The first time I ever felt crushed by rejection was in high school. I was somehow nominated for a months-long mentorship with an established poet, and as part of the decision process, I was invited to Scholastic HQ in downtown Manhattan to meet the other poets in the running. When I was called to read my poem in front of the group, I flailed my hands in passion, the plastic neon bands on my wrists flashing like sirens. I don’t really remember, but I’m sure the poem sounded like this: Do you see me? Good! Give the prize to me! Thanks. Then I sat down and said nothing else for the rest of the day.
They were supposed to announce the winner on Thursday, but of course, they had the nerve to be late. Angry that they were denying me my grand prize, I dialed the number for the Scholastic office from my T-mobile flip phone, and I did it in the most crowded room at school, the lounge where all the students hung out between classes, the perfect place to receive my big news. The director picked up the phone and asked for my name. I can still hear his hesitant voice, breathing deeply before speaking. Imagine later when someone asked how his day went–“Oh, you know, typical educator stuff, just DESTROYED a teenager’s dreams.”
I cried. A looooot.
I feel bad for that kid, but I also don’t. What I mean is that I’m glad I didn’t go on thinking that I was entitled to getting everything I wanted, including that poetry fellowship. There was a whole group of us competing, and I remember knowing, even without paying much attention to the rest of the group, that they were all good.
Orwell said it himself: “[L]ife when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” But just because a really smart writer once said that doesn’t mean rejection won’t suck. Rejection sucks, and if I could find a way to make rejection not suck, I would patent it and accept all insurance, and if no insurance, then I’d accept sliding-scale, so that everyone win-win-wins. But until then, I offer this:
LIVING WITH REJECTION
1) Don’t send your work to your enemies. My acceptance rate went up substantially when I started applying to places that featured Latinx voices, feminist voices, basically, places receptive to my words. I get that everyone wants to write towards the universal, but honestly, everyone writes to an audience, and even if you think you don’t, you do. Here’s how to figure out if you’re sending to the wrong places: would you hate the people considering your work if you met them in real life? If the answer is greater than maybe, don’t send!
2) Writing is good, but do other things. Because look… What if your writing IS awful? What if you will never be published anywhere ever? I know it’s reallyy scary, and these are reallyyy unlikely scenarios, but when you get that rejection, these are the questions that will constantly terrorize you, and if all you ever do is write, these questions will be so intolerable they might push you into the abyss. So it’s best to have something else to concentrate on until you can sleep the rejection terrors away. (for me, it’s having a job!)
3) Get over yourself. You should always be trying to become a better writer, but at a certain point, you also have to ask yourself whose acceptance you’re looking for and why. A rejection should never make you want to stop writing altogether because writing should be something that gives you intrinsic joy, and who cares if someone else doesn’t like it? Maybe people who grew up with laddered libraries or with subscriptions to the New Yorker or have degrees from a college in Vermont think differently, but writing isn’t all about producing the next Great American Novel. Your writing is worthwhile because its uniquely yours. Anyway, Fitzgerald has been fired. (come to think of it, maybe Orwell has, too…)
Rejection sucks, but not writing is way worse. Keep writing, submit to the right places, and don’t think too highly of yourself. Read a lot, get better at your craft, and proceed as if success is inevitable, but above all, just proceed.