Rejections I Have Known
I got a rejection from a literary magazine the other day. It was simply awful. It was awful because they’d had my essay for eight months, and because the assistant had emailed me three times to tell me that she was grateful for my patience and was passing my work on to the editors and would get back to me soon. For those not in the know, that kind of language usually means, “I have read and liked your piece, so I’m passing it on to the big guns, and I hope they agree with me that we should publish it, but of course we’re all disorganized and the meeting keeps getting postponed.” Sure, the waiting was tedious. But mostly, the rejection was awful because—well, here, read it:
So, I touched base with our assistant editors and they decided it wouldn’t be a good fit at this point for our magazine. After reading it, I tend to agree. You can take this or leave this, but I do want to encourage you to keep writing, and perhaps even put this piece away for a while, and come back to edit it after you’ve written other things. The challenge with this piece is making something that didn’t happen become just as climatic as what ends up happening. Writers that seem to know how to do that well— Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” and pretty much anything written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Thank you for your patience, and good luck on your endeavors.
Dude. I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years. And in one small paragraph I was reduced to….eighteen. Inexperienced. As if I hadn’t heard the whole “put it in a drawer and come back to it later” thing before. As if Kerouac was news to me. As if I hadn’t already “written other things.” But thank God she encouraged me to keep writing, because in that moment I did have the thought that if I can’t fool someone into thinking I have an iota of experience and talent, I probably should just
But as my new philosophy for 2014 is to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided that instead of strangling with the desire to write back that if she didn’t think the essay was any good herself, likely she should not have wasted all of our time by passing it on to the editors in the first place, I’d share that rejection here on my blog. There it is, folks. Eat your heart out.
And I got to thinking about rejection.
I have a folder in a file cabinet labeled “Rejections,” and I pulled it out this morning and sifted through it. There are 282 rejections in the folder, which predates electronic submissions and thus represents a small fraction of those I have actually received in my lifetime (now I keep track on an Excel spreadsheet). In that folder I found form slips; form slips with a human signature or a brief quip; and longer, typed, personal letters telling me how close I had gotten. There are rejections from lit mags, from literary contests, from writing fellowships, and from famous magazines that actually gave me the time of day before telling me I just didn’t quite cut it. There were rejections that it was very hard to see again—like the one from 2004 telling me I’d been a runner-up in a prestigious book contest but that ultimately, the judge had chosen the other poet over me. And of course, The Fulbright committee telling me that even though I’d made it to the last stage of the process, they couldn’t fund my year studying poetry in England.
And there were quite a few little gems.
This one, from a famous literary agent, cracked me up not because she said no—I’d expected as much—but because of the dangling participle in the third line:
“While interesting, Ms. X did not have enough enthusiasm to take on your book.”
I’m bummed Ms. X is not enthusiastic about my memoir, but I’m sure glad to learn that she’s interesting.
And I loved this one, so chatty, so kind, about an essay I’d written (and forgotten about entirely!) on the poet Louise Bogan:
And then there was this one, from a tiny literary mag I am quite sure does not exist anymore. I felt sad that the man’s wife was “gravely ill,” but I thought the gesture of returning my stamp entirely human and kind:
Thank you, editor. You can see I used the stamp. Probably to send out more poems.
This trip down rejection memory lane has brought home a couple of things for me. The most surprising was the wistfulness I felt, not about having been rejected so many times, but for the period in my life when I felt so optimistic as to send out hundreds of poems every year. For a time when editors wrote sweet notes about moving offices and sick wives. It reminded me that my poetry seemed to get close a lot—many of the rejections are kind, handwritten ones—and it makes me wonder if I gave it up too soon. On the other hand, it reminds me why I did: poetry, with all its rejection, and a readership the size of a rejection slip, was beginning to feel like a dead end.
And I thought about how much better it is to know than to not know. One thing that folder gives me is—I hate this word, but—closure. Nowadays you’re as likely to hear anything at all as you are to hear that you’re being published (which is to say, not likely at all). The radio silence is the worst.
Of course I ruminated on the part that rejection plays in my work and in all writers’ work. In order to get published, you have to send out, and usually, you get rejected. It’s depressing, it’s demoralizing, it’s sometimes soul-crushing, but at the end of the day, it’s also the only way. Some days, I have better luck remaining dispassionate.
And, of course, I thought about the rejection slip as metaphor for life: how many things we fail at, every day. How many times each of us is told no—by a boss, a boyfriend, a crush, an editor, a publisher, a friend, a bureaucrat, a teacher, a student, a kid, a parent, a loan officer, a landlord, a blood test.
I’ll close with one last rejection, that I read and remembered fondly. It’s from a poet who’s pretty well known, who worked for a journal that was also pretty well known, and I recall approaching him at a reading a few months after I got this note. He remembered me, and I thought how cool he was. Though his journal didn’t take my poems, it helped me to hear that at least he thought I was writing “very sweet, very good lyric poems” that he happened to like.
Here’s to rejections. And lemonade!