“I reject the rejections!” the righteous writer cries; “I will persist!” Hoorah for determination, I say. But before you ritually burn the rejection slips to rid yourself of bad juju, I’d like to suggest an alternative. “Rejection along with uncertainty are as much a part of the writer’s life as snow and cold are of an Eskimo’s,” editor Ted Solotaroff writes. “They are conditions one has not only to learn to live with but also learn to make use of.” What use can we possibly make of rejection?
Minnesotans should know that the more time we spend outdoors in the winter, the less bothersome the cold becomes. I suggest we develop a sustainable, positive attitude to this wretched climate. Bundle up, folks!
Admittedly, rejection adds insult to injury. Maintaining faith in our work without pay or recognition is hard enough for us sensitive, writer-types without the gut-sinking sound of self-addressed stamped envelopes thunking in the mailslot. But consider this: Unless a rejection letter is nasty (which I’ve never seen), the rejections themselves are harmless. They yield only as much power as we give them. The more we locate authority outside of ourselves– this writing instructor or agent or editor is more worthy than I to declare a work valuable –the less we learn to trust our own good authority. The publishing industry is a poor determinant of literary quality. The marketplace is worse. As a result, we each must develop standards for our writing and strive to achieve these standards as best we can. Then we can stand solidly beside our work as we send it out.
As painful as rejection is–and I know; I’ve just received twenty from agents and have another thirty to go–each rejection is an opportunity to learn. Not enclosing SASEs so you never get rejected or burning your old rejection letters only shoots you in the foot. First, it’s disrespectful not honor agents’ or publishers’ submissions guidelines. Some refuse to look at your work if you’ve demonstrated you can’t follow directions. Second, rejections can give us useful information, about the market or, when they’re personalized, about our work. Third, knowing your rejection history is important. I recently dug through my rejections folder and found four slips from agents who liked my writing but wouldn’t take that particular project. Now I can query them again with this new work. Finally, denial isn’t healthy. If we hope to communicate with an audience, we must hold our own vision and standards up against the realities of the marketplace. Pretending Minnesota is warm in January is a bad idea, especially if you want to go someplace.
Rejections can be invaluable. While I was writing my first book, Swinging on the Garden Gate , I imagined the story speaking to the mass market. Two dozen unequivocal rejections from agents and major presses later, I reassessed–mine was a quiet memoir, nosing around the private world of faith and sexual identity and not likely to leap off the shelves to make some agent (or me) any money. Sure, this realization was a blow to my ego, but it taught me to more accurately assess the marketability of my work. Note–not the literary value, not the personal or relational value, but its market value. Next, I imagined a feminist press taking on Swinging as a queer woman’s perspective on divinity. Nope. The feminists couldn’t push my work away fast enough. I learned that most feminist presses treated religion like the plague. Finally, I identified my ideal audience–people of faith questioning their sexual identity and queer folks questioning their faith–and asked, Who markets books to these people? The denominational publishing houses? So I sent off the manuscript and got a few nibbles followed by waffling. The theology and writing were great, but bisexuality? Too scary. I was devastated, but gained regard for those presses willing to undertake edgy work. Finally Skinner House nabbed the book. Even though publishing with the Unitarians, who welcome GLBT folk into their clergy roster and bless same-sex marriages, was preaching to the choir, I was thrilled. An accepting press would escort the book into the world! Without all the rejections, Swinging would never have been published.
Each rejection is an opportunity to relocate ourselves in faith–not the faith that everything will work out in the end, but faith that our writing is worthwhile, regardless. Our desire to communicate with others will bear fruit, although perhaps not in the form we originally hoped and after a shitload more work than we expected. We may need to generate the circumstances with which our writing encounters its readership, whether by rubbing elbows with other authors, writing and rewriting our queries, finding a niche publisher, publishing online, or running off photocopies to distribute at the family reunion. Each rejection is a chance to hunker down in the real reason we write–because we are helplessly compelled–and trust that this reason is worthy enough.
In the end, I always take my inspiration from the poets. Even the best among them will never amass enough writing income to buy a used car. Most won’t get published, and those that do rarely get read. They write anyway. They hand out copies of their work at the rail station, asking for spare change. They read in cafés during National Poetry Month. The media ignores them, popular culture rejects them, and yet they continue to bear witness. I suspect that, more than any glossily embossed best-seller, the poets’ quiet, ongoing commitment does tremendous good for the world. To me, that’s what matters.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew