The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. —Dani Shapiro
The facilitator of the first real writing workshop I attended way back in my teen years told us to expect one acceptance for every one hundred rejections. Rejection is so much a part of the writing experience that, back when the slips came by snail mail, some writers papered their office walls in them to motivate themselves to work harder or to prove their rejectors wrong, or both. Some aim for at least one hundred rejections in a year, measuring their credibility in no’s.
I’m in the throes of querying my most recent novel, which, like most of my work, centers around family fragmentation, loss, and longing. I’ve reformatted, reimagined, and rewritten it numerous times over the past ten years. Previous novels gather cyber dust in the virtual desk drawer where I’ve stashed them. Barry Hannah enthused about my earliest attempt to Algonquin Books, my dream press, but even his praise didn’t cure the manuscript of some fatal first novel shortcomings. For the next, I had an agent whose interest faded over our year together until we parted ways. The book I’m querying now passed the editorial review of one indie press only to die in the acquisitions department, where marketing pressure favored titles by authors with previous books. Rejection after coming so close might hit even harder than rejection by default—an industry strategy employed by busy agents and editors where no answer after a certain amount of time is all you get for a no.
As writers, we season ourselves to this steady diet of dismissal, but rejection is slippery. One ill-timed or super-special no can inscribe itself onto the end of a list of past rejections and tempt us to rewrite the whole thing into a damning message about our worth in the world. Anyone who tells you resisting this temptation is easy is either profoundly lucky, or lying.
The first time my parents separated, I was four. I chose a little vinyl doll with brown hair as a gift for my father to take with him to his new house, a reminder of me, but he didn’t want it. ‘I’m not a child,’ he said.
My parents’ separation lasted several months, and shortly after my father moved back in, I watched workers pouring concrete to install a playground-quality swing set in our backyard. Even then I knew a swing set didn’t mean what my father wanted it to. It couldn’t teach him how to play with my brother and me, how to want to.
The divorce followed the next year. My mother, brother, and I moved from an old small-town farmhouse to a suburban townhome in a brand-new development with a swimming pool, a playground, and tennis courts. Mom in one house, Dad in another two-and-a-half hours away. Per the divorce settlement, my brother and I would visit our dad every other weekend and two weeks in the summer, stuffing clothes and things to do into paper grocery bags.
On our dad’s first visit to the new house, he brought me a cardboard tray of candies. Milkshake bars. Charleston Chews. Little candy apples. A trove for a kid with a sweet tooth like mine, but it was the same as the playground. He was trying to make candy mean something candy can’t mean.
My mom saved what she refers to as my first poem, drafted shortly after I started kindergarten, a few months into our new life. ‘Today, today. I’m going to be happy today.’ I recited that tiny verse to a friend once, and they said it was the saddest thing they’d ever heard, a little girl trying to convince herself to be happy.
Here’s a funny thing: writing an essay on rejection and imagining how many times it will be rejected before it finds a home.
Michael Curtis once wrote into a rejection letter that I was a good writer. From the typewriter of the Atlantic fiction editor, that felt equivalent to skywriting from the gods. Never mind that this was thirty years ago, and, despite a few more kind parting words on other attempts, the Atlantic has never published my work. My writer friends understand what thrills me about that anecdote while my non-writer friends, both feet planted in a realer world perhaps, tactfully disguise their pity: She thinks this is good news? Who celebrates rejection?
Who indeed, yet, for writers, thoughtfully worded rejections pump oxygen back into the airless rooms of our tireless try-trying-again. We struggle to balance peaceful acceptance of inevitable rejection against the famous definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
After the divorce, my dad moved to a 1700s-era log cabin on top of a mountain. When he remarried, my new stepbrother was close to my brother’s age and they shared a bedroom during our visits. My bedroom was off the main room, with its own half bath and a view out through trees and across a gravel road to a pond that sparkled in the moonlight. My brother and stepbrother enjoyed each other’s company and enjoyed excluding me. No kids my age lived nearby. If my father and stepmother were home, I rarely saw them. Sometimes when my dad would arrive at my mother’s to pick us up, I would brave his disgust and stay behind.
The summer of Star Wars, a girl my age moved in next door to my dad. Next door on the mountain meant the next twenty or so acres downhill. You could only see their house from my dad’s in winter. Jenny liked playing with stuffed animals and writing stories as much as I did. We’d climb trees with our notebooks and write the afternoons away. We’d set up elaborate communities for our stuffed animals and imagine together for hours. Jenny would invite me to spend the night. Now on visitation weekends when my dad, or whomever he deputized to do the chore for him, came to pick us up, I willingly jumped in the car. As soon as I arrived at his house, I’d dial Jenny’s number. If it wasn’t too late, I’d scamper across the grass trail between our properties in the dark and start visiting right away.
Before Jenny, Dad’s house was rule-less. After, here was my rule: Only one overnight per visit. My father didn’t make himself more available than before. The most interaction between us might happen while I played alone in his house, when he might call from across the room, ‘Aren’t you too old for stuffed animals?’
One weekend I arrived, little suitcase in hand—a gift from my stepmother, upgrading my usual paper bags—and she stopped me on the way to my room. I don’t remember what words she used, but she told me she’d taken over my bedroom to raise cockatiels.
Birdcages now stretched wall to wall. Loose feathers scattered across newspapers that lined the floor. The birds squawked and their claws clacked as they shifted foot to foot on their perches. Smells of animal bodies and seed husks filled the air. My stepmother said I didn’t spend enough time there to get a bedroom.
Maybe I didn’t resist because the room had never felt like my own. Its antique marble-topped dresser held only my stepmother’s things. Or maybe I worried that arguing could cost me the privilege of my one night at Jenny’s and I wasn’t willing to risk it. Or I figured it was impossible to clean up all that mess and return the bedroom furniture before it was time for me to leave anyway.
More likely, it didn’t occur to me to argue. I did spend as much time at Jenny’s as I could; this was true. Part of me must have believed I didn’t deserve to have a space held for me. Nights I slept at my dad’s, I dragged the blue velvet cushions from the sofa in the middle of the main room, snugged them up against the wall beyond the dining room table, and dressed them up like a bed.
For me, long stretches of rejection often make me feel stupid. Stupid for choosing this writer’s life. Stupider for thinking I’m good enough to keep trying. Stupidest for trying again and again and again with the same results. I self-flagellate with doubts. An empty-nested at-home parent, I dug deeper into my writing as my children aged out of needing me. Where’s the book deal to prove I’ve done more than twiddle my thumbs? Where’s my mid-life career advancement? What if all that time and work failed to make me a better a writer?
Rejection can scream loud enough to drown out our best mantras, can undermine us so thoroughly we begin to suspect that the C