Monday, May 9, 2011

The Art of Rejection

When anyone asks me for advice on publishing, the hardest thing to make someone understand is the amount of rejection that comes with putting your work out there. As writers, we are subjected to enormous amounts of disappointment. Some people are not cutout for this and end up not submitting work very often or only submitting it to places they feel more confident in or have some connection to, which can be problematic.

The question is: how do you teach someone to take rejection? One of the problems I see is that we've created a culture that wants everything for nothing and wants quick results. I've fallen victim to some of this thinking myself. I am currently struggling a lot with the fact that I don't have a good teaching job in creative writing, but the reality is that I am only 28 and I need more experience and time before that can happen. That doesn't change the fact that I feel like I want it now and deserve it now. Of course, I understand the reality. This isn't really a case of getting something for nothing (I have worked hard and I do have an MFA and publications), but it is connected to the idea of wanting results faster. The academic world, much like the publishing world, moves slowly and one has to play by the rules.

If you are a writer of short fiction or poetry, which is primarily published in small journals or magazines, you are in for a long and torture filled journey. Most places want you to be willing to wait for months upon months for a yes or a no, and then even more months or a year for publication if they do, in fact, accept you. This can be hard to take in our fast-paced world. We want answers now! But, this just isn't how it works. I do think some magazines could make some changes that would allow quicker results, but as a whole these places have small staffs and lots of submissions to get through.

In the last three years, I've had numerous works accepted. I've gotten about 40 individual poems published or accepted for publication. This has all been great and rewarding, but for every one of those poems accepted there were probably three or four rejection letters. I'm still early in my career, but I imagine, unless I become quite famous, these rejections aren't really going to stop. There will always be places that just don't want my work or don't think it's the right fit at the moment. It's a balancing act. You have to find the right poem for the right magazine at the right time. There is some luck involved.

Rejection is hard and can come in many different forms. The form letters are, to me, the worst. My least favorite are the ones that don't even bother taking two seconds to stick your name into them and address you as "writer." This is particularly inconsiderate if a publication rejects through email. I've also gotten my fair share of "we had your poem so long because it made it to the final round, but we regret to inform you that it just isn't right for us, please send more work soon." These are encouraging and discouraging at the same time. Is it helpful to know you were so close? I can't decide on this one.

Is there ever a good way to be rejected? I'm not sure there is. You just have to learn to take it. Once I get a rejection, I send out new submissions as quickly as possible, because it keeps me motivated. My work won't get published sitting on my hard drive.

As I said at the beginning, this is a hard thing to give advice about or teach to students. You have to remind yourself that art is hard and can be a long journey, but if you truly want to get your work out there, you have to try and you have to submit and submit and submit. Overtime, you also start to push yourself and your work changes and becomes stronger. Four or five years ago, my work was rejected constantly with little to no acceptance, but I now realize that work wasn't nearly as strong as the work I've written in the last 2 years. I'm not saying being rejected over and over again made me a better writer, but it did make me closely examine each and every poem and I grew as a poet through my experiences including being rejected.

If nothing else, this process is an exercise in patience and dedication. That doesn't mean I don't get discouraged or upset, but I try always to put it into perspective and I never stop writing or submitting.

-Stephen (Reject)


  1. Perceptive points as usual. And somehow, your insight on dealing with rejection and rejection and rejection is also motivational.

  2. God, did I need to hear this right now!! After selling a dozen erotic stories and a handful of poems in the 90's, then getting a couple "NO THANK YOU'S", I quit. Now I'm submitting stuff again, and getting some decent feedback, but feeling like I'm taking baby steps. I've never been very patient. This was a nice reminder to stick to it, and work at getting better. Thanks, Stephen. :)

  3. I want to call my collected poems, My Rejected Poems.

  4. A lot of people online talk about needing to be less thin-skinned in order to be able to survive the usual flame wars, nasty rhetoric, and so forth. I think getting rejected in life is a lot like one's artistic work getting rejected. There are close parallels. Of course, that's also because most artists care too much about their creative offspring to ever be fully objective. (Objective criticism is possible about one's own work, but it takes time to get there.)

    My strategy about submissions is perhaps a little different than most, so my experience of rejection might be a bit different. I am very selective about where I submit; I try to discern what they might like, based on their past offerings; and I try to make a good match. So I don't submit very often; the "shotgun" approach, submitting a lot of stuff all the time, has never made much sense to me, and frankly is too much effort. So I've had a relatively high success rate.

    And three or four times, journals have actually ASKED me to give them something; few things are more gratifying than to be asked to submit some work, and then see it published.

    I don't worry about rejection. Like I said, I don't submit all that often anyway.

    I think the real reason it bothers so many people is because they get their self-esteem tangled up in how people respond to their creative work; they care too much about what other people think of their art; and they take rejection of their work as a rejection of their person. Which it occasionally, but only occasionally, can be; but usually is not. You can never afford to take it personally. If people are really serious about being "professional" in their art, they have to remember that rejection AND acceptance are equally impersonal, because what's really going on is whether or not they find your work suitable, at that moment, for inclusion in THEIR work, which is what editing a journal or anthology is, for them. If you want to be professional, you always have to remember not to take it personally.