The World is Full of Rejections: Find the One That’s Right For You
Aja Gabel on Giving Up the Cello and Focusing on Writing
Before I’d ever run a marathon or written a novel, I often likened the two.
But now when I tell people I ran a marathon, I don’t often mention that I finished running just after organizers turned the clock off, around six hours. That’s why there’s no record of my finish time online. I was so slow, the race didn’t bother to mark me.
I decided to run the marathon because I was in my late twenties and had no idea who I was. I’d read an article along the lines of, “30 things to do before you’re 30!” and I was too poor to spontaneously fly to Paris but hell, I could run a marathon. I’d been running for a few years at that point. I liked, as Murakami described it, the productive “void” acquired during long runs. I was proud of my progress, and even ran a few half marathons. Now I know that 13.1 miles is a good distance for me. A human distance. I also now know that the gap between 13.1 miles and 26.2 is not simply another half marathon. The distance grows exponentially, especially in the January rain, on the concrete maw of Houston streets, after you’d recently recovered from what was surely undiagnosed pneumonia.
Halfway through the race, my body started to crumble, and then my constitution, and then my spirit. My hip started to ache at mile 16. The crowd—both runners and spectators—thinned out around then, too. At mile 17, a man in five-toe-running shoes didn’t respond when I said “hey,” and then he passed me. The quiet became existential at mile 20. I thought only of food and how much I wanted it to be over, and how impossible it would be to quit. I’d loved running up until that morning, and couldn’t understand why this was so hard for me. Wasn’t loving it half the battle?
In the last 100 feet before the finish line, my friend took a picture of me. We laughed at the photo later, seeing what he’d really captured. Me, yes, pigeon-toed and weepy, running towards the clock they’d just snapped off. But also, a few feet ahead of me, an octogenarian man in a knee brace and coke bottle glasses, not running but doing one of those shuffley speed-walks. And yes, he was ahead of me.
I posted the picture to Facebook and made fun of it, but secretly I was also embarrassed. It had never been clearer to me: there were people who were good at something, and people who weren’t. Not for the first time, I was one who wasn’t.
Some years later, I finished a novel about a string quartet and their chase for success. For three of the characters, playing music comes very easily. But for one, it doesn’t. I wrote the story of these characters and re-wrote it many times, and I’m proud that The Ensemble is now a published novel. I say it’s about a group of unlikely friends who become family, with relationships forged in art and ambition. And it is about that. But for the one character who isn’t as good as the rest, it’s about how to push on, how to trust your desire for something that might always be beyond your reach.
There are lots of ways the world tells us no, no matter what we do. There are also whole systems we build, castles with moats and lookout towers in which to protect ourselves from those no’s. But the rejections always find a way in. The key is learning how to listen to them.
Sometimes I think, who am I to be writing about music and musicians? There are moments I feel like an imposter for writing about the professional musical career I wanted, and didn’t get.
I had a natural talent, but I was by no means a prodigy. I didn’t have perfect pitch, and nothing about my talent was outsized for my age. But I was good, and I didn’t have to try that hard to be good.
At age five I began playing the violin and switched to the cello when I was ten. I couldn’t get enough of music. At home, I taught myself piano and guitar and singing. I wanted to play shamisen, taiko, and trumpet, too, but there was no time left in the day for me to do anything else. I was always at a cello lesson or orchestra practice or quartet practice and chamber ensemble practice. I started practicing more, joining more groups, and I even started a quartet business to play weddings on weekends. I didn’t have words for why I was playing so much music. My desire for it was as unspeakable as my desire for my parents. It just was.
“I think for some of us, it takes a lot of times. And it isn’t because we think we’re better than we are. It’s because we hope we can become better than we are, and we love the thing we’re working towards.”
The first time I had an inkling I wasn’t destined for musical greatness was when I was 14. I was performing at a retirement home, accompanied by a piano student. In the beginning, it went well, the way it should have. But in the middle of the memorized concerto, I froze. My mind blanked, and suddenly I was staring at a room full of white-hairs staring back at me, none of us making any sound. “Sorry,” I mumbled, and stood up to grab the sheet music from my bag. I started over, music stand now in front of me, but I have no memory of how the rest of the performance went. I only remember the drive home in silence, refusing to put words to the failure that’d just ripped a hole in my narrative.
