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Last year, I got rejected 43 times by literary magazines, residencies, and fellowships—my best record since I started shooting for getting 100 rejections per year. It’s harder than it sounds, but also more gratifying.
In late 2011, a writer friend was sharing her experiences of having months of uninterrupted writing time at her residencies at the Millay Colony, Ragdale, and Yaddo. I was staggered by her impressive rates of acceptance. You probably have one of those friends, too—you know the one I’m talking about, that friend who is a beautiful writer, but who also seems to win everything? I could barely believe that she had the balls to apply to—let alone, get accepted to—several residencies, a prestigious fellowship, and publications in journals I had actually heard of.
I asked her what her secret was, and she said something that would change my professional life as a writer: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”
This small piece of advice struck a deep chord in my fragile creative ego. My vulnerable ego only wants to be loved and accepted, to have my words ring out from a loudspeaker in Times Square while a neon ticker scrolls the text across a skyscraper, but it’s a big old coward. My ego resists mustering up the courage to submit writing to literary magazines, pitch articles, and apply for grants, residencies, and fellowships. Yet these painful processes are necessary evils if we are ever to climb out of our safe but hermetic cocoons of isolation and share our writing with the world. Perhaps aiming for rejection, a far more attainable goal, would take some of the sting out of this ego-bruising exercise—which so often feels like an exercise in futility.
* * * *
In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group’s pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practiced, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer’s block.
Being a writer sometimes feels like a paradox. Yes, we should be unswerving in our missions to put passion down on paper, unearthing our deepest secrets and most beautiful bits of humanity. But then, later, each of us must step back from those raw pieces of ourselves and critically assess, revise, and—brace yourself—sell them to the hungry and unsympathetic public. This latter process is not only excruciating for most of us (hell, if we were good at sales we would be making good money working in sales), but it can poison that earlier, unselfconscious creative act of composition.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott illustrates a writer’s brain as being plagued by the imaginary radio station KFKD (K-Fucked), in which one ear pipes in arrogant, self-aggrandizing delusions while the other ear can only hear doubts and self-loathing. Submitting to journals, residencies, fellowships, or agents amps up that noise. How could it not? These are all things that writers want, and who doesn’t imagine actually getting them? But we’d be much better off if only we could figure out how to turn down KFKD, or better yet, change the channel—uncoupling the word “rejection” from “failure.”
There are two moments from On Writing, Stephen King’s memoir and craft book, that I still think about more than 15 years after reading it: the shortest sentence in the world, “Plums defy!” (which he presented as evidence that writing need not be complex), and his nailing of rejections. When King was in high school, he sent out horror and sci-fi fantasy stories to pulpy genre magazines. For the first few years, they all got rejected. He stabbed his rejection slips onto a nail protruding from his bedroom wall, which soon grew into a fat stack, rejection slips fanned out like kitchen dupes on an expeditor’s stake in a crowded diner. Done! That one’s done! Another story bites the dust! That nail bore witness to King’s first attempts at writing, before he became one of the most prolific and successful authors in the world.
* * * *
Samuel Beckett wrote, Fail, fail again, fail better. I started submitting essays to literary magazines the summer after my first year of graduate school. My mentor, a gentle and encouraging nonfiction writer, presented it simply. “Take a manila envelope, put your essay in it, add a SASE, and write a very simple cover letter with your name and information in it. Give it shot! Maybe not the New Yorker, but the next tier of journals.” A friend with ambitious aspirations disagreed. “Always submit to the New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review! Why not? You have nothing to lose. I see it as a challenge; the minute AGNI rejects me, I send them something else, that day!”
I bought a roll of stamps, a box of manila envelopes. I submitted to journals I had heard of—Tin House, The Iowa Review, Guernica—and was soundly rejected by them. My heart would jump when I saw my own handwriting on the SASE, and then sink when I tore open the envelope only to find a form rejection slip. But sometimes, it would jump again if I saw any drop of a reader or editor’s pen ink on it. “Thanks, try us again sometime,” or “Sorry, not for us,” were the comments from one desperate creative soul in the world to another. Ink drops on form rejection slips were splashes of hope.
