Essays

Lessons From No: Writers on Their Most Formative Rejections

By posted at 12:00 pm on August 17, 2015 4

Rejected

Rejections bring writers together. We trade stories of abysmally long response times, boilerplate replies addressed Dear writer, and the requisite practice of pinning rejection slips to walls. F. Scott Fitzgerald covered his bedroom with the 122 rejections he received in the spring of 1919 alone. Stephen King “pounded a nail” into the wall to “impale” his rejections. Rebecca Skloot displays her rejections for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a constant reminder of editorial subjectivity.

coverThe screens of our computers and phones have replaced the archetypal wall of printed rejections. Social media inflames the Cult of Rejection, a melodramatic threnody of authorial frustration. Before I sound too sanctimonious, I admit participation in these public complaints. It is cathartic to scream in electronic silence. Rejection is a reminder that writers are vulnerable and sensitive — and yet still pugilistic. To write is to tempt constant rejection. The statistical inevitability of rejection does not lessen the sting.

Despite these airings of shared failure, when we close the door and sit at our own desks, it easy to think that we are alone in disappointment. I asked writers whose work I admire to share their most formative rejections, whether they came from magazines, publishers, or even professors. I appreciate their candor about those moments when they realized how to fail better.

Because I have asked to air their confessions, I should share one of my own. As a graduate student in theology, I wrote an essay of biblical criticism. I was not new to the world of submissions — I had already published a book of poems and had placed fiction in magazines like Esquire and The Kenyon Review — but my scholarship was literary, not biblical.

I have always been interested in the penitent thief in Luke’s Gospel. In the scene, thieves are crucified on both sides of Jesus. The criminals mock him. Unlike the version of the story in Matthew and Mark, the thief in Luke’s narrative is regretful and contemplative. He believes that Jesus does not deserve this brutal punishment. I submitted my essay to Catholic Biblical Quarterly, a peer-reviewed publication of biblical criticism that has appeared since 1939. A few months later, I received a response. The editor prefaced the publication’s attached decision with a warning: “I wish that they could contain more welcome news.”

Submitters to literary magazines complain about form rejections. We are lucky. Peer reviews replace ambiguity with dissection. The first reviewer considered my work incomplete, but made useful suggestions for improvement. He appreciated the patristic exegesis in the latter half of the essay, but thought I needed to study the original Greek text of Luke, and reference further examinations of the pericope.

The other reviewer was less kind. “The paper is not publishable,” he began. He skewered my essay, reveling in the evisceration. Now that my literary wound has healed, his railing is entertaining and often prescient: he wondered if he was being “too harsh, since I suspect that the author is a student.” He said my essay lacked a thesis. “It is unclear how any of [the essay’s] parts relate to one another,” he wrote; “there is no coherent argument.” The reviewer’s main bone was my usage of critical language. He called it “persistent and irritating,” and produced a litany of moments where I had folded the language of literary criticism into the language of biblical criticism. I could almost feel the exhale of disgust at the end of his review.

While I would later publish a book of literary criticism, I never returned to the biblical side of scholarship. I had tried to stretch myself too wide. Pride blurred my vision. I had assumed that my experiences in one genre translated to competency in another. I had forgotten that the term “writer” is not all-inclusive: there are so many different writers, so many different forms.

Only when I step outside the world of literary magazines do I realize the narrow and fine nature of that world. It took sustained rejection to remind me what I could do well — and what type of writing should remain a hobby. I am now thankful for the rejections that used to frustrate me. I am also thankful for sharing the experiences of others. Pity the writer who thinks or he or she is finished learning from failure.

Here are seven writers on their most formative rejections.

1. Tomás Q. Morin (A Larger Country)
coverI’ve never received the kind of rejection letter that becomes infamous for its cruelty or the one filled with over-the-top praise in spite of the No waiting at the end. Once a year for nine years, I submitted to Poetry magazine and every year they said no. Rather than be discouraged, I relished the yearly chance to put in front of Chris Wiman (then the editor), Don Share, & Co. a poem they couldn’t turn away. Sometimes the rejection would be a form letter, while other times someone would scribble “send more work.” When the first Yes finally arrived, I had learned that you can develop a relationship with an editorial staff as much through their rejections of your work as you can through their acceptances. This is why I always tell young writers to not give up on a magazine they love just because an editor said no once.

