Suspend Your Disbelief

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Rejection Love

Sweet Sorrow

I save rejection slips. In graduate school, someone mentioned an acquaintance who had wallpapered her bathroom with them, and I liked that idea. There was something honest and humbling about it. So when I started submitting my own stories to literary journals, I saved the rejections, imagining I might do the same one day. It would be a necessary complement, I imagined, for a living room mantel cluttered with prestigious awards, framed reviews, and my many excellent books.

I’ve long since backed off both the wallpapering and the cluttered mantel, but I haven’t stopped saving the slips. And I have no idea why. More than once I’ve decided to throw them all out, but I never follow through. I keep stuffing them into the shoe box that holds my diplomas and immunization records and other important documents. I’m not a hoarder; if anything, I’m the opposite. I love open space and bare surfaces. I throw out birthday cards and valentines without remorse. But I can’t bring myself to recycle those rejections.

drowning rejectionMost writers I know keep some sort of spreadsheet or running count, if not the actual letters of refusal. Some, I’ve heard, actually print the emails from online submissions. In the Mar/Apr issue of Poets & Writers, Jennifer Wisner Kelly describes the “Folder of Failure” in which she collects her rejections, and in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue, M. Allen Cunningham describes receiving a story’s sixteenth rejection, then quickly adds that another story “recently garnered its thirty-seventh rejection” (his emphasis).

We writers, it seems, are enthralled by our own failures. And as Kelly and Cunningham demonstrate, we love to publicize them. Post on Facebook about how many rejections you’ve received, and see how many of your writer friends comment, “You think that’s bad?” and then give their own numbers. It’s a reflex. We can’t help it. When a friend emailed me last week about getting an acceptance after twenty-seven rejections, I congratulated her.  Then I told her I’d just published a story that had received more than fifty rejections, and I was still submitting one that had more than seventy. And I’m sure many of you are rushing down to the comment box right now to say, “You think that’s bad?”

Why do we do this? Rejections don’t exactly reflect well on our work. Writers are fond of naming some great story that suffered some unconscionable number of rejections, and we take heart from those examples, but in general, great stories don’t get as many rejections as mediocre ones. The reason is self-evident.

Do they give us a sense of legitimacy? Before my first rejection, I’d heard about all the discouragement and disappointment writers faced, so getting my first dose of it made me feel like a real writer. This was the necessary suffering, I thought. But that sentiment has long since dried up. These days the acceptances make me feel like a real writer, and the rejections chip away at that feeling.

LoserAre we simply masochists? Our raw materials, after all, are conflict and suffering. If something doesn’t go wrong, it probably isn’t worth writing about. Does that mean we’re keen for conflict and suffering in our own lives? Maybe, but I don’t think we brag about other sources of pain in the same way: You think that’s bad? Listen to how many grandparents I’ve lost! Listen to how many lovers have cheated on me!

Are we commiserating? One-upping each other? Making pleas for sympathy? Showing off our perseverance? Chronicling our writing lives? Enacting some kind of revenge? Maybe, maybe, maybe. All these possibilities seem partly right, partly wrong. The truth is, I don’t have an answer. To me the phenomenon is a mystery, as inscrutable as the editorial whims and judgments that cause it. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to let it go.

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Join the Discussion

  • Can’t speak for anyone else, but I reuse them. Sometimes, when a blind date is going poorly, I’ll pull out something elegant from The Paris Review and just slide it under their drink and walk out while they’re in the bathroom.

    • Charlotte Boulay

      There go my plans for setting you up with hot friends of mine in LA, Rudin…

  • Aaron

    Hard work and talent are essential, but the submission and publication process is partly a numbers game. We relish rejections because each one brings us that much closer to an acceptance. I think its as simple as that.

  • Hey–what’s wrong with printing e-rejections??? ;-)

    (I only print the ones with “real” comments. Ditto with the print rejections. Handwritten notes, constructive comments, etc.–those get saved. Anonymous little squares don’t.)

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  • It is easy to forget, that like a dose of medicine that tastes hirroble, rejections can be beneficial. I track my rejections, but not for some sadist need I might have to punish myself. I use them to help guide me as to when revision is needed.

    If a writer sends a story out to 15 literary journals and gets 15 stock rejections, the story either is not ready or desperately needs a revision. Occasionally, after a writer has lost faith in a story, you will get that one rejection note that pays homage to the story, but notes the journal was already filled, or that the story simply didn’t fit the themes of that issue, or to please resubmit again. As a former editor of an award winning Literary journal, I can tell you that submitting a story to a journal where a group of editors must agree on the piece places a tremendous obstacle in the path of acceptance. Many of the rejections may have nothing to do with the piece.

    But the rejections I have received have many times helped renew my faith in a story, led me to revisions addressing flaws I never recognized, or simply gave me the courage to keep plugging away.

    Yes, we all hate rejections. I hate a shot in the butt! But sometimes the sht is necessary to improved health, andI think if we take an approach that the rejections can be a litmus test of our writing and use them to give us faith or as indicators of needed revisions, we can benefit from the process.

    Just my ideas I thougth I might add to the discussioNn!

  • Ha! Charlotte, you’re forgetting the glorious alternative. When the blind date goes well, they get an acceptance letter! I just scratch out that the author will retain “first rights” and replace it with “dignity.”

  • Vanessa Norton

    I save the ones with handwriting on them. I think about shellacking them to a table. I used to read for the NWReview and I sent out so many rejection slips; sometimes, when the piece was really good, the rejection seemed random. I knew it wouldn’t pass the meeting, or my attraction to it was something too personal to share. I think those rejection slips (and I have received hundreds) mean many things, only some of which we can imagine.

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