Isaac Asimov called rejection letters “lacerations of the soul.” Me? I don’t feel lacerated as much as hit in the gut. Rejection makes me feel terrible, & terrible about myself. Jealousy, loneliness, self-doubt: to my lizard brain, a simple rejection is a threat to my human need to belong.
But rejection is also a constant, immovable companion: Alexander Chee calls it “the other medium of writing.” I have periodic mini-crises where rejection makes me doubt whether I can go on as a writer. But if I am to be a writer at all, rejection is part of it. That’s the choice: write, and be rejected, or don’t write. Don’t believe me? A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 29 times. Ray Bradbury got 800 (yes, eight hundred) rejections before selling even one story. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected so many times that Beatrix Potter decided to self-publish.
At the end of each mini-crisis, I come to this: the writing is worth it. The readers and students I have are worth it, the ideas that sometimes well like bubbling water in my gut, pulling me out of bed in the morning, the satisfaction of work completed, the challenge of improving a piece: worth it. Knowing that I’ve tried is worth it—or at least it’s better than just not trying.
I’m not here to tell you that there’s a way around rejection. Or that it’s easy, or gets easier. I’m here to convince you that rejection is worth getting to know. So, how do you let rejection move your work forward?
1. Submit again.
Many writers have a strict routine: a piece gets rejected, they submit the same piece to other venues immediately. The idea is to not let a single rejection feel too important. Instead, you want a continual process of having your work out there.
Another way of looking at it: let the rejection fuel your fire. Let it focus you. Increase your persistence in fighting for what you want.
Another wrinkle to this “submit again” tip: make sure you always have multiple irons in the fire. When one piece feels too bruised by rejection, have a fresh piece to work on or submit. This ensures that you keep going somehow—even when it feels impossible to keep going in the exact same direction.
2. Take a break…then submit again.
Some of us need a little time before we get back up on the horse (raising my hand). Or sometimes a particular rejection will hit us hard. In that case, give yourself a set amount of time to grieve, sulk, or wallow. You can even have a little rejection ritual—take a bath, eat some ice cream, cry, watch a show. At the end of that set amount of time, move on. Submit again.
3. Take pride in your rejections.
They’re a feature, not a bug. “I love my rejection slips,” Sylvia Plath wrote. “They show me I try.” This instinct is behind the “100 rejections” idea—in one of the online writing groups I’m in, we publicly announce our rejections, counting them and cheering them on. The goal? Get to at least 100 rejections per year. The reason? Rejection is a natural part of writing, and we should welcome it.
Plus, you can only get accepted if you’re putting yourself out there to get rejected. Every one of my own acceptances this year (including my first personal essay publication, my first fiction publication, my second poetry book publication) sprung from my membership in the 100 rejections club. The acceptances were a happy byproduct of the rejections. Even writing this paragraph makes me smile at the word no (and no, and no, and no, and…). All those no’s now happy little flags, fluttering from my accepted work.
4. Let rejection teach you.
Sometimes a rejection teaches you what’s wrong with your work. Silence, form rejection, or specific critiques can lead you back to the work and show you what needs fixing.
Or sometimes the work is perfect, and rejection is just one person’s opinion. Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”
In those cases, rejection can be the closed door that shows you a new path. It can teach you who your audience is—or isn’t—or what’s wrong with your submission approach. For example (and this happens to me a lot!) it might make you ask—do you want to be published in a particular venue because of something intrinsic to that venue’s voice or values? Or because it’s a name-brand venue that would make you feel fancy? Look for the places that love and will value your work, not places you view as wins.
5. Reaffirm yourself.
You can trick yourself into keeping on despite it, and you can do the hard work of reevaluating your writing after it. But you also need to remember that you are good, are great, are worthy apart from what anyone else decides about your work. That is: rejection does not define you. Rejection does not determine your self-worth (that one’s good for a post-it note on the mirror).
When rejection gets you down, take some time to remind yourself of the successes you’ve had, or of the things that have graced your life without your having to ask for them. Take some time to remind yourself of what you love about writing, about the writing life, about your writing. Which does not need an acceptance to exist, and matter.
Now go! And may your path be littered with rejections, acceptances, and most of all may it be paved with the good stones of your own work.
Leah is also a WOW! Women on Writing instructor. Check out her new class, WHY DO I WRITE?: Discover your true drives, your idiosyncratic rituals, and your own path forward, which starts on September 17th!