“When I got the rejection slip from AHMM, I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor, wrote “Happy Stamps” on the rejection slip, and poked it onto the nail. Then I sat on my bed and listened to Fats sing ‘I’m Ready.’ I felt pretty good, actually. When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.
By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
I’d like to think that when I was King’s age I was about as invested in success on the tennis court as King was in selling manuscripts. And I had my share of failure. But I lacked King’s determination. Rather than display my endless string of first-round defeats, I would hide from them, shut them out, or blow up at them. I would blow up, too, at my mom, who would follow the results of each tournament in hopes that he who beat me would win the whole thing, giving me the superficial hope that maybe I was the second best player, but unfortunate that I drew the champ early instead of in the finals. She’d look up (somewhere, this was before Google) how many times Chris Evert or John McEnroe had lost in the first round and offer my misery company. John McEnroe was probably a good parallel, though in the way most of us remember more than in the way my mom hauled him out: a fire seethed inside me. If only this were a determination that would propel me to victory. I did get better, slowly, but I suffered from an obsessive perfectionism that bordered on self-hatred. For those years – years – there was no place I wanted to be more than on the tennis court. But I couldn’t get it right, and more than the losing, I couldn’t accept mistakes. Suffering from short-man’s syndrome, I expected to win every time I walked out on the court. Every time I lost I fumed, isolating myself from my family, once telling my mom to Shut-Up! from three courts away when she tried to calm a near-explosion before I lost control. I hated acting that way. But I couldn’t control it. I ddn’t act that way anywhere else, was pretty pleasant most of the time, actually, even funny. But on the tennis court, where I felt somehow most alive, I tortured myself.
I didn’t channel it into tennis success the way Stephen King emerged as a legend. I have known for a long time that it wasn’t self-destructive angst that kept me from making a name as a tennis player, at least not that alone. But I recognized as I read King’s sentences that, for him, rejection didn’t lead to despair. He never internalized the rejection; it came from someone else and didn’t define him. Instead, he motivated, or at least entertained, himself by keeping the rejection slips. He knew what he was doing and he didn’t need someone else to tell him whether he did it right. He had mentors, and he responded to guidance, but he had a drive inside that those letters on a spike signify well. If I had that drive, I aimed the spike the wrong way, letting losses sit like albatrosses, doing myself way more harm than good.
I see all that clearly now. I don’t fight demons anymore. My desire for perfection extends no farther than the straight lines in the yard after I cut the grass. I’ve settled into a more-than-comfortable existence, and I regret the recklessness of my youth and that I lacked the vision I have now and the perspective that others around me must have had then. The same sort of vision Stephen King shows in collecting his rejection slips and writing on.