On Rejection

A writer submitting work for publication is a writer experiencing rejection. This is simply a truth of the literary world. I’m sure there are those lucky and talented writers whose earliest work was snapped up by some journal, editor or publisher, but in my experience most writers, beginners especially, must weather a demoralizing barrage of rejection notices before they appear (if ever!) in print.

In the pre-internet dark ages, if you wanted a magazine to consider a story, essay or poem of yours you had to mail it to them in a 9×12 manila envelope. You also sent an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) along with the piece so the recipient could, at no cost to them, reply with a yay or a nay. The process — the printing, the labeling, the extra stamp, the trip to the post office — was expensive and time consuming. By its very nature, it limited how much you were willing or capable of sending out.

Days long gone. Most venues now insist on electronic submissions through some form of gatekeeping software. The benefit is that it’s much easier to get work to the market. I certainly submit a story more places now than I did when journals could only receive submissions through the US postal system.

But with increased submissions, rejections increase as well. When before, one or two SASE’s might dribble back in a single month, now you can receive several negative responses in a day. My personal record is four: three email notices and an SASE waiting in the mailbox when I got home from work; and seven in one week.

It is very, very hard not to take rejection personally, especially the serial rejections possible with the online world. Every instance seems a judgement on my talent and skill as a writer, and also a judgment on the depth and profundity of my soul. Writers are supposed to be empathic, chroniclers of the times, its hopes, its dreams and its troubles. If you are bad at this — in other words, a poor writer, not worthy of publication — it means you not only lack talent, but you also lack the trait of empathy, the very thing that makes you human.

You can console yourself with the thought that publishing space is limited, certainly when compared to the number of talented, energetic writers working today. Or that not everyone will resonate with your style, subject matter, or particular brand of fiction. Talk to a more experienced or established writer, and they’ll say that this is part of the writing life. Everyone goes through it. Things will get better. It will happen, they say.

Still there is that sting. Over time, and through dozens and dozens rejections, I’ve realized a few things: 1) Dwelling on the latest rejection has never helped me write better, and is pretty much a juvenile waste of time; 2) Hating myself because magazine X won’t publish a story of mine certainly won’t get me into print any faster, and again, is pretty much a juvenile waste of time; and 3) Multiple rejections of a work might be a sign that the story has problems. Maybe the characters or plot need to be fleshed out, or the language made more specific, more energetic, more engaging. Revising a story is also good way to channel the negative energy a rejection generates into something positive.

A teacher of mine has advised that I should submit a rejected story to a different journal the same day I receive a negative response. It seems to redirect the self-loathing, despair, and ennui that can come with (yet another!) “no thanks.”

The best advice I’ve received about rejection was from an editor who actually published a story of mine. Since he really admired the piece, I asked him why he thought the story had been rejected a dozen times before. He said he wouldn’t be able to tell me — you never really know why something does or doesn’t get accepted.

“The only thing you can do,” he said. “Is to keep writing.”

About Stefen Styrsky

Stefen Styrsky's fiction has appeared in The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, Inch, and the Tahoma Literary Review. A few years ago he earned an MA degree in fiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Stefen lives in Washington, DC.
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