On Rejection

Rejected

The photograph above is of my rejection file. I’ve kept every rejection slip I’ve ever received, for every piece of writing I’ve ever sent out into the world in search of publication. When I glanced at the file this morning it reminded me of an essay I wrote a while back for Bridle Path Press called “On Rejection,” which I’ve reprinted below for anyone who has ever felt like a rejected writer (and who has not?).

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On Rejection

I use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to track rejections I’ve received from editors to whom I’ve sent short stories. Since 2004, when I started using this system, I have received 181 rejection letters. (There were many more, before I started this meticulous tracking.) My rough math tells me that I’ve earned approximately 23 rejections per year for the past eight years, or about two per month. So every two weeks, basically, an editor has turned down my work.

Terrific!

But really. I’m pretty proud of my Excel file, the little cells lining up like soldiers on a march. I fill in the “response” column with either a red “R” for “rejected” or a fat green “A” for “accepted.” The R’s outnumber the A’s in a landslide. A tsunami. To review one eighteen-month stretch I have to scroll my mouse wheel until my finger hurts, searching for a lonely A.

The first one came from the late Jeanne Leiby, a beautiful woman who edited UCF’s The Florida Review before moving to Louisiana to take on the editorship of the venerable Southern Review. She called from Orlando to tell me she liked my story and wanted to publish it, but that she thought the title was a little lame. Would I consider changing it? Yes, I would. I hung up the phone, hyperventilated a bit, poured a drink and opened my Excel file to record my first “A”. And then I wrote more stories, spent a ton of money on postage, rewrote everything, bought more stamps, revised again, and waited fifteen months for another acceptance.

The point here, of course, is one every published writer makes—persistence pays. But the persistence must apply not just to the act of submitting stories, but also to the act of persistently making your writing better. Bullish resubmission of the same flawed story to editor after editor is not persistence—it’s arrogance. Better is the persistent willingness to open the rejected story up, look at it with a new perspective and consider ways to improve it. Rejection is a gift—it provides an opportunity to make your writing better and an emotional challenge to prove your mettle. It is a good story, you tell yourself. But maybe it needs to be a bit better. So you sit down. And you make it better.

Each publication credit is hard won but each comes with reach and power you may underestimate. Nearly a year after a story of mine appeared in a small literary magazine, an agent wrote to tell me he’d read the story, liked it, and was putting out feelers for a novel. It was the beginning, as Bogie would have said, of a beautiful friendship. My first novel will be published sometime in the next year.

Meanwhile, more writing, more revising, more money on stamps. Email submissions and rejections are more common now, of course, but I still make a habit of sending out snail mail submissions whenever I can. Here’s why: I live in a small town and our neighborhood is the type of old city-ish place where mailboxes are affixed to the houses next to their front doors. When I round the corner of my street and approach my house from two blocks away, I can see my mailbox—a solid black rectangle against the faded green of my home. Most days I see protruding from the box only the long white envelopes of bills or the ruffled cheap newsprint of advertising circulars. But some days I see—from two hundred yards away—the bright brown of a 9 x 12 envelope, and I know it’s a manuscript I submitted some months before, coming back to me now with a small slip of a rejection tucked inside. And I smile. Because seeing the rejection in my mailbox reminds me of something that’s become very important to me over the years. I’m in the game. I’m playing the odds. Sometimes, I win.

There’s an old runner’s adage I think of almost daily: “no matter how slow you’re going, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch.” 181 rejections. By the time you read this, that number will surely have increased. And that’s a good thing.

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