Any writer who has spied the word “unfortunately” anywhere in the first paragraph (assuming there is more than one) of a return correspondence from a literary magazine or website knows the sinking feeling of having been rejected. I, myself, have received three such communications in succession over the last month or so, all of which began something like this:
Dear Rick Brown:
We at Insert Magazine Title Here wish to thank you for sending us your story, “Rick Brown’s Very Life Blood,” for consideration. Unfortunately, due to our present editorial needs, we find that we do not have a place for your piece at this time….
No matter how many times we read that doom-dripping first paragraph over the course of our submitting lives, the initial response will likely be the same: We will take it personally. Literary rejection hurts us in a way that is similar to the sting from other forms of rejection. It leaves us to ponder our value, the extent of our aptitude, our future. To be sure, the degree to which we experience this wave of self-doubt varies from person to person, and possibly also from case to case; yet I would argue that rejection letdown is a universal response.
I’ll put it another way: I have yet to meet a writer who rejoices over being declined for publication.
But the sting of literary rejection visits us in other forms, too. It happens whenever prospective agents give our book-length manuscripts a pass—sometimes with personal missives detailing strengths and weaknesses; other times by way of boilerplate letters that leave us wondering whether the agents read even one of those 100,000-plus words that had spilled from our souls. We feel it in workshops, in the ominous silence and table-staring avoidance we observe among participants who’ve been asked to start in with comments on the piece we’ve just shared. Those of us who have sought to find the right MFA program (i.e., one that accepts us) have likely endured at least a few chilly responses to our carefully-prepared application packets, which—no small matter here—consist primarily of essays of intent and samples of our own creative writing.
And, of course, the impact is always sudden and severe when we chance to encounter especially frank or personally degrading criticism of our work. This form of rejection especially smarts when it comes early in our writing careers.
I well remember several instances of this last variety. The first one came after I had returned to college at the age of twenty-seven, on academic probation no less, to amend an earlier, disastrous attempt at a Bachelor’s degree in something. This time around, I enrolled in the English program, primarily because I now expected to become a famous writer—probably in the same manner that George Costanza wanted to pretend to be an architect or a marine biologist. Yes, I was impaired by hubris. I had no doubt that my obvious talent would be recognized straight away, and that I would be on the road to publication and worldwide recognition in no time at all.
Little did I realize it, but fate was about to spank some sense into me. The professor for my Introduction to Composition class (or, in my case, “reintroduction,” since I’d failed my first attempt seven years before) was a dictatorial, no-nonsense grammarian who had seen my kind come and go during his decades of instruction. Eventually, I think, he came to recognize a glimpse of potential in me, but this wasn’t until later in that summer semester, after he’d already graffitied most of my assignments with red ink. One comment of his stays with me to this day. In the margins of a short paper I’d written, next to a particularly glaring error on my part, he penned: “And you call yourself an English major?”
Well, I did at the time, but my commitment to the program didn’t last long. By the beginning of the fall semester, I had changed my academic focus to history. Nevertheless, my decision really had nothing to do with that composition class (for which I ultimately received an A), or the professor who had taught it. In actuality, I had learned a great deal that summer, both as a college student and as a novice writer—and the ascent of my learning curve began with that man’s comment, which I remember today not as a personal affront, but rather the frustrated expression of an educator who had expected more from me and was not yet seeing it.
I consider it a paradox that writers—most of us worry warts and self-doubters by nature—would voluntarily participate in an avocation for which rejection and uncertainty are the norms. Because frankly, most of us will never make our living solely by the written word. Over time, each of us will also field far more rejection notices than we will letters of acceptance. That is simply the situation we face. And if we are to continue along in our métier, it is the reality we must accept as well.
So perhaps the surest and most dramatic sign of our acceptance, if one can truly be identified, might be the realization that subsequent emotional plunges over literary rejection need not be quite as deep as previous ones have been. After all, we are hardly alone. Perhaps we can even find the proverbial silver lining in that gray pall that hangs over those initial moments after reading yet another notice telling us that, unfortunately, our beloved written work did not make the cut at the submissions office of Insert Magazine Title Here.
And as we get better at accepting the state of things, maybe we can then practice exhibiting a lighthearted attitude in spite of the inevitable sting. For example, as you might have noticed from your own experiences, some rejections can actually be entertaining, if only we choose to recognize the humor in them. One of my own first rejections remains a favorite, and I will leave you here with that story:
During the early nineties, I had sent out for consideration a derivative (I now realize) short story about a disillusioned, divorced journalist who attends a high school reunion. The protagonist doesn’t do anything like fall in love at the reunion (even then I knew that would be predictable), but instead he encounters the class “nobody,” who has since developed an impressive critical knowledge of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his writings. What strikes the journalist mostly about this is the fact that this nobody—now a custodian at their alma mater—is self-taught in his area of expertise. Not only that, but the man has also become a master craftsman since graduation, a builder of elaborate and exotic bird houses.
One of the publications that I had submitted to, a Cincinnati singles magazine, declined my story and sent it back with a memorable response. In her return letter, the editor cut no corners in telling me exactly what she thought; namely, that my story was thin, at best, and the characters I’d crafted were stereotypical and one-dimensional—in her words, “cardboard.” She was right on with that observation too, as my reunion included such predictable attendees as the aging prom queen; a former football hero who was now out of shape and alcoholic; and a pompous know-it-all—once voted “Most Likely to be an Even Bigger Asshole than he was in High School”—who has since become a politician, and who has shown up at the event mainly to work the room for votes.
But the best part for me was not the editor’s scathing critique, justified though it was, but rather the closing comment of her letter, where she intimated that she’d actually enjoyed the cover letter I’d sent far more than she had the story! To this day I still laugh about that offhanded quip, just as I also continue to take note of her remarks regarding character development. I came away from that experience both entertained and informed—not at all a bad reaction to rejection. I only wish I was always so philosophical about being told that my stuff doesn’t have a place somewhere.
But I also want to emphasize in closing that, to my credit, it was a damn fine cover letter.