “The Cycle of Life”. With that entry the flood gates opened and for the next eight years I poured my feelings and thoughts onto the page.

I had known for some time that I wanted to write for a living but I didn’t know how to go about it. I had earned a football scholarship and had wanted to play pro football. But even the dream of a professional football career was only a means to an end because I knew football took only six months out of the year and the income would allow me to write the other half of the year. A writing life is what I desired.

Writing took hold of me my sophomore year of high school in Ms. Johnson’s English class when she assigned the task of writing either several forms of poems or of writing a short story. Being that I was football player I was not writing poetry. Although, later, I did write a Haiku, which I believe, was truly the spark that ignited my love of playing with words. Moreover, like many students, I had been exposed to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and the “Nick Adam Stories.” So it is no great leap of the imagination to see why I chose the short story over the poem.

The story was a success. Ms. Johnson selected mine to read to the class and I could see in her eyes the admiration for my effort and I also saw some odd looks from my classmates, and the pretty blond I had a crush on flashed me a cute smile. I was hooked. In football I enjoyed the applause of the crowd and the slap on the back from teammates and coaches after a good play, and now sitting there in class as my teacher read my story I had the same feeling.

In nineteen eighty-four, I decided it was time. I was going to commit to writing, and using Hemingway as a template I would begin by writing short stories and once I had honed my craft I would take on the big fish; the novel.

It happen my decision of committing to the literary life coincided with the poet Wanda Coleman appearing at Chelsea Bookstore in Long Beach, just a few blocks from where I lived in Belmont Shores. Ms. Coleman had earned a reputation not only for her poetry but also for her expressive readings.

 The bookstore, a converted craftsman house, still had a homey, cozy feel to it. Ms. Coleman had drawn a full house. Some patrons sat in the chairs positioned in front of the platform and podium. Others squeezed into nooks and alcoves and a few stood. I had found a small chair overlooked near the door.

When she began I don’t recall her ever looking down at her book placed on the podium. The words rolled from her tongue and leapt into the air and carried over my head and out the door. The room filled with her images, they danced before me, and they lifted me, held me, taught me and then gently brought me back. It was a Sunday-go-to-meeting kind of experience.

After the reading I sat quietly among the hushed audience letting the words and my emotions subside. Slowly some made their way to her and shook her hand and engaged her in conversation. I stood and nervously waited. I was anxious because I had decided to ask her for advice and I had never spoken to a poet. I would ask her. She would know.

I moved toward her making sure I was the last in line. When it was my turn I shook her hand, thanked her for reading and then I asked.

“Ms. Coleman I want to be a writer. How do I become a writer?”

She looked down from her platform, clasping her book of poetry with both hands, leaned toward me, and looked into my eyes.

“How many rejection slips do you have?

“None,” I answered.

She leaned back ever so slightly.

“Come back when you have a hundred,” She said.

I nodded. She continued to look at me, wondering, I believe, if I got it.  Again I thanked her and I left. I got the message. I began writing short stories and sending them out. I sent them everywhere: from big magazines and prestigious literary reviews to obscure start-ups. Nine years later I sold my first short story and received a check for ten dollars. With the check in hand I hurried over to my desk and opened the top drawer, and I began to count. I had saved every rejection slip from photocopied prints to nicely handwritten notes of encouragement: Ninety-six.

I always knew that one day I would tell her she was right and I would thank her for the best advice any novice could get. So it was with sadness that I read Ms. Coleman had passed in November of last year. If I have any regrets it is that when Ms. Coleman came to San Diego for a speaking engagement I could not thank her in person. I could not hold up my published novel and show her. However, I believe she would have understood. I was on my book tour.

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