Rejection – you never really get used to it, no matter how often you have to deal with it. I’ve been lucky enough to be married to the same woman now for over 30 years. And although I was very young at the time, my single years were not pretty. In the process of trying to get young women to notice me, I struck out more frequently than Sammy Sosa with runners in scoring position. Fortunately, I developed a pretty thick skin.
Lately I’ve been submitting some pieces of fiction to various literary journals, all with the same result. Rejection. I’m beginning to understand why alcoholism is so prevalent among writers. It’s the same reason that a single male drinks – the conventional wisdom is that it is to get his courage up to approach that girl he’d never approach sober – the real reason is that only when he’s drunk can he deal with the rejection that he knows is inevitable.
I’ve submitted enough stuff now to appropriately lower my expectations. I’m certainly not surprised when I receive the e-mail thanking me for but rejecting my submission. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt, at least a little bit. The thing about writing is, it is intensely personal, and to have somebody, not just anybody, but somebody who makes their living judging these things, tell you that your work isn’t good enough, it can’t help but sting.
The people who are doing the rejection, the editors of the publication, understand this, and they try their best to ease the sting, to soften the blow. They are also tremendously overworked, reviewing ridiculous numbers of submissions for every one they accept, so they have no choice but to be formulaic in their responses. It’s gotten so that when I see a note in my in-box from someone I’ve submitted to, I know essentially what it says before I open it. I often think back to my bachelor days and imagine, what if the women who spurned me had used the same language in their rejection of me? It might sound something like this:
“While I appreciate the offer to go back to your place, after careful consideration, I feel that your piece isn’t right for me.”
“I considered your request for my phone number very carefully, and have decided to pass. I really did like your style, though, and hope you’ll ask me again in the future.”
“Thank you for the invitation to dinner. I appreciate the offer but after careful consideration will have to decline. This one was really close, David, but you didn’t quite grab me the way I hoped, but your style and voice are clearly top notch. I hope you consider asking me again in the future.”
These are variations on actual rejection letters I’ve received from various literary journals over the past couple of months. Compared to the “get lost, creep” I normally received from the fairer sex, I’m not sure which is worse.
So then the defense mechanisms, the rationalizations, begin. “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” “[insert famous author here] submitted [insert famous work here][insert large number here] times before he was accepted ,” or “I’m not that big of a fan of that publication anyway.” This works for a little while until you accept the truth: you are not [insert famous author here] and your work is not [insert famous work here]. Eventually, you come to the realization that maybe, just maybe, the editor reviewing your work was right! The work wasn’t good enough. I don’t know why this should come as such an epiphany – after all, they are professionals who do this for a living, who are trying to put out the best publication they can – and you are the amateur. It’s shocking to think that they might be right and you might be wrong.
You come to accept these facts, and that fame and fortune and that NPR interview aren’t going to happen, at least not yet, and you get down for a little bit. But then something hits you, an idea, an experience, whatever, and you just have to write about it, and you do, and you read it, and you think, hey, this isn’t bad, and then you think, this is actually kind of good. And you start the whole process over again, only this time, what you’ve written is better than what you wrote before, because you’ve kept at it, you’ve learned, you’ve honed your craft just a little bit, and the cycle repeats until one day, if you’ve gotten good enough and you’re lucky enough and all the stars are aligned perfectly at the exact perfect time, it’s not a rejection that shows up in your e-mail, it’s something else.
I can only imagine what that might be, of course, because I haven’t seen it yet.
But imagination is a key attribute of a writer. And hey, at least I’ve got that going for me.