I took a deep breath.
“Dear Tamara, I am writing to let you know … did not … unfortunately … large number ... not nearly ... competition is exceedingly stiff…
I read and re-read the words, until I couldn’t anymore. It was a rejection from a well-respected Creative Writing MFA program. I couldn’t stop crying. My chair faced the wall away from my co-worker. There was a picture on the wall, flowers or a sunset. It was supposed to be calming and now it looked stupid. I felt like Jane Eyre at the beginning of her story. The thought of being stuck in a bluish cubicle wasteland at a medical company was beyond depressing. I had been preparing this application for two years. I was stuck in a job I didn't want, and I was wrong about being a writer. This isn't the way the story should end.
When I was a baby and my fam was stuck in a cramped apartment in Montreal, my Auntie tells me she used to pick me up and rock me when I’d cry. Ma used to fight with her sisters all the time. Ma had cut my aunties out of all of her pictures in a jaggedly fashion. My dad was working as a waiter and worked nights so he slept during the day. Auntie doesn’t say why Ma wasn’t the one comforting me and I don’t press her for more. I know the answers sorta and anyways Ma’s dead now, questions about that can wait. Someone carried me and comforted me but this story is a gift. I had never heard it before.
I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. It is not easy for me to write about it. They believe the end is coming and that Jehovah God will save the righteous. The preaching work is of primary importance and it involves teaching others about God’s Kingdom and we are to follow the Bible’s moral guidelines. When you’re all in, you kinda bond as a group. You only have each other and the teachings are worldwide and every congregation teaches and follows the same rules worldwide. It was a bubble of security. Ma had an abusive childhood and religion helped her for a while. She struggled with alcoholism and mental health. In the midst of all this, she had us kids and tried to find peace with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I remember my childhood in bits and pieces but books, writing stories, my congregation and teachers like Mrs. Sauriol, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Goodman, Mrs. Wasserman were sources of light. My father couldn’t deal with Ma though he tried in his own way. My dad was Chinese and Ma was white from a teeny town in Nova Scotia and they had been teenage sweethearts. They grew up and away from each other. Many families watched over us in our congregation and made sure we were ok. I felt safe at the Kingdom Hall and knowing God watched over me. I didn’t realize that one day, I would be leaving it all behind. It was everything to me. It was my family, my community. I thought I’d go back one day after deciding to slowly take a break after a bout with depression. I didn’t.
There was void in my life without religion. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I volunteered at a literacy centre and for different things here and there. I used to go to meetings three times a week and preached and studied the Bible. For years I didn’t play on sports teams because I was so focused on preaching and we weren’t to spend much time with non-believers. Now I was alone with my own thoughts and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t sure who I was now. That’s when I started to first try hockey, then softball and soccer. I was making new friends. Friends that weren’t from a Kingdom Hall. It began to fill the void a little.
It was a hot Sunday in July. Anything is hot when you run outside for ninety minutes in the middle of summer. Ok, maybe I didn’t run the whole ninety minutes. Running or not running, it doesn’t matter because I’m lying on the pitch, a fancy soccer word for field. I am on this goddamn whatever-you-want-to-call-it after making a play from defense for the ball. I always go full throttle (there’s no other speed for me), and the snapping sound brings me crashing to the ground. A sharp pain and then nothing. I am crying because I’m embarrassed lying there and know that I can’t keep putting my body through this. It’s my third injury in the past three seasons. You have improved so much since you started, my captain tells me. You should see your face when you’re going for the ball you’re so determined to get there. Players don’t often get by you. I feel like an equal there. That I really belong. This team carried me in ways I didn’t fully understand. My husband runs on the field and carries me off. I need them. This will be my last game. I will have to find something else. Something I will need more than this.
I decided to start take writing courses. My therapist encouraged me to write. It wasn’t great stuff. I got a bonus at work so I used it to apply to the Humber School for Writers. It was the real beginning of my writer life, though I didn’t know it then. I loved all the panels, the writing advice and even though I had never workshopped before, it didn’t discourage me. I still didn’t know if I belonged completely. I hadn’t taken writing courses since high school, but I wanted to get better. I took one more class at UofG with Zoe Whittall and she encouraged me in my writing. When I started non-fiction courses at UofT with Ayelet Tsabari it's where I find my something else. I begin to write my truth and it's scary and I feel naked most times. No one turns away. Ayelet tells me she loved my piece “Father Hallowed Be Thy Name” that I wrote during her class. It’s the first time I had started writing about my family and our lives. I submitted it to Ricepaper and they accepted it in December; an early Christmas gift.
We form a writing group made up of former non-fiction students; some stay, some go. We submit to lit mags. We encourage each other and start to share our rejections. I don’t feel like a kid with just a high school education. I feel like my voice matters and I don’t want to waste another moment doing anything else. It’s scary and exciting all at once when I start preparing for the MFA program. I get my references and work hard on my portfolio. If they accept me, finally, I can be a writer.
After the MFA rejection, I had to take a break from writing and regroup. I was kind of numb and reached out to my group and mentors within the writing community. I wanted to stop writing. What did I need writing for anyway! It doesn’t want me! I got a few more rejections. One came on the anniversary of Ma’s death. To me it was just confirmation that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. My husband told me I was being silly, I didn’t really want to stop writing (he also was the one that said to me if he didn't support my dreams how could he expect me to support his dreams). I didn’t know what I wanted, so I just stopped writing. I would unplug and not read either; a two-year-old’s tantrum. I had to decide what I wanted to do about this writing thing.
I felt humiliated by my MFA rejection and thought, a committee of my peers had read my work and wanted to pass on it. That the work didn't cut it and they took great pleasure to turn me down. Could it be that it didn’t fit it with the other students? I remember someone saying that. At the time, I could not see why, didn’t know why and my email didn’t say why. Why couldn’t I just accept it and move on?
What happened next is:
Lots of sad music on repeat.
Sleeping with the book Lit by Mary Karr under my pillow.
Asking Ma for a sign.
Reading emails by writer friends over and over.
It’s hard losing a potential future you. It’s a real grievable loss.
Just keep doing what you need to do. You have an amazing story to tell.
On the other side of heartache and time to absorb this rejection, there is a writer's path here,
you are a writer, degree or no, schooling or no.
Don't stop, Tamara- You deserve to honour your own creativity.
Listening to webinar 10 Years of Not Giving Up (How To Keep Your Writing Life Alive) by writers and editors Rachel Thompson and Doretta Lau.
You don’t have to make a decision yet. You only need to listen to what they have to say. It makes sense to you though. They’ve been there. You realize that it’s okay to feel bad about something you wanted so badly.
You think about signing up for Lit Mag Love with Rachel Thompson. It means you have to write. Hmm. You miss it a little, if you’re being honest. You resist a little. You’re tired. You’re too busy. You’re not ready. You run out of excuses so you just sign up.
You don’t know this yet but after this course, one of your stories will be accepted in Room magazine (!!), your CanLit first love. You will be accepted into The Writer’s Studio. You’ll also be doing some blogging with the ever-cool Invisible Publishing. You get a part time job and will quit your cubicle gig after twelve years so you can put writing first.
First though, this community brings you back to your writing life
Tamara Jong is a Montreal-born mixed-race writer currently enrolled in The Writer’s Studio. Her work has been published in Ricepaper and Room.