Somehow it wouldn’t be honest to celebrate the writing successes I’ve had without talking about the other side of the writer’s life: the dreaded rejections. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several rejections from literary journals. They have informed me, one by one, that one of my newer essays (which I started submitting about three months ago) doesn’t “meet our needs at this time.” That phrase that can mean so many things. Either the piece isn’t right for that particular journal, or the piece doesn’t fit into the theme of their current or future issues, or their reader(s) simply didn’t feel the essay was good enough for publication. As the writer, you never know for sure unless the editor decides to include an explanation, which is an extremely rare occurrence.
On some days the rejections don’t bother you too much. They arrive in the form of impersonal emails (with or without your name or the name of your piece included), or xeroxed form letters returned to you in Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes. Usually it’s been months since you sent out the submission, so it’s not as if you’ve been focused on it and allowing yourself to hope on a daily basis. When the rejection arrives, you tell yourself that this is part of the game, that your piece just didn’t hit the right journal, reader, or editor, and you swallow the informality of the response without letting it get to you. You remind yourself that most literary journals are poorly funded and understaffed, that they get thousands of submissions and publish precious few, and that they don’t have time to respond to them all personally. Rejections are common; it’s the rare moment when your piece hits the right reader at the right journal at the right time.
In one recent case, the editor of a journal that I respect took the time to type out a short personal letter to me, discussing a few aspects of my piece. He called the writing “great,” which thrilled me, but noted that he didn’t quite get some of the connections I was making in the piece. He ended by saying that he wasn’t sure he was right, and he hoped the piece found a home at another journal. That kind of a rejection feels almost like an acceptance; the fact that the editor liked your writing enough to take the time to personally explain his response — never mind wish the piece well at another journal — means so much. A generous human being sits behind that editor’s desk.
But most often the rejections are brief and impersonal, and I’ve had a few of those lately. And the truth is, unless you have a pretty thick skin, it’s easy to feel hurt by them. You put your heart and soul into your writing, and even a jaded writer who submits often and understands the rejection process can feel kicked in the gut when the rejections arrive. Your reaction can depend on the day, your mood, whether you’ve had any good news lately about your writing, and whether the rejection is the first you’ve received in a while or one of several that have come in lately.
Recently, maybe because I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like due to my teaching schedule (and therefore feel a bit off my game), I have felt the sting of the impersonal rejections. One recent rejection from a well-known journal was just a xeroxed copy of the first page of my piece, accompanied by a smaller piece of paper with a xeroxed form rejection. No kind words about the writing, no invitation to submit again. Just your basic, “Thanks, but no thanks.” This was a rejection of the same piece that had inspired the personal note from the other editor. And this one hurt a little.
I can’t deny it, the varying responses confuse me sometimes. But they shouldn’t; editors have varied tastes, just as readers do. And sometimes your piece never even gets as far as the editor. Your work might have been at the mercy of an unknown reader. Maybe he (or she) is a student, is overworked, likes a different writing style, or simply wasn’t in the mood for an essay on your topic that day. Plus, the more well-known the journal, the more chance that your work is competing against more seasoned (and perhaps talented) writers.
Of course, as I told the kind editor when I wrote back to thank him for his personal response, if a few more journals reject the piece I’ll consider some revision based on his comments.
But all of that is calm rationalization — the kind of thinking I can do in my best, most balanced, most normal moments. Even knowing all of that, on my not-so-great-days, sometimes the rejections still hurt. They inspire a struggle with self confidence. They make me especially wonder if my newer work is as good as the work I did during my MFA program, which ended two years ago. Back then, I had faculty members who read my work and gave me pointers on how to improve it. Even though I worked hard on those pieces for many months, and in some cases revised them on my own after the MFA, those essays did have the benefit of that oversight from talented, published writers and teachers.
Can I do work that’s as good on my own?
The jury is still out. “Waiting for the Hurricane,” which was recently published by the Platte Valley Review, was started and completed after the MFA. But the two other pieces I’ve completed since graduation have yet to find a home (and I’m still shopping around a couple of essays that were started during the MFA). The challenge is to keep believing that I can do this, and that I’ll get better and better if I work at it. Believing that is not always easy. Not on the tougher days.
So this is the other side of the writer’s life. And when you’re stuck in the mire of it, you realize at some point that you have the same choice you’ve always had: let the kick of the rejection prevent you from moving forward, or take a deep breath, shake it off, and get on with it.