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On Rejection

When I was in graduate school, I remember hearing about the famously thick skin of renowned authors as their endurance in pushing forward simply outwore publishers’ resistance to their momentum. Conversely, a lot of my peers expressed total disinterest in ever trying to publish their work, a perspective I don’t understand–not because I think publication is a requisite ambition for a writer but because I think the price of most graduate level education in America is far too high for ambivalence.

(Of course plenty of students go on to leverage their degrees to get really cool jobs, but if we’re being honest, we all know that most jobs aren’t exactly putting a person in a position to do anything but slowly chip away at student loans. I can say that because I am slowly chipping away at my student loans, confident that the entire economic structure that bore them is more likely to collapse than I am to ever intentionally pay more than the minimum because seriously fuck those guys. And by “those guys,” I mean the government and the academic institutions playing a brazen game of poker, predatory loans calling inflated tuition rates and raising them by another few grand every year while the whole thing is funded by the futures of hapless teenagers and twenty-somethings in exchange for degrees of dwindling significance. But that’s not what this post is about.)

The point is, the fear of rejection is powerful. Who’s to say Bradbury would have had the stamina for so many submissions if he had the alternative to publish all those duds on his own just sitting in his back pocket? Would he have waited around for the approval of the tasteless industry gatekeepers over at Esquire?

In our world of endless options for mass communication, it isn’t actually necessary to prove or improve the quality of our work to anyone to gain access to a global audience. Once we have corralled that audience, the door opens to all kinds of opportunities, including the kinds of book deals that are decades out of reach for most of those writers who are relying on the traditional submission process. Publishing deals, however, aren’t necessarily granted on the merit of the work, rather on the purchasing power of the audience.

Many will argue that shitty blogs don’t amass the following necessary to woo real publishers, but they would be wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bitten on the bait at the display table by my local library’s circulation desk and brought home non-fiction books that I ultimately cannot bring myself to read past the first five pages. They invariably are the greatest hits of some blogger whose business angle was compelling enough to carry their poor writing across the finish line. The physical book world is just as rife with poorly written content as the vast Internet, likely in similar proportions.

This isn’t some “get off my lawn” rant about the deteriorating integrity of the written word, and I’m not blaming the fact that access to publication has been democratized. If anything, I’m saying this to admonish capitalism. When financial reward is the motivation behind creating something, quality and integrity are completely irrelevant. That’s why we call most people making shit these days “content creators” and not artists. That’s why we don’t hear words like “undeniable” applied to things created within the frame of a business model. That’s why, try as we might, most of us can’t wrap our heads around NFT’s. Conceptually, they might make sense if they were mostly great art, but they are mostly cash-grabs. This is very confusing because someone accidentally stocked a few legit Van Goghs in the “As Seen on TV” section of your local economy.

Don’t worry, people. I know I am writing this IN A BLOG which has not been greenlit by any literary overlords and does not have the following of a TikTok yogi, assuming that’s a thing. So who am I to judge what is and isn’t worthy of our time, attention, and wages? No one, really, and this may never be read by anyone who is. Time will tell.

I’ll give myself some credit. I have spent much of my adult life studying writing, doing the writing, and having that writing workshopped, dissected, and often painfully and publicly critiqued by other people who have spent their adult lives studying writing. That’s also true of my peers who didn’t care about being published, and that’s why they are qualified for whatever cool jobs their MFA’s can get them regardless of what they’ve submitted.

What we learn from being both critiqued and supported in the same breath while in a place of such brutal vulnerability, we learn deeply and forever. The workshopping process is the emotional equivalent of having the most beautiful things we’ve dreamt tattooed on our minds using the most excruciating method possible, and we will never be able to separate the outcome from the process. Formal education certainly isn’t the only way to qualify oneself, and natural talent isn’t a thing that can or should be discounted, but a serious and lifelong commitment to honing one’s craft should be an assumed aspect of a vocation.

I’ve spent my life from high school on submitting my work to publishers, and the overwhelming majority of those submissions have resulted in rejection. They usually come via email, and I wouldn’t waste the paper to print them, but my office could easily rival Bradbury’s in terms of the wallpaper. I have submitted so much that my heart only holds a small space to actively hope for that acceptance letter, so it doesn’t draw my attention away from the present. Even if my piece is great, it has to hit the right eyes at the right time, and it usually won’t, and that’s ok.

Acceptance letters feel like winning lottery tickets and rejection letters feel like bills or a period. One is a day maker, a jolt of electricity from the gods themselves. The other is just some inevitable thing that I’m vaguely aware should be showing up sometime soon, and while I’m never happy to see it, I’m unlikely to be thrown off course by it. I may identify with my writing more than my finances or hormones, but one stranger’s choice not to include it in their own project should not and usually does not devastate me, especially because I intend to keep submitting.

