The Biggest Loser, or How to Start Your Own Rejection Club
September 23, 2019 § 15 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
Before my memoir was published, I received a rejection from someone I’ll call Professor X; he told me how much he hated my characters, especially the narrator, who he called “appallingly self-conscious, overly obsessed with men and how she appears to them, and—finally—just plain untrustworthy on a deep emotional level.” He also didn’t appreciate “being dragged through the dull, narcissistic terrain of the narrator’s psyche.” He suggested I forget about revision because my writing is “neurotic and often pretentious,” and that the “palsied humor,” which I “have no talent for” was “embarrassing and unseemly.” When I showed one of my well-published mentors this litany of my shortcomings, she called it “mild.” She said if I wanted to be a writer I had better “soldier up,” because there would be much worse ahead. She reminded me that a critic said the person who wrote Wuthering Heights must have been deranged and should have killed “himself.” Criticism and rejection are part of the writers’ life.
I drove home from my mentor’s house and was stopped at a traffic light, wondering what sort of horrible little man would use the archaic word “unseemly.” That’s when I noticed him—a giant furry dolphin with a sign that read “Car Wash, Next Right.” He was jumping around, twirling his sign, urging passing motorists into the car wash. His plastic face was fixed into a frozen pink smile, the cartoonish blue eyes bulging. I watched him prance about and burst into tears, not because I felt sorry for this poor asshole, dancing on a street corner in a dolphin suit. No, I felt sorry for me. I could only think about how many people had said no and how they didn’t like my narrator, who is, of course, me. I thought about how I didn’t want to “soldier up,” and how I should have hiked up mountains or skied down them with all those hours spent writing. Mr. Dolphin noticed me crying; he put his sign down and waved at me with both flippers. I waved back and figured that if he could do what he was doing with all that dolphin dignity, I could very well keep writing and sending out my work.
I went home and Googled “famous literary rejections.” Harry Potter was rejected by 12 presses; Stephen King’s first novel Carrie was rejected 30 times; and William Saroyan received 7,000 rejections before he published a story. These famous literary rejections made me realize comparing my own rejections with another writer or group of writers would make me feel better.
My first recruit for the rejection contest was a teaching colleague. We kept a sheet of paper taped to our office wall, and we wrote the names of the journals that rejected us underneath our names. Students came into our office and assumed our lists were places we’d been published. When we explained that they were our rejections, they laughed, thinking us strange. However, more often than not, they were relieved: not only were their teachers getting rejected, they weren’t ashamed to post it on the wall. The longer my list grew, the more accomplished I felt. At least I was doing something. But my officemate found it depressing, so she declared me the winner and ripped the sheet off the wall.
When our list was gone, I missed that reminder of just how hard I was trying. I knew what I had to do: I solicited members for the Rejection Club.
How the Rejection Club Works
This club is based solely on sending out work and tallying rejections, so it works differently than a Writing Group (which I wrote about here); therefore, you might never see your fellow club member’s work, though if you have, it will allow you to make suggestions of where to send rejected work next time.
Each member of the Rejection Club forwards her rejection to the group via email, allowing the other members to comment on the editors’ poor taste and lack of judgement. Certainly, we all know that perhaps our piece wasn’t ready or doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of the journal, but what’s the fun in that? Poking fun at the diction, grammar, and tone gives us a chance to reject our rejections, which is a necessary first step in coming to terms with the fact that the editor might be right. You have to be careful not to reply to the editor with your witty repartee by mistake, which will then require an apology and explanation that can only make you sound like a crazy person and will ensure that the journal in question will never take your future work. I know this from experience.
Each submission packet counts as one rejection, whether it’s one prose piece or five poems. Anything you submit your writing to—contests, grants, fellowships, panel proposals, residencies—counts. In my little group, the competition has become fierce, and the biggest loser will end up with over 100 rejections. At the end of the year, whoever has the most rejections, is the new Rejection King or Queen. We keep track from one AWP conference to the next, ending with a celebratory dinner. The winner/ biggest loser gets dinner paid for, but more importantly, she earns bragging rights for the entire year. We’ve been at it for four months, and I’m in the lead with 40, though one of my MFA students is closing in, so it’s looking like I’ll have to up my game.
