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
May 10, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Ashley Jones
“There just were not many great pieces. The best piece was one about a Japanese Sex Hotel,” she paused and looked me with wide eyes, “Japanese. Sex. Hotel.”
Rose and I went to Butte County for the weekend to help families with item retrieval after the wildfire. As our trip came to a close, we made conversation as we packed our bags. I tried to respond to her comment without revealing the sharp pain that came along with it.
Last year, I submitted a piece in every category of our university literary journal and Rose, along with the other department editors, accepted none of my work. At first, I did not take the news personally. After all, the entries are anonymous. Still, in that moment, I have to say, Rose poked my ego. To this day, she still has no idea. (So, this story stays between you and me).
She gave me a toothy grin. “You should submit a piece,” she suggested.
“Yeah,” I said with a quiet casual laugh. I folded my clothes and tucked them into a bag. I spoke slowly and unhurriedly. “I think I will.”
The first pieces I submitted, I considered to be some of my best work. These were poems, essays, and stories I spent hours over my keyboard with through the weeks. Hearing that these pieces were not enough for our university literary journal felt challenging. Hearing, from my friend, that they just weren’t great at all felt defeating. I struggled with feelings of shame and embarrassment. Was I failing as an English major? How could I even call myself a writer?
It was during this time where I started to research author rejections and the commonness of it all. I learned Judy Blume, one of our generation’s most beloved authors, for the first two years of her writing life, received only rejection letters from publishers. Hearing this shocked me. At the same time, her struggle inspired me to keep chugging along. I brushed off Rose’s comments like dust off an old book.
I wrote new pieces and refined old ones. This year, when the time to submit came around; I submitted a piece in every category again.
A few months later, I received an email invitation for the “author party” without receiving an acceptance letter. Holding my breath, I emailed the editors back and asked if they chose one of my pieces to publish in their upcoming journal. I received an email back with the subject line “Sorry for the Mix up!”
I imagined the body of the email as another rejection letter compounded with an apology. However, when I opened the message, the editor-in-chief apologized for forgetting to send the acceptance letter which hid in her draft e-mail folder for weeks!
My roommates and I celebrated in the bedroom of our apartment. This is not uncommon. We rejoice when publishers send me rejection letters too.
It’s all a part of the process.
After explaining her experience with rejection letters, Judy Blume put it this way,
“There is not a writer who hasn’t suffered.”
Ashley Jones is an undergraduate student in Los Angeles. Her work appears in The Haiku Journal and The West Wind. She enjoys inspiring documentaries, meeting new people, and teaching the kiddos at her church about the joy in following Jesus.
September 23, 2016 § 14 Comments
By Kristine Langley Mahler
I recently hit a milestone in my literary career: 100 rejections. 100 times my inbox buzzed on my phone and I saw those brackets around a journal’s name in the subject line and I excitedly opened my email, happy to get that response AT LAST, and stared at some iteration of “Not today, sucker!”
(Most were more polite than that; most were also those low-tier, generic-rejection-text messages, but NOT ALL)
I’ve been submitting my work to literary journals since April 2012, which, coincidentally, was immediately after I finished writing my first essay in almost a decade. I wasn’t enrolled in a writing program—hadn’t been for nine years—but I was working my way back towards the memoir-ish essays I loved to write and had abandoned in the post-undergrad years.
Without anyone to give me feedback on my writing other than my long-suffering husband, I figured: let the populace decide! Send those puppies out to lit journals!
I hadn’t had any formal training in publishing, but I remembered one rule imparted from my undergrad writing instructors, which was AIM HIGH. So (gulp) I aimed high, submitting that first essay to AGNI and Crazyhorse and the Cincinnati Review. Rejected. But I kept writing and revising, and I kept submitting. Some rejections hurt more than others; some made me wrinkle my eyebrows. What’s that, The Dying Goose, you don’t like my piece? YOU’RE NOT AROUND ANYMORE SO WHO WINS NOW? Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, did you literally reject my piece within 24 hours? (Yes they did and that is what they do)
I submitted to high-profile journals and I submitted to fledglings. I didn’t discriminate, because I trusted in the old adage that what one rejects, another may accept. And by the end of 2012, I had my first publication under my belt! Yes!
I spent the next two years continuing to write, getting feedback from a small handful of (non-writer) friends, revising, and submitting the pieces to journals. 2013 netted one more publication. 2014: three (!) By 2015, I had decided it was time to return to school so I could get feedback from people who were also studying/perfecting their craft, so I began a graduate program. I had one piece accepted for publication in 2015, but in 2016, I’ve had five pieces accepted (so far). That’s eleven pieces getting the THUMBS UP while a hundred times I was told NO THANKS.
Being a left-brained woman working in a right-brained field, I crunched some numbers, because analytics help me understand. I had an 8% acceptance rate before grad school; it’s jumped to 11.5% since. I submitted more times than ever in 2016 (35), and had more pieces accepted (5). Funny how that works.
Eleven out of 111. With four of those eleven acceptances, I hit the nose on the head, matching content and form to journal preferences/editor preferences, and the pieces never saw a single rejection. On the other hand, I’ve got one piece that’s been rejected sixteen times and I keep hauling it back out because GOSH DARNIT I BELIEVE IN IT. I’ve sent out twenty-three separate essays and had eleven of them accepted everywhere from basically-just-a-blog journals to (pardon me while I clear my throat) being awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction by Crab Orchard Review. Now there are some odds I can work with: 48% of my submitted work has been published. Almost half!
Of those twenty-three essays, I’ve dropped seven from my submissions roster because, well, they’re not publishable. It’s embarrassing to think I ever sent them out. (Y’all feel me?) Twenty-three pieces, eleven published, seven self-rejected. So that means I’ve only got five old pieces battered by rejection but still raising their heads in the ring. No TKOs.
Like most writers/artists/creative-types, I have a sensitive ego. Brashness does not befit me. I’ll talk trash on the screen but in person, I’m just another wallflower waiting for someone to approach me. I don’t try out for things where I haven’t pre-calculated the risk assessment and decided that the odds are more likely I will succeed than not. I cannot explain why I have accepted the life of rejection that partners with the life of a writer other than that I finally accept myself as a writer. This is what it takes? I will bear my yellowing bruises with pride.
I’ve got three new essays I’ve added to the roster, and I’ve been sending them out, awaiting their first rejection, or acceptance. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. I hope it doesn’t take 10,000 rejections, but if it does, I’m proud of the effort it took to stand back up 9,999 times.
March 10, 2009 § 2 Comments
Well, it isn’t easy, and we don’t enjoy it, this turning people down. There is no joy in saying “no.”
So to all of the writers who we have had to say “no thank you” to lately, our regrets.