I had my first major rejection as a writer and my first major triumph as a writer the same year: eighth grade. And they both had to do with the same boy, Dick Thistle, with whom I fell in love on October 17, 1967 (in case you think I might have forgotten the date). I called him Apollo and wrote sonnets to him in the voice of Clytie, the Greek maiden in love with the Sun God who is turned into a sunflower from all the hours she spends rooted in place watching the majestic progression of his chariot across the sky.
Here is one of them, written to him on his birthday, January 10 (in case you think I might have forgotten the date -- I also think of him every year on January 25, the day I was kicked out of class for talking and he walked me to the office, and on April 5, the day we held a dance to raise money for the new junior high water fountain and he asked me to dance; the song was the dreadfully saccharine "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro; I played the 45-speed record over and over and over again for months afterward).
Okay, the sonnet:
To Apollo on His Birthday
My humble words do naught but waste your time.
They are not even fit for you to scorn.
So I do dare to beg, forgive this rhyme.
Pretend my words of love had n'er been born.
Apollo, all my being cries in love,
My starving gaze does feast upon your face.
I worship you, oh god of sun above.
But I must stop ere I forget my place.
All that I want is just to kiss your feet,
To feel your gaze one moment on me rest,
To let our eyes for just one second meet,
And this will make my life forever blessed.
Apollo, on your birthday let me cry
I love you, and for you gladly I would die.
I showed the poem to my friend Judy Harper, making her swear she would not show it to Dick Thistle, but of course she gave it to him instantly, and of course all-too-predictable disaster ensued. In fact, I happened to see, some time later, a list he wrote of things he wanted in a girlfriend, and the list began: 1) isn't blonde; 2) isn't emotional; 3) doesn't write poetry.
So that was my first major rejection as a writer.
But my first major success came when I wrote about the whole experience, including the part where he asked me to make good on my poetic protestations and actually kiss his feet right in the middle of the Algebra I class, and I DID IT. It's an experience so embarrassing I can hardly bear to write about it now. But I wrote about it then, in an autobiographical book I was scribbling all that year, called T Is for Tarzan (further embarrassing revelation: my 8th grade nickname was Tarzan, and I used to do a legendary dance called the Ape Dance).
When I finished T Is for Tarzan, I typed it up on a manual typewriter, with carbon paper to make two copies, and began circulating it among my friends. The book became the sensation of North Plainfield Junior High. There was a lengthy waiting list for people to sign up to read it. Of course, part of the appeal was that everybody was in it, names unchanged, and I wrote everything - EVERYTHING - that happened to all of us that year in wrenchingly honest detail.
When I go back to New Jersey for my high school reunions (I've never missed one), some of the events in T Is for Tarzan have now become questions on the reunion trivia quiz: e.g., "Who were the two boys who ran the famous race-around-the-track with Tarzan?" I'm often asked to perform the Ape Dance. The now-grown man who organizes the reunions sent me an email about the last one with the subject heading: "T is for too long since we talked."
So that was my first major triumph as a writer.
It taught me the power of taking even the most cringe-worthy moments in life and writing about them, unflinchingly, unsparingly, as honestly as I could, with what Brenda Ueland calls "microscopic truthfulness." And I've tried to keep on doing that, ever since.