Commencement Speech: The Illinois Institute of Art
In writing this speech, I reflected back to my own graduation from Barat College. I won’t tell you how long ago that was. My commencement speaker was Jane Byrne, former mayor of Chicago. I’m sure she gave a great speech, but to be honest I can’t remember a thing she said. So in writing my speech that took a little pressure off me. If you remember just one thing I say today, then I’ve done my job.
I’d like to talk to you about two traits you’ll need in your careers as artists: persistence and resilience.
Why are these traits so important? Because, I hate to break it to you, at one time or another in your career, you’ll face rejection? It goes with the territory.
To prove my point, let me tell about some famous people who faced rejection early in their careers.
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job as a news anchor. The reason given was “she wasn’t fit for television.”
A book editor told J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter books) that she should get a day job. “You have little chance of making money in children’s books.”
Vera Wang failed at making the Olympics Figure Skating Team and then was passed over for editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine. At 40 she designed her first dress. I guess she showed Vogue.
Walt Disney was fired from his job as an illustrator at a newspaper. The editor fired him because “he was lacking in ideas.”
Having had my own share of rejections as a writer, I have to admit I did get perverse pleasure in reading these famous people’s rejections.
So why did they refuse to give up on their dreams? Experts in their fields were telling them, they had no talent, they were never make it in their field, and that they should give up.
“Get a day job.” “You have no ideas.” “You’re not fit for television.”
What made them persist? Let’s face it; rejection is hard. It hurts. But you have to look at rejection as a rite of passage. Rejection is a part of the artist’s life. Rejection is a part of life.
I’d like to share with you my rejection story, which like my mystery novels is full of twists and turns, a shady character, and a surprise ending.
My first mystery novel, Destroying Angels, was published in 2006. What most people don’t know is that it took nine years and two book contracts before it was published.
Why did it take so long to be published, you might ask? I always console myself with the fact that the average time for a first novel to be published is 10 years—this was before E-publishing. Plus I’d made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t go with a vanity press or self-publish. That vow was tested during my long road to publication.
During those nine years I accumulated two drawers of rejections letters from agents and publishers. Most were form letters. But some who read the manuscript made suggestions on how I could improve my book, which I took seriously. Afterall I was learning my craft. But each rejection felt like a wound to me. I took it personally. Luckily, I didn’t have to get a day job. I already had one, teaching at UIC.
After about five years of rejections to my surprise and delight a reputable independent publisher accepted my book. Now here’s where the story takes a dark turn. That publisher, who will remain anonymous, held my book for two years, and then one day I get email saying, “So sorry, but we’re going out of business. Here’s your book back.”
I was crushed. It had all been for nothing: During those two years, I’d secured endorsements from two well-known mystery authors for the book jacket. I’d had professional photographs taken, and I’d gone through a rigorous editing process. But most crushing of all was, I wrote the second book in my series, Death’s Door. Not only did I have one book on my hands, now I had two.
This was a defining moment in my writing career. I questioned whether I should continue writing. I thought maybe it’s not meant to be. Maybe I should give up writing and try something else. Though what that something else was, I didn’t know. Nothing else but writing gave me such pure joy. When I wrote I felt that I was doing what I was meant to do with my life.
My husband saw I was on verge of giving up on my writing and said, ”Look, whether this book gets published or not, you’re still a writer. And you’ll write other books.”
Though his words rang true, I wasn’t sure I could take any more disappointment. So I put the two books away, stopped submitting them and took some time to think about whether I had what it took to persevere as a writer.
Then a mystery writer friend told me about a mystery conference being held in Chicago, “You know what you should do,” she said. “Attend Love Is Murder. Pitch your book. What have you got to lose?”
Reluctantly, full of doubt, steeling myself against rejection, I went to that conference and pitched my book. Within two weeks I had a book contract from Five Star Mystery. And Five Star has been my publisher ever since. They’ve published four of my mystery novels.
What I learned from that experience was that it’s okay to fail. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It’s what you do with failure that counts. When you encounter failure, learn from it. During those nine painful years I rewrote my first book, refashioned it, learned from the suggestions offered by editors and agents.
But most importantly, I learned there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life but write.
Rejection refines us. Those who persist past it are the survivors. While you’re dusting yourself off and getting ready to enter the fray again, keep honing your craft. It’s not just about the outcome. We’re all focused on the outcome, myself included. It’s also about the journey. I’m a better writer today because I was rejected.
I can’t prove it but I’ll bet Oprah, J. K. Rowling, Vera Wang, and Walt Disney learned something about themselves and their craft because of their rejections. And because they didn’t give up on their dreams, the world is a more interesting place.
Take to heart what the poet, Li-Young Lee, says about rejection: “When even my most excellent song goes unanswered . . . I’ll not crack. Threshed to excellence. I’ll achieve you . . . I never believed that the multitude of dreams and many words were vain.”
So go out and make some interesting mistakes. Learn from them. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done or that you can’t do it. Maybe they can’t do it, but you can.
If you remember nothing else from my speech, remember this: All of life is a story waiting to be told. And only you can tell your version of that story.
I charge you to go out into the world and tell your story. I charge you to go out into the world and make your art. And never ever give up.
Thank you and enjoy your day.