The Letter That Should Never Be Written

March 4, 2019 § 10 Comments

Shuly Cawood author picby Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

A few years ago, during a writing class, a professor started with this exercise: he asked us to pull out a sheet of paper and write a letter that should never be written—the letter that we would never actually send but that if we were really being honest, we would write.

We did so, like good little students. I won’t admit here what I wrote, but my letter was honest and open and rich with emotion; it held things I could never say to the person to whom I wrote this missive. I was glad to have said it, but I was also ready to burn it as soon as I put down my pen.

After we had all finished our letters, the professor praised us, and then he asked us to fold up our letter and put on it the name and address of the person to whom we had written. We complied, we eager-to-obey students. “Now,” he said, “I want to you to turn them in to me.”

What? Are you kidding me? I wanted to shred my letter, not have it continue to exist, and especially not in someone else’s hands.

I thought about this incident when a friend recently asked me how vulnerability played a role in my writing. I wanted to give him my very sophisticated and complex answer of, “A lot!” I think most writers feel vulnerable not only because we are creating something that feels like it’s a part of ourselves but also because the world of traditional publishing rests on other people’s opinions, from whether a piece is accepted or declined for publication to—if accepted—whether people like it once it’s out there.

I’m not telling you this to say woe is me. I am lucky to be able to do this thing I love, and this aspect of it is just part of the game you must play if you want to publish your work in a traditional way. If you aren’t up for it, then just write and keep it to yourself.

But I am up for it.

If you don’t know me, then you don’t know that I have a goal of getting at least 100 rejections a year. I figure if I get that many, I am putting myself out there enough, and I will get about a 10% acceptance rate (according to my friend Dan who once told me that in sales, if you make 100 cold calls, you’ll have a 10% success rate). Plus it makes getting the rejections a lot easier—with each one, I am moving toward a desired goal.

Last week I finally counted up my rejections from 2018. I wasn’t sure if I had made it to 100, but the truth lies in the numbers, right? In 2018, I got…drum roll, please…146 rejections and 13 acceptances. But here’s the thing: I loved my 13 acceptances. They mattered way more than the rejections. And I had other great things happen—I got to launch my latest book on the Book Cougars podcast, I was bleeped out on public radio during my WYSO Book Nook interview (because I was quoting an author who had used a cuss word several times, but still! I got bleeped out! That was fun), I was invited to speak at my alma mater and the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, I was asked to talk to book clubs, and an essay of mine was offered a place in a prestigious anthology. Most importantly, I was able to write, to become lost in words.

Yeah, I’ll take rejections if I can have all that. I’ll take vulnerability any day.

As for the letter that should never be written and having it be in that professor’s possession, he told us that’s how he wanted us to feel every time we wrote—that at risk, that vulnerable. Maybe he was trying to tell us not to be so afraid, but I think now he was also showing us it was worth it.

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 (Cimarron Books, 2018) and The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017). She has an MFA from Queens University, and her website is

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