Thank you very much for your submission to ___’s Nonfiction Contest. We received more than 500 submissions, and had a very difficult time narrowing them down to one winner and two finalists.
Thank you for submitting ___ to ___. While we have read your work with interest, it unfortunately does not meet our editorial needs.
Thank you for submitting your work. We regret that we are unable to publish it. Your work has received careful consideration. Unfortunately, the large number of submissions prevents us from commenting on many worthy manuscripts.
Thanks for the opportunity to read ___. Though we’re passing on this one we really appreciate your trusting us with your work. Tastes are just tastes, which is why the editors change out every two months. We encourage you to submit your work again when new editors are in session.
Thank you for sending us ___. We appreciated the chance to consider it. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a home for this particular submission, but we wish you luck in placing it elsewhere. We’re publishing only five manuscripts (at most) this year, so the competition is quite fierce. (That’s usually around 2% of what we receive.)
Lately, I’ve been talking with fellow writers about failure quite a bit, and it never fails (ha, get it?) to surprise me how deeply affected we are by the mere notion of rejection. Seeing published authors whose books are on the $4.99 table remind us that, even when we are “accepted,” the future will likely see our work sitting in the literary equivalent of the dog pound. If acceptance is all we hope to get from writing, and what potentially stands between us and our work, then we might question why we’re writing in the first place.
Perhaps our crippling fear of rejection arises because our practice is entwined with constant submission (a topic for another essay) and, thus, successive rejection as we seek to find homes for our work. Rejection comes in many forms these days: auto-reply email, form letters, or sometimes in the form of tiny, xeroxed slips of paper in self-addressed stamped envelopes whose diminutive, canned brush-offs feel both patronizing and pathetic at once. Stack up enough of them and these individual rejections come to feel like we’ve created “failed” work or that our writing practice is a failure.
I understand this feeling—rejection hurts—but, in a way, I don’t. Or, I refuse to. Call me a hopeless optimist, or downright stubborn, but there’s a part of me that simply will not be restrained or depressed about having my work rejected. In fact, the more rejections I get, the more scrappy I become about publishing my work, even if I’m the one who does it. I refuse to see rejection as failure or roadblock, and I want to help other writers find a similar confidence within themselves.
Why? Writing is a business. Publishers and literary journals must sell copies in order to survive. If a magazine doesn’t feel my work will help them at least break even, or if a small press senses that my writing will not garner them any critical acclaim, then the editors must move on. I get it. While not personal, all editors’ decisions are subjective and completely biased to individual tastes and what they believe is marketable. As a woman, I want to change the landscape of what’s possible for me in the literary world, but it’s a long swim out of the slush pile to change those tastes. Asking permission is not going to get any of us anywhere, and neither is accepting defeat.
We emerging artists, especially women who tacitly participate in a publishing world that generally works to suppress our writing, must find ways of moving on without being crippled by rejection. As hard as it is, even when we find an occasional helping hand to lift us, we are responsible for making our own way—and we must, if there are to be a diversity of voices heard in the world.
That said, I believe artistic success, however we define it, comes down to our motivation.
Here’s the thing: if it’s so important to us that our work be shared (and I think it is), we can start a blog or place our writing in online forums. We can write op-eds. We can collaborate with and assist other writers we admire. We can self-publish our work through platforms like Blurb, LuLu and CreateSpace. We can have our work printed locally in small batches on an Espresso machine. If we want to go so far as to curate and promote or judge (and reject!) the work of others, we can start our own small presses and literary magazines, digital or print. Most of these avenues were not available a decade ago, but each one has helped to launch the writing careers of numerous writers, although the power of the collective, which is not new, stands to help the most.
Have you read The Martian? The story idea is interesting, albeit for me the actual writing was not so much, however the author so deeply believed in delivering his work to the world that he published it as an e-book. Today, it’s a best-seller and now you can see watch Matt Damon act in the screen adaptation. He did this alone, and I believe that any of us can do the same. I also can imagine a collective of writer friends pulling off something even more grand by supporting each other’s work.
But even this is missing the point.