From there, the record of moments that showed me the limits of my talent skips ahead. The pitch problem in the Barber “Adagio.” A total inability to commit music theory to memory. I spent a lot of time staring at my hands, stumpy and small, with useless short fingers. Could being the best not be willed into existence? Could my love for something not fuel its success?
I played on, though. I didn’t stop, and even when a few friends applied and went to conservatory and I went to college instead, I vowed to keep playing. After all, I was good and hard working. Music was sewn into the fabric of me. But there was something stopping me from being great. And if I could keep playing, I could figure it out. I could disappear it. I played for years and years more, but I never could disappear it.
The other thing I wanted to be great at was writing. And it wasn’t always a breeze for me there, either. But my despair at not being good enough was reserved for my music, maybe because it was a long time before I submitted my writing to be judged on the kind of public stage my playing was always judged on. While I studied music in college, I never made it to first chair of the orchestra cello section. I knew I wasn’t my private teacher’s star student. I placed in competitions, but I never won. And it’s there that I beat myself up. That’s what I wanted. That thing that was kept from me, that kept quietly telling me no.
In writing the novel, I certainly had crises and low valleys, where I wondered if what I was trying to do was even possible. But I never had that moment, that mile 20 or blank frozen-in-front-of-an-audience thought, I’m not meant to do this. No one stopped the clock on me, and even if they did, I’d probably have kept going.
But with the cello, I eventually did stop. I stopped studying and playing at a high level, and then I stopped playing casually because it was too sad to play if I couldn’t play the way I used to. There were too many no’s, and it got too hard to keep hearing them. How many times do you have to be told no to walk away?
I think for some of us, it takes a lot of times. And it isn’t because we think we’re better than we are. It’s because we hope we can become better than we are, and we love the thing we’re working towards. Trying in the wake of rejection is a kind of faith, one I wanted to write about. A tribute to anyone who’s ever chased anything. And the character in my novel, the one who isn’t as good as the rest of the quartet, I gave him what I wasn’t myself gifted with: the intrinsic knowledge that one day, his hands would catch up with his dreams.
Two years after the marathon debacle and after reducing my playing to for-hire wedding quartets, I left Houston to start writing my novel, and for the first time ever, I didn’t take my cello with me.
I wasn’t able to fully explore my relationship to writing until I let go of the striving and the reaching with music, when I was finally able to hear something in the struggle.
I’d told myself I wanted to be the best chamber musician. But what I really wanted was to discover who I was and what I could do, to reveal some of myself through art and exploration. That’s why any of us try anything. The hard part came in listening to the answer. Eventually, my anxiety about being the best cellist turned me inward when I played, made me break the cardinal rule of chamber music: always listen.
At a certain point, I was so torn up about the limits of my musical abilities that it was making me disconnect with the world. With writing, I feel the opposite. I find writing hard and invigorating and infuriating, and, when it lands, life-returning. So now I go towards that. I’d wanted to quantify this, though, to be able to point to exactly how and when you know you should keep going, and when rejection should make you stop. But perhaps it’s not as simple as one moment of revelation. You just keep going, until you’re going toward the right thing. So maybe writing a novel isn’t so different from running a marathon, in that anyone who tries anything big eventually learns to read the signs, divine the way forward.
Look, it’s easy to be ashamed or angry that you’re still going, still running when the crowd thins out, glacially slow and in mortal pain. It’s easy to label that as stupidity or ignorance. But there’s also another way to look at it. You have the choice to stop, but you’re still running. You still carried your body to the end, you still wanted and hoped, even when no one was watching, even when the clock stopped, even when you stopped believing it yourself. And that push—the staggering through and beyond, pulling marrow from bones to hurtle yourself forward and forward—is the training you need to do something as formidable and fragile as write a novel, perform a concerto, fail, finish, fall in love. After all of the noise dissipates, whether or not you finished or succeeded, the pure love of the thing is what you’re left with, anyway. Which is also what you started with. Which is a really great prize, having loved, and loving.