14 July 2011–Italy “No. This can't be right.” The words slip out of my mouth before I can stop them. I hear them recoiling in the still air of the kitchen, dropping heavily on the floor, and staying still – like forgotten corpses. The soft chatter that had filled the kitchen until that point ebbs into silence. My eyes are still locked on the mobile screen, but I can feel everyone's stare piercing my head. It's Dad who talks first: “What happened, son?” I switch off the screen, take one big gulp of air, and try to smile naturally – but my throat feels like a tender patch of heat. “Nothing…I…I just have to use the washroom…” I know they can sense the lie, but before anyone has the time to do anything, I jump off the chair and I'm already out in the hallway. My mind is clouded, I can feel the blood rushing to my head, but I keep walking straight. I reach the bathroom, open the door, and lock it behind me. One single tear slides down my cheek, just kissing the edge of my mouth before I brush it away with a quick jerk of the hand. “Unfortunately, we decided not to publish your story in our publication. We received so many good applications and we just couldn't publish them all. We thank you for thinking of us.” Reads the beginning of the email, and until here it's all in the norm. I have already received six or seven of these, no big deal. But the following lines…I don't even want to read them again, and yet the words lie there on the arrogant screen, undeniably clear: “Usually, I don't add anything to a rejection letter, but I feel obliged to in this case. I strongly encourage you not to stop writing: you are not talented enough. A twelve-year-old would have done a better job. Sincerely, M. Pifferi” I guess I should be honored. After all, I was nine. It's funny how high my expectations were the first time I ever sent out a poem: I was just waiting for a publisher to sign me and hear a limo honk outside my apartment to take me to the convention of young geniuses. The limo never came. I splash some fresh water on my eyes, before stowing the phone in my pocket and returning to the kitchen. *** The following days are harsh. I try to write a little bit, but every time I sit in front of the old laptop, my thoughts are brought back to the cursed prophecy: “you are not talented enough” For a while, I also think of quitting writing altogether, but something slowly begins to dawn upon me: I still love creating stories, and that letter hasn't changed it one bit. “I had been rejected, but I was still in love.” I resign myself to reading and analyzing with cold judgment. I make a list of all the New York Times bestsellers I can find on the web, and then go to the local library asking which of those titles are available. I read them stopping every two lines to write something on my notepad, forcing myself to memorize the sentence structure, the plot twists, and the descriptions. At times, it gets so horrible that I don't even want to start a new book for fear of the work that awaits me. The first stories I write are blatant copies of those I have read, sometimes a mixture of three or more different plots: multicolored yarns knitted together by clumsy hands. I spend the whole summer like this, and when the school year starts, I can't help bringing a book to the classroom and reading it (mostly) between breaks. Slowly, I start using one or two original sentences, then whole paragraphs, and before I even realize it, I'm writing new stories. Still strongly influenced by others, admittedly, but somewhat original. It's exactly one year later that I muster the courage to write a new short story and submit it to the publication that rejected me last time. It's a story about Kashmir and hunger, about food waste and the fiery battle waged against it. As I type the title, “How to Stop the Deaths of 1,000 Azrahs”, my heart is pounding. I don't know if I will have the strength to continue if also this story gets rejected. “No. It won't get rejected. I'm sure of it” I keep whispering to myself as I click the ‘send' button. But even then, I try to keep my expectations low. Everything considered I am still the same kid who was straining his ears to hear the honk of a limousine after sending his first poem to a publisher. *** One aching week has passed since the submission, and I'm in the kitchen again. Dad's old Samsung emits a soft beep, and I slide it out of my pocket. It's an email from the publication. As I read the subject, I can't help containing smile: “I stand corrected” This time I don't need to head to the washroom to read the rest of the email. “Your story has been published and selected as one of the best in this edition. Sometimes predictions can be wrong. I stand corrected. M. Pifferi”. From that day, I've developed a little voice that keeps whispering to me even in the hardest of times: gradatim ferociter. Step by step, ferociously.