Changing the Rejection Narrative

January 15, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

For the past few years, my literary journal submissions have become more regular, my Submittable account more colorful. The grey DECLINED rectangles far outweigh the green ACCEPTED ones, with a smattering of black WITHDRAWN rectangles, along with a mix of two cool blues. This past year, I’ve received 56 no thank yous and 4 yesses, we love your work and would like to publish it.  

But today, I had an epiphany similar to one in my memoir-in-progress. I can wallow in my losses, focus on the negatives, count and recount the rejections—or I can change my perspective and reframe my narrative. Because in 2020, a year like none other in my 55-year-old lifetime, I’ve achieved so much more than I ever imagined possible. I am no longer limited to writing creative nonfiction. I do not shy away from playing with form, from learning other genres, or from entering contests. Because in 2020, I have:

  • 1 book review
  • 1 essay (after 35 rejections over the past five years and countless revisions)
  • 1 prose poem—all new territory and terrifying
  • 1 unclear, experimental, hybrid CNF/poem with erasures and line breaks
  • 1 list essay for an anthology called Art in the Time of Covid-19
  • 1 1st-place flash contest win that led to
  • 1 Pushcart Prize nomination
  • 1 hold-on-tight, your essay has made it to our second round of reviewing for an anthology
  • 1 of the most thoughtful, generous rejections to a contest with feedback from several readers, which led to back-and-forth emails with the editor-in-chief

And, of 13 submissions to various independent presses for a memoir manuscript, thus far 3 have declined, 4 in-progress, and 6 received on Submittable (not including all the others sent by email or separate systems).

Rather than dwell on what didn’t come to pass and think poor me, I can look through another lens, perhaps even feel proud of how far I’ve reached, how much I’ve grown.

This past year, I participated in a unique podcast when I was interviewed, in Hebrew, by an Israeli DJ and read my work, in English, which she set to disco music (apart from my appalling accent, it was a really fun writing experience). Last March, I co-founded a writing community with a friend on the other side of the world to pull myself—and each other—out of lockdown paralysis (and we’re still going strong and open to newcomers). And I’ve pushed myself out of my social-media comfort zone, trying to be a better literary citizen and give where I can give and not just take when I want or need to take.

None of this is meant to boast. My intention is to help those of you who feel down about yourself or your writing life to tally up your year’s accomplishments with different eyes. Another type of re-vision. Did you break into a dream publication? Did you return to writing after a long break? Do you feel happy, satisfied, creatively fulfilled when you approach the blank page? Did you join a writing group? Reach out to a writer you admire? Find someone who believes in your words or supports your work? Did you memorize a favorite poem? It all counts.

As we kick off 2021, my wish for you, and me, and everyone in this community is to write what moves you, what compels you, what makes you feel whole and healthy, and, above all, to stay healthy—mind, body, soul—as the world keeps striking and rebounding. We cannot control how long it will carom, but we can control our reaction. We can re-see our narrative.


Born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Brevity Blog, and Crab Orchard Review, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at and follow her @JenLangWrites. 

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§ 16 Responses to Changing the Rejection Narrative

  • Jennifer, this is a lovely reminder to keep writing and reaching. Each step taken is a step farther along whatever trail of success we choose. I, too, face those gray decline tabs, and then it’s time to resubmit and create all over again. It’s up to the writer to define each success—no matter how small—and celebrate.

    Thank you for the nugget.

  • drwasy says:

    Thank you for this reset on rejection. The pandemic has spawned more writers writing more, so those gray rejection tabs take up more real estate. Which in itself is worth celebrating–more writing! more writers! I think I’ll list out my writing achievements for 2020, including the almost-a-bride wins, because almost is better than never attempting to get my words out to the world. Peace…

  • bethfinke says:

    We cannot control how long it will carom, but we can control our reaction.

    So true.

    Thank you for reminding us!

  • Thank you for an encouraging post.
    Jen’s metaphor of viewing her submittable account as a colorful abstract painting helped me to distance my own gray DECLINED rectangles from the rejections that they represent.


  • bearcee says:

    Thank you for your encouragement. It comes at the right time, as I was feeling a bit down about my submissions.

  • Sharon Silver says:

    I love this attitude. And the funny thing is, it’s not a substitute for accomplishment. It’s a kind of global approach: pushing yourself to do different, recognizing the steps of the journey—not just the final step. And on the way, maybe incidentally, you’ve racked up a whole lot of what anyone would call solid wins. Excellent, inspiring piece. Note: having the guts to trot out iffy Hebrew to an Israeli: wow. Kol hakavod.

  • Cathy says:

    Thank you for this! I have not accomplished near as much during these pandemic times but I AM grateful I’ve accomplished anything at all of late. Your piece gives me a push to work harder and I plan to!

  • lindawis says:

    Re-vision indeed. My young son reminded me to focus on what I’m doing all this writing for. Hint: not for the money nor the accolades. We keep on because we love it.

  • Margaret says:

    I hardly submitted anything in the last year (let’s be honest, I haven’t submitted anything for about 20 years), but I did make some wonderful connections with some fellow writers and I’m very happy about that.

  • Just what I needed to read. Thank you!

  • Alice Lowe says:

    Brava. you! I’ll attest to your creativity this past year. And our personal exchanges of work & other ephemera have been a bright beam in my writing life.

  • Sandra says:

    This is a wonderful piece and a great reminder to value the work, not only the outcome. Well done.

  • The Deleted Story says:

    As a writer or blogger I guess we all are somewhat afraid of being rejected, ignored or criticised. But we have to lift ourselves up and cross all those boundaries to freely put our thoughts on a blank page. I already believe that we should fearlessly exchange our thoughts but this post of Jennifer has motivated and inspired me a bit more.
    I’m also a writer who has just stepped into this writing world. Please take a look at my blog and do give your feedback. Being a blogger I would say that every single feedback matters a lot.

  • rachel cann says:

    Thank you for explaining about the numbers all submitting these days. I was beginning to think the lit mags I was submitting to just needed my money!

  • m. handler says:

    Well done! I needed to see these words which you have so generously shared. New outlook, new lens!

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