"Writers privately love two things: obsessing over rejection and watching their peers fail." This is the joke I made when people asked why I would make my rejections public, but the simple answer was, and still is, to be accepted. The truth is that I was constantly affirmed by a supportive community. When rejection came up with friends, we usually traded our stories freely, and rarely was the talk negative. Often instead, we held the feeling that a silence had been cracked open.
After my first couple stories were accepted for publication at literary journals, I decided I should create a site that allowed people to easily find more of my work. I wanted to promote myself without feeling like a self-congratulatory jerk. Scouring other people's blogs taught me that the site needed a primary body of content that caused people to check back in, something beyond "Look at me!" announcements.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
In May 2008, I started my blog: "The Rejection Collection." I didn't just post rejections, though. I posted when I received encouraging notes from editors and when accepted stories were published. I posted about readings I was doing and interviews I'd done.
The energy I was putting toward submitting my work was bordering on obsession. Flush with material, having just come off three years of grad school, I started a rigorous submission regimen: Every piece was being considered by three magazines at any given time. If I received a rejection, I re-sent the piece to a new magazine. If I received an acceptance, I withdrew the work from the other journals.
The process was thrilling. Where else in your life do you get to say, "What do you think of me?" and get an honest answer? Receiving a rejection became a close second to receiving an acceptance. The act of answering at all seemed generous.
I started watching the number of blog hits rise. When I submitted work, I put the blog address in the bio in my cover letter. Editors started mentioning the blog in their responses. Conversations were started.
One editor, Matt, said he liked a story I'd sent, and normally would have accepted it, but he wanted the magazine's name to show up on the blog: Piece rejected. I sent more work, he rejected it; I sent more work, and Matt finally accepted a story. The tone of the email conversation was good-natured, flirtatious even. This became a soap opera of sorts on the blog, full of organic romance and suspense — all while being told I wasn't quite good enough. What's not to love?
On most occasions, I took each rejection at face value and moved on. Once in a while, though, when an editor took the time to be notably cruel or kind, I wrote back.
One editor, Adam, told me he found my submission "juvenile" and "pompous." I replied that I didn't see the value in using such strong language. I said such harsh words could easily shut down a writer's ears to the useful advice he also provided. We volleyed back and forth a few times, learning a lot. Adam and I have since become dear friends. On rare occasions, I learned, it's useful to talk back.
Another time, I submitted new work to a journal where I'd had my first story published. The editor, Derek, saw the addition of the blog to my bio and sent me a response disparaging the entitlement of young writers. Everyone gets rejected, he told me, and it was presumptuous to think I shouldn't be. He expected the site to be a laundry list of complaints. I wrote him back asking him to look at the blog rather than make assumptions. The tone, I said, was far different than he imagined it to be. Minutes later he wrote back, all misunderstandings erased.
But these are stories of personal rejections. For every one of these, there are five that just fed my name into a form letter.
In time, I started to focus on writing stories again, rather than finding homes for them. To be clear, though, that dedicated period of sending work out, exploring magazines and publishers, and becoming familiar with the other writers in my community was absolutely vital. It took finding my footing to begin striking a path.
When I made the blog I didn't want to sound like a whiner. I wanted to be honest about what it took to find a home for creative work. I learned that what it takes is hearing "no" and not feeling bad. What it takes is hearing "no" and, instead, feeling thankful and energized. Hearing "no" can't cause you to default to desperation or lower your standards. If you're going to find the right home for your work, you need to hear "no" and use it as an opportunity to ask yourself what it is you want, to refine your own values.
I have a lot of gratitude for rejection. Being rejected has made me sure of myself. It's made me ask some of my favorite questions and seldom provided me answers. It's made me open and curious to figure out my own solutions. Rejection has provided me a community, and it's improved my work. I won't say that acceptance hasn't done the same, but it seems that the lessons learned from failure can be more easily identified than those gleaned from success. Beckett knew what was up. "Fail better," was his rule, and I resolve to do the same.