Why Join a Rejection Club?
The Rejection Club makes those “Fuck you, Dear Writer” messages fun. One RC member calls it “a sick reverse-psychology game that’s pretty cool.” Losing is winning. That’s better than a dude in a dolphin suit, waving at you. But more than anything, being in a Rejection Club forces you to send out your work. It’s a game of odds, and in order to publish, you have to gamble on yourself. As you might guess, the person who gets the most rejections usually ends up placing the most work. The more you submit, the more you will publish.
The writer’s life is full of rejection, so you might as well get used to it. When your book is accepted for publication, there are new rejections to face—your book won’t win that contest; you won’t get that fellowship; Oprah never calls; and no movie deal for you. And the Amazon trolls will give you one star because they could have written your book better than you did. There’s always something else to lose. You will not be happy when ____________ happens, if you aren’t happy now. You must find your happiness in the writing; that’s the only thing you can control.
So be an employee to your art—spend time with your words and then offer them to the world. While it’s true that many people don’t want what you’ve written, it’s your job to find the reader who needs your words. The path to that reader isn’t always easy, but that’s where your Rejection Club comes in. They will cheer you along the way and keep you accountable. You cannot participate in a Rejection Club unless you have things to send out, which means you’re writing.
And the only real way to fail at writing is not writing.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, CNN, The Rumpus, Longreads, and The Normal School, but she has been rejected by many others. She teaches for the MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. More information may be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram: @suzanneroberts28
I loved this article! You made me laugh a lot. The part about Wuthering Heights was funny…..I didn’t know that’s how some critics panned it.
I’m in. Where do I sign up?
This is a great idea. I currently just write my rejections down in my day-planner, but it would be fun to have a group to share rejections!
I can’t believe how awful Professor X’s rejection was – I was cringing the whole time I was reading that part. What a jerk. It’s one thing to not like a piece, it’s quite another to decimate it!
Subversive little essay: The writer hails the joy of piling up rejections while her whole plan, really, is to keep us writing so that we ultimately get somewhere. Sneaky and wonderful.
Love this. Will keep it!!! Thanks!
I did the 100-rejections-in-a-year. Not a problem and did encourage me to send out work, but very few journals/editors/agents send anything specific back.
The worst specific rejection I’ve had came from an agent (whom I’d been referred to by one of her clients) who described in detail what she did not like about my characters, voice, or premise enough to read the entire submission. In that case a simple no would have sufficed.
Boy, is this a timely essay! I have been on the verge of tears for more than a week because the writing is just too hard, etc. It is so good to be reminded that rejection is part of the process!
Oh how I LOVE this. Thank you for making me smile this morning!
Great stuff…I keep track on a sadistic-fun little spreadsheet called “Rejections per week” (I think 11 was the highest in one week), but now I’m thinking I really ought to join a rejection club, too…
I loved this, Suzanne. I’d join a rejection club! A few have been so strongly worded that it was clear I’d hit a real nerve with the editor – humiliating but also not a wholly bad thing. These visceral rejections likely say as much (more?) about the editor as they do about the writing.
Thanks so much for this! I’m in a closed FB group where we share our rejections. It’s a fabulous method of both support and learning to accept this reality of the author’s life.
Love this, thanks for making me laugh with a fabulous idea. I haven’t written anything other than emails and letters in 18 MONTHS! So I can’t join your club just now but I do wish you the BEST and that you will end up on Ellen or something just because you started something NEW!!! 🙂 Go have fun writing stuff for the editors wastebasket or what’s it called “Trash Bin.”
Brilliant! Thanks. And keep going (of course) 💪🏼
Aargh, I should have read this 45 years ago!…I have had some acceptances but oh, such stinging criticisms tucked into those tidy, adamant rejections. But I get it, I get it–and so must carry on, despite advancing age. There is still hardly a day I am not writing or cogitating and preparing to write. Best to get back to submitting, eh?
A fine and useful essay and a great “solution” to the rejection blues.
[…] of short pieces I’d like to work on. I’d like to keep submitting widely. I began a rejection club with some other writers and I’m happy to say that’s one race I’m winning so far […]