2. Pamela Erens (The Virgins and The Understory)
covercoverI once took part in an ongoing creative writing workshop run by an inspired teacher. I learned a great deal from him — to this day my writing process remains highly influenced by him — but he had a very particular pedagogy and very emphatic opinions. When he dismissed a piece of writing, it stayed dismissed.

At a certain point, he had to travel for a few months, and a substitute took over the class, herself a gifted writer and teacher. I started a new short story during that time, and got a lot of encouragement from her and the class through successive revisions. Then the original teacher returned. He completely trashed the story; it was all wrong. No one dared to contradict him, of course. Nor was there was going to be any discussion of what had brought my story to this point or where I hoped to go with it. I was crushed — and also furious. When I finally was able to think calmly, I realized that I needed to break away somewhat from this teacher’s orbit. I applied for my first-ever summer writer’s conference, and there I got to know writers other than those in his classes, as well as teachers who taught in other ways. Later, online, I developed a larger network of writing colleagues, generous people who encouraged my work and supported me emotionally. I stayed in my workshop teacher’s class for a while longer, but I never let myself become so dependent on one person’s opinion or ideas about writing again. Artists are very vulnerable people. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing a lot of the time, and it becomes easy to transform someone else into a guru who has the Word.

3. Justin Taylor (The Gospel of Anarchy and Flings)
covercoverWhen I was in grad school, or maybe just after, I was introduced to an Editor at an Important Magazine and pitched her — within 10 minutes, while sitting at a bar, which itself was deeply uncool — on a few ideas, but mostly on the idea of me doing something — anything — for her magazine. She was gracious about it, and my ideas weren’t awful, so she told me to email her and the next day I sent a detailed pitch to review a new book by an Established American Poet whose work I’d long admired. I hadn’t actually read the new book yet, but I knew enough of his catalog to make the case for the Important Magazine giving him a feature review. She accepted, and I dove into the galley, which it turned out I mostly hated. This was as much a surprise to me as anyone, and mortifying considering how much I’d professed to love the guy, but — and I think this is to my credit — I didn’t pull any punches. I excoriated the book in detail, basically arguing that he’d gone lazy and soft. When the piece was spiked, the Editor was kind enough to share her reasoning: She didn’t question my judgment of the book (though for the record she never said she shared it) and neither did she have anything against so-called “negative reviewing” (that question never even came up), but she simply didn’t see the point of using her platform to hand an ass-kicking to a book of poems most of her readers wouldn’t have heard of in the first place. It struck her as a waste of her publication’s resources and space. This was, more or less, my introduction to the idea that editors and publications have a sense not only of their audience but of themselves: their cultural position and reach, and that they wield whatever “power” they have (or think they have) with deliberation and intent. Put another way: This was the moment I learned that context is a form of content. The universe then saw fit to drive this point even further home for me, so if you’ll bear with a brief P.S. I’ll share what happened next: I took my kill fee from the Important Magazine, licked my wounds, and in the end gave the piece away to an upstart indie book website. Some time later I got an email — from the Established American Poet! It was brief, but exceedingly generous considering the circumstances. He had come across my thrashing of him and had written to say — I’m paraphrasing here — no hard feelings. To be sure, he did not share my view of his book, but he seemed to respect my work, and perhaps my ability to get so worked up over a book of poems; more than anything else, he seemed pleased that this upstart indie book website had been interested in him in the first place. He may have even thanked me for my time.

4. Matthew Salesses (The Hundred-Year Flood and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying)
covercoverIn 2011, The Hundred-Year Flood went out to a number of editors, all of who rejected it but several of who asked for revisions. Each time some feedback came in, my agent-at-the-time said I should try it. They all wanted contradictory things. When I sent that agent my revision, she sat on it for months, avoiding my emails. Finally she called and scheduled a meeting in New York. When we met, she said I should either write a different book or find a different agent. We parted ways. It was all very shocking. A month or so later, I found out that she had dropped another writer I know at the same time in an equally mysterious manner.

5. Holly LeCraw (The Swimming Pool and The Half Brother)
covercoverIn August, 1992, when I was 26 years old, I sent out my first story submission ever. I had aggressively small expectations: I knew I’d probably receive a form letter, or more likely a photocopied rejection slip, not even a full sheet of paper. I’d recently started reading the slush at a small literary magazine myself, and knew that words of encouragement, never mind signatures, were doled out very sparingly. I also knew that such magazines took weeks or even months to respond.

I printed out my story on my dot-matrix printer, tore off the edges and separated the pages, filled out my SASE, wrote and printed my (very short) submission letter, weighed the whole thing, put stamps on the manila envelope, and sent it off to The Atlantic, which back then published fiction every month.

Two days later 00 yes, two days — my SASE came back with a letter, which read, in its entirety: “Dear Ms. LeCraw: You write intelligently, but ‘Sailing’ seems to us loosely organized, short of event, mannered in the telling (present tense), and inconclusive. Try us again?” It was on letterhead, and signed from C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor.

A friend of ours, not a writer, was over for dinner that night and kept saying how sorry he was that I’d gotten a rejection. He couldn’t understand why I was excited about any of it. He was sure I was putting on a brave face, and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.

I never did publish that particular story; it was indeed very short of event, mannered, and inconclusive, and I couldn’t save it, nor many other stories that followed. But that first kind rejection convinced me I wasn’t crazy to try. Eventually, I realized I needed a bigger canvas, and started writing novels. To this day I remain vigilant for work that’s mannered and uneventful. And I’m still astonished by the efficiency of The Atlantic, Mike Curtis, and the U.S. Post Office.

6. Jessica Mesman Griffith (Love & Salt)
coverYou know what I hate almost as much as being rejected? Crickets. There is something so humiliating about just being ignored, as if your work doesn’t even dignify a response.

That being said, I’m fresh off a formal rejection from a publisher for a book I pitched. I was, of course, insulted and embarrassed that the publisher didn’t want what I pitched, especially since said publisher had asked me to pitch this particular book to them and requested revisions to the original proposal. But I was also relieved, and that unexpected feeling of relief made me realize that I really hadn’t wanted to write the book I’d pitched after all. What I wanted to be working on was far riskier, and I’d been avoiding it and sticking to what I thought was safe. In this case, a rejection gave me the time and the guts to pursue the scarier project.

7. Andrew Ervin (Burning Down George Orwell’s House and Extraordinary Renditions)
covercoverIt took me a long time to understand that every editor who has rejected my fiction has done me a favor. That’s especially true of one man I’ve heard described as “Hungary’s greatest living philosopher.” I’ll get to him in a moment. The first story I ever published, in a now-defunct print journal, required 25 fresh drafts. When it finally appeared, it did so next to some prose by one of my heroes, Andy Kaufman. That made the whole maddening process worth it; those 25 rejections proved invaluable.

The most formative rejection I’ve received to date, however, came in 1995 from Miklós Vajda, then the editor of The Hungarian Review. It said:

“Thank you for sending your story. I am sorry to say, however, I found it crudely written, superficial and much too long for the little it says. It seems your main concern must have been finding expression for the contempt you feel for your colleagues, for modern art, people in general. You have talent but this story does little to prove it.”

That is a tremendous rejection. Over a decade later, I read a subsequent — and published — version of that same story at my MFA graduation. The opportunity to continue improving a story is one I’ve learned to appreciate. To this day, every story I write needs to pass my internal “crude, superficial and too long” test before I send it out.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.





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4 Responses to “Lessons From No: Writers on Their Most Formative Rejections”

  1. Ezra
    at 9:26 pm on August 19, 2015

    “not give up on a magazine […] just because an editor said no once”

    What if they said no 42 times? Would it then be appropriate to give up on the magazine?

  2. Yawer Qazalbash
    at 3:20 am on August 20, 2015

    I wonder why the publishers after publishing a book, which sometimes becomes best sellers (examples are many); and, which was previously rejected by great number of agents do not question the ability of those rejecting to judge the real merit of the work. Writers are requested to prepare a list of such agents so that the list may be published.

  3. Roger
    at 7:12 am on August 28, 2015

    I have realised that the hundreds of rejections I’ve received telling me i have no talent; that I’m an illiterate halfwit; that I’m wasting my own and everyone else’s time… are fair and accurate comments on my work. If the professionals tell you you are cr*p, just accept that they have taken the time and trouble to guide you away from something hopeless. I just wish I hadn’t written more 50 novels and more before accepting the truth.

  4. stnaija
    at 2:55 pm on October 14, 2015

    I would like to read some of your fifty novels, Roger.

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