The Politics of Rejection

I’m writing this post while watching live coverage of the New Hampshire primary returns, and as this bizarre passion play unfolds on my television screen I’m struck by how relevant it is to this week’s topic of rejection. We writers moan about how we’re cursed with near-constant rejection, and it’s true: even the most successful writers receive dozens, even hundreds, of “we regret to inform yous” for every accepted submission or query. All that rejection can be brutally demoralizing, and all of us have our moments when we doubt whether we’re good enough, or whether the investment of time and energy in a career that goes nowhere is worth it when measured against the demands of our families, our communities, and our other jobs. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t.

But at least we get to endure our rejections all alone in our little writing caves. They blink out at us from an email or stare up from a page that we alone can see. The only people who know about them are us and the agents and editors who send them to us, and we can cry about them by ourselves.

So as I watch Jeb Bush at his sad-balloon party telling his supporters “this campaign’s not dead”, or Marco Rubio telling his stunned crowd that his fifth place finish is “not on you, it’s on me,” or even Hillary Clinton trying to rally hers to “fight for every vote in every state,” I have to salute these people. Whatever I think about their politics, there is no denying the sheer cussed, thick-skinned, resilient egotism that enables a person to put themselves and their ideas out there every day for months on end, enduring heckling and character assassination and flat-out lies every step of the way, on national television.

Even local politicians have this marvelous power. We recently had a tightly contested race for city council in my small town. Everybody knew at least two of the four candidates vying for three open slots, and on election day, everyone knew which of the four had been deemed less worthy by his neighbors. That guy, a mild-mannered and eager fellow who coached Little League and drove carpools, knew what he was risking by putting his name on the ballot. He knew what he was exposing himself to by going door to door explaining what he would do to alleviate traffic congestion and by walking up to everyone at the block party to ask for their vote. He ran for office because he believed he could make a positive difference for his town. He made himself vulnerable to public rejection willingly, because he wanted to serve his community. Even on the national stage, I believe each of the dozen presidential candidates is doing the same thing for the same reason, and even though “politician” is a dirty word these days, I think it’s really quite admirable.

What can we as writers take from their example? We’ll never be as tough-skinned as politicians, that’s for sure. As a group we’re sensitive introverts whose temperaments are ideally suited to a solitary pursuit like writing and terribly suited to public ridicule. But maybe we can absorb the hard knocks of the writing life — the rejections and the bad reviews of our published work — a little easier if we, like the politicians, focus on why we’re doing it. Why are we doing it, you ask? You know. We’re doing it because we have something to say, and we think it’s worth hearing, even more than once. In other words, we’re Marco Rubio. (Bet you never thought you’d hear that, did you?) And if Marco Rubio can pick himself up after that horrific debate performance last Saturday and walk around New Hampshire with people dressed like robots dogging his steps, surely we can carry on in the face of the silent, secret screed of “NO” that we have to put up with.

Can’t we?

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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