On rejection

How do you handle rejection? It’s interesting. I started out as brash and lucky: my first submissions of poems to literary magazines were all accepted. I sent the same five poems to five different magazines and none rejected me. One took two, and three others took one each. I remember thinking, “Gee, everyone made me think getting published would be difficult.” It wasn’t. At least that time.

Fast forward a year or two and I tried sending a magazine on the West coast known for mostly publishing West coast writers or big famous writers. Form letter rejection. Then another. And another. And…ooh, WAIT! This one has a personal note scrawled in pen: “Nope.” Sigh. Form letter. Another. Another. A total of 13 rejections in 24 months, with most of those rejected poems going on to be published at other journals. Couldn’t break in. Wasn’t Western and wasn’t famous.

Fast forward another year or two and I am publishing my second collection with what was at the time the nation’s leading poetry house. “Out of nowhere”, I get an email from an editor at said Western magazine: “We’d like to invite you to submit…”

So I sent back all the poems they’d rejected that hadn’t be published elsewhere with the note that I’d already tried, 13 times, and that if they wanted to relook, then they were welcome to have any one of these poems they’d already rejected.

You will not be surprised, dear reader, to find that I never heard from them again. I didn’t like the feeling of rejection, so I stopped submitting to most magazines shortly after that, though I still send out pieces when invited.

Yet years on, hanging at the cusp of my 50s with time eroding my body and white hairs sprinkling my once cayenne beard, I can genuinely say that sending that letter was both the WRONG move and one of the MOST SATISFYING THINGS I HAVE EVER DONE.

Anyway, point being: if you’re going to be a sore loser, try to be better than me and say nothing to anyone but your most trusted vault-keeping friends.

Most rejections come in generic form: “Thank you for your interest, but this piece does not meet our current needs. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere.” More personalized rejections with specific critique are a good thing — but it doesn’t always feel that way, especially in the beginning. Being told that your main character is unlikable can feel like a personal attack, when really it’s an opportunity to make the story better.

Every writer who’s sent out submissions has a few stories about the “WTF” rejections.  Like the agent who objected to my “main character’s Lesbian issue” (yes, she capitalized it). Or the one, back in the prehistoric era of snail mail, who wrote, “You could try workshopping this poem, but in its present form it is cliched and unoriginal” —  on the outside of the return envelope. (I resisted the temptation to write back when the same poem, unaltered, won $50 elsewhere. Publishing really is very subjective.)

And (despite some of my fantasy suggestions below), it’s unwise to ever respond to a rejection. The editor who loves your next story won’t remember that they passed on your last one. Unless of course you sent them a stinging email calling them “an infected boil on a troll’s butt, who wouldn’t know great literature if all nine muses used it to kill them with paper cuts.”

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