When writers kvetch about rejection, as we often do when we gather—no one understands or can provide kind-hearted encouragement like a fellow writer—I still have to ask: why do we care what strangers think of our work? Don’t mistake me for not being empathetic or experiencing an occasional low. I just hate to see people accept rejection like a self-fulfilling prophecy, bellowing sway-backed complaints like they don’t have the power in their very own hands to steer their writing practice.
If you spend your days and nights dreaming of writing, if you lose time while writing because your head is so full of the world you’ve created—if you feel torn by the fact that you are doing anything else except writing, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. If writing is intrinsic to the core of your being, then there can be no rejection or failure except for deciding not to write. The world doesn’t get to tell you, and you can’t blame the world for “not letting you,” be a writer. Only you can know if you’re a “real” writer, and only you can decide if you are failing.
People may return your work with a big red DECLINED stamp and wish you luck. They may shower you with trite lines as to their hopes of your future submission, but the opinions of strangers (or even friends and family) do not dictate your value or worth, your intelligence or your identity. I believe in the self-made writer, the one for whom any day is a good day in which she is able to write, and screw all of the rest.
Now. If the rest of the world decides that we’ve created something great and wishes to reward us with fame, honors and enough money to live on so that we might write full-time, so much the better. While I’m not banking on that day, I don’t doubt that it could happen, either. Anything is possible, and the only way that my work can find commercial success [so that I can do it more often] is if I put my writing out there in whatever form it might find. Taste is nothing but fickle, and the timing of a person’s voice to ignite the popular zeitgeist, well, that is partly fortune. I really do believe there’s a bit of magic involved when it happens.
If you’re writing (or painting or composing) with the goal of amassing fame, popularity or wealth, you’ve got a hard road ahead, in my opinion. How many writers, painters, composers, etc. were brilliant but never appreciated in their time? Most everyone is cooler (and more visionary) when they’re dead. Likewise, if you think that becoming an artist will somehow validate your existence, good luck. But if you write or make things because you love the work, because you cannot feel complete without doing it every day, if your art is a way to better explore yourself and the world, then you will be fulfilled no matter how many rejection slips you collect. The work is what matters, not necessarily the world’s reflection of it.
To me, rejection is not failure—failure is giving up. When I look over my annual tracking sheets and see evidence of my labor—tangible proof that I worked as hard as I could to place my writing in the world, whether it was accepted by someone else or not—I feel successful. I know I gave my best effort because I finished each story, learned something from the work and kept going.
Instead of fearing rejection, I remind myself to enjoy the process of writing, even the scary parts. Especially the scary parts. The scary parts come when I don’t immediately know what to do, when I have to think, daydream, read other people’s work, brainstorm, and sometimes put pieces on hold until I do. Not every story flows with ease. Some ideas seem brilliant when they are diaphanous inspirations, but splatter into spent ink when I affix them with words. That’s part of the deal, whether we are artists, or even scientists. It’s all an experiment. We try things and sometimes our ideas don’t work, or the timing isn’t right to know how to make them work—yet. Even that isn’t failing. Each time, we learn something that eventually makes something else possible. Writing, like any art or science, is a process of discovery and surprising combinations, not rote directions.
So, we write. We submit. We are rejected. Often, many times. We write. We submit. Maybe we are accepted. Perhaps our work, in those few rare moments of our lives, is discovered by a stranger and it moves her to emotion or action. She might even write to let us know how our work affected her. This is not about being liked. This is the power of art to bridge human connection, particularly between people who might never otherwise meet. This is the power of art to make us feel a little less alone in the world. And isn’t that what it’s all about in the end?
We write with a primal desire to reach out, to transmit signals into space, to offer ourselves and see if there is indeed life out there. Making art isn’t so much about validation as allowing what’s inside us to become a means for rejoining the cosmic stuff from whence we came—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, word by word— rejection and failure be damned.
Case Study on Rejection: JK Rowling
Via The Guardian: This week, JK has shared some withering rebuffs publishers sent to her alter ego Robert Galbraith, in an effort to comfort aspiring authors. For more, click here.