I’d like to point out that while I am indeed saying that I think art requires some callouses for rejection and that there is some inherent necessity for a vetting process with standards that value craft, effort, and quality, I am not endorsing the standards and systems currently in place. In fact, I think this would be a whole different conversation if misguided, homogenous, misogynistic, and racist institutions were not so firmly ensconced in the publishing, arts, and entertainment industries.

Yes, I do believe we should have some kind of security guard at the door of the lit club, and I know that’s hard to hear, even if my guard of choice is compassionate, diverse, and inclusive. Trust me–I’m a mom, and I have had so many exhausting conversations about why my kids need to take lessons and actually learn things rather than believing insistence and high self-esteem are the only keys to greatness. Of course you’re a good singer, but if you want to be a professional singer, you have to practice a whole lot.

We’re all happy to sign off on that logic when talking to a little kid, but for some reason we throw it out the window when it comes to ourselves and adults as a whole. After all, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re basically all doctors because we’re good at reading memes about shots. It’s like looking at a monochromatic painting, an athlete floating effortlessly through the air, or a deadpan stand-up “just talking” and thinking to ourselves, “That’s not so hard”. Of course it’s not so hard–for them. They’ve been practicing the same thing for thousands of hours of their lives.

No, we don’t need the old guard, but I think the state of science in America is probably a good indicator of what a dumbshit idea it is to let our guard down altogether. Applying that same reasoning to the arts might sound harsh, but I think if we really get honest with ourselves, we know it’s right. We might let our friend practice her new passion for tattooing on some rarely seen crevice of our skin, but we aren’t going to expect some Inked Magazine shit till she’s had a few years in the game.

Avoiding accountability and a relationship to the history of our chosen artform is not the answer to rejection being painful. More rejection is the answer. Getting better is the answer. For sure, there are days when we don’t need it. I recently made the mistake of checking my email absentmindedly before I went to bed, and when I saw a piece I had submitted only days before had been swiftly turned down with a form letter by a fledgling publication, I was bummed. It was a really shitty way to end my day, and admittedly, if my life slides out of balance and it starts to feel like rejection is a prevailing theme rather than an occasional thud in the background, it’s a good time to come up for air and focus on other things till I’m replenished.

Most of us have probably been there when it is much higher stakes and we don’t have the option to back off for a while. Looking for employment, we get email after email informing us that the positions we’ve applied for have closed. It can be overwhelming when it seems so personal. It isn’t a general “No”–it’s “You specifically are being denied based on the merits of your personal experiences and self-presentation when weighed against someone else’s.” Ouch. On a good day, we know some other glass door is getting ready to open for us, but mostly it’s just one of life’s indignities. Of course it wasn’t the right job for us, but we’d have liked to have proven that ourselves.

At least when it comes to art, we can just keep trying, keep improving, and we’ll get somewhere regardless of what other people are up to because we aren’t competing with them. We’re the only ones with our perspectives. We’re just being asked to make something good.

I recently read at a poetry open mic, and when I finished, the audience was silent. I thought nothing of it and started to read another poem. I was shocked when the audience stopped me so they could offer the appropriate applause to the first poem. They had just been waiting for me to signal I was finished. I do comedy as well. When I’m not funny, no one laughs. I can talk alone on a stage for five minutes, and no one will save me from bombing. I just have to take the rejection in stride and either work to get funnier or quit doing comedy. The contrast was wild. The approval was elating, but disapproval may have been more constructive to the poem.

There’s something really clean and blunt about that which we don’t see in a lot of artforms. I joke to my husband about how he might react to a comedy audience because he’s a talented musician and a charismatic person. Even on his worst day as a performer, people are clapping when he ends a song. He may not have a record deal or a crazy fan base, but his art is consistently validated by enthusiastic crowds of people right in front of his eyes. How does an experience like that settle in a person’s brain? How do they handle it when people aren’t impressed?

Perhaps my tolerance for silence comes from a very low foundation of expectation where approval is generally mistrusted, but I like to think it’s because years and years of rejections as a writer taught me to separate myself from the response. Rather than fight feedback, I try to use it to improve, especially when it’s presented by a live crowd of mostly impartial strangers who aren’t relying on the anonymity of the Internet to shield them from the weight of their opinions.

There’s nothing wrong with doing things as a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with having a massive amount of natural talent or with self-publishing or mostly using blogs and social media. There’s just also something right about the improvement and resilience that comes with being denied and coming back harder. If you’re an artist and you haven’t tried formally submitting or presenting your work anywhere, it’s worth a shot. The rejection might sting, but you might be surprised about what an accomplishment trying feels like in and of itself.

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