My rejections became tiny second-hand ticks on the slow-moving clock of my writing career, counting down to an acceptance, another revision, a long rest for the piece in the bottom of a drawer—or possibly, a return to the clay pit of my subconscious. I saved all of my rejection slips in a box, and kept an extremely kind and personalized handwritten note from the Nonfiction Editor at the Indiana Review on my window frame as a talisman of encouragement. While procrastinating on writing my MFA thesis, I found an ancient wooden desk on the street, pulled it into my apartment, and started shellacking it with hard-earned rejection slips. It became my writing desk.
As submissions became digitized, I became familiar with journal slush piles from the other side, as a prose reader and eventually Nonfiction Editor of Redivider. Now I read prose for Black Lawrence Press. While sometimes I feel like each crop of manuscripts is my post-graduate education in how not to start a novel, short story, or essay collection, the thrill of reading something great—or even gripping—is so intoxicating. It’s the reason we all read; it’s the reason many of us write. Now, I see rejection as a conversation: for every piece that is rejected, at least one other person read it, thought about it, and really considered whether it would be a good fit for publication. What’s more, it’s a conversation between two minds that truly love literature, as the financial margins of journals and small presses are slimmer than the sheaf of pages that I carry with me each day to revise before going to my day job.
Since I’ve started aiming for rejections, not acceptances, I no longer dread submitting. I don’t flinch (much) when I receive inevitable form rejection emails. Instead of tucking my story or essay apologetically into a bottle and desperately casting it out to sea, I launch determined air raids of submission grenades, five or ten at a time. I wait for the rejections, line up my next tier of journals, and submit again.
* * * *
Last year, I got rejected 43 times, but I also got five acceptances—one to a residency, one to a reading series, and three publications in literary journals. Additionally, to my delight, I received six encouraging rejections from really great journals, inviting me to send them something else.
At the recent AWP Conference in Los Angeles, I stopped by the Sycamore Review table to thank the editors for their two encouraging rejections last year. We laughed about how encouraging rejections are almost better for the soul than acceptances. “The thrill of an acceptance eventually wears off, but the quiet solidarity of an encouraging rejection lasts forever,” one editor said. “Absolutely,” I said. “I mean, you guys have been sending me form rejections for years!” When I told an editor at Fourth Genre that I placed the essay they had encouragingly rejected in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, she was thrilled. “I really liked your essay!” she said. “I’ll look it up right now.”
The caveat to this is that submissions are not required to be a writer. My boyfriend is a wonderful poet, gives an incredible poetry reading, and is solidly unpublished. Yet he is joyful in his act of creation, without the desire to have his disembodied voice read by strangers. Perhaps it is not an accident that he also practices Buddhism, which focuses creative attention on perception and experience, and finds wisdom in letting go of external outcomes. Hearing about his writing process is a great reminder that really, I am happiest when I am writing, not when I am being read. Sure, being read is great for about ten seconds, but it also whips my ego up into a fervor of insecurity. The act of writing is the part that feels like flying.
If I had gone into last year shooting for five acceptances, it would have felt way too ambitious. I would have approached submitting timidly, or not taken chances on big name journals or competitive fellowships. Even admitting to my numbers—which live in my very private, crazily annotated and color-coded Excel spreadsheet—makes me worry that I won’t be able to top my rejection record in 2016.
But hey, I’m going to start looking for agents as soon as I finish my novel, and I hear they love to reject people! The great news is that in the writing life, there’s always something or someone new to get rejected by. In the towering waves of slush, be it high tide or low tide, my own modest submission is out there, like a tiny sailboat, bobbing afloat, perhaps bringing me closer to land.
Feature image: detail from Sarah Hobbs’ Untitled (Perfectionist), 2002.