Earlier this week I was interviewed for our local newspaper and was posed the question that all writers must grapple with: how do you handle rejection?
My answer was something about how it’s part of the process and you have to keep going, but the truth of the matter is a bit more complicated for me. I don’t know that I handle rejection as it were. Do I crumble into a sobbing puddle of despair? No, thank goodness. Nor do I lash out and preach the testament of my unappreciated brilliance–I am a snowflake! All publishers should recognize and bask in the glory of my gift! (Note to the novice writer: while you can certainly tell your family and friends that the editor/agent/publisher is stupid and doesn’t respect your genius, for the love of monkeys, please don’t tell them. The writing world is a smaller place than you think. No one wants to become a cautionary tale for how NOT to take rejection.)
Rejection, while indeed part of the process, stings. Of course we want people to read our work, to love it so much, they run out and tell all their friends about it. We want to believe that our story, which took possibly years to write, is burning a hole in someone’s brain. That the editor goes home and gives a blow by blow description of every detail of our carefully paced plot to their significant other who wants nothing more than to have a beer and watch NCIS. We want our graceful turn of phrase or breathtaking metaphor to dance through dreams.
To know that anything less has happened is disappointing. It’s like that Christmas when you were a kid and your parents slid a huge gift under the tree at the beginning of December, leaving it there to tantalize you with possibilities. Every large, expensive, imagination-blowing toy you could think of became a very real possibility. Then you tore open the paper to find out it was a suitcase. You should have known when it didn’t rattle or wasn’t that heavy, but you still let yourself believe. Having something rejected is the process of rebooting that disappointment over and over.
When I receive an email (as most things are online these days) that has some indication that it is from a particular publisher, my stomach drops because I know that within the email is contained another “it’s not right for our needs” message that is polite, impersonal, and to the point. The moment from clicking open to the actual display is the longest in the entire process (my computer is a little cranky). While most of me knows the rejection is waiting, there is that tiny sprite of hope that flits around my head. For that moment the world is a big “What if” and I believe just a little.
When the email opens, my eyes jump to the end where I can discern my fate in an instant. After I receive my answer, I’ll read the email from start to finish, in case someone took the time to respond personally. If they did, I’ll archive it. If not, it goes in the trash, which I promptly empty. Something about the reports of my failures lingering in my inbox is too much for me.
My next step is to open my submission log where I note ‘decline’ because it seems less harsh than ‘rejected’ and make any notes that might be relevant for the future (‘wants to see more,’ ‘submit again next reading period,’ etc.). I’ll look at the selection to see how many rejections it has received–if it’s more than five, I’ll go in and do a revision on the piece before sending it out again.
Usually by the end of the day I’ve forgotten about it; I may have even selected another place to submit if the story doesn’t need some revision. There are occasionally those unfortunate days where a simultaneously submitted piece receives multiple rejections. On those days of clustered denial, I give over to the indulgence of failure. I ask if perhaps I have published all that I ever will, if I should stop submitting now, if I should end it on my terms rather than a continuing to send out a sad stack of stories no one wants. It lasts for a few minutes. Then I wander to one of my bookmarked spots, or open a story that I love, and read to remember that it is, and should always be, about the writing.
PS. For a more poetic look at the submission process, read “The Business of Tracking Lit Mag Submissions” on Tin House by my new Twitter buddy, Aaron Gilbreath. He turns even the simple task of documenting submissions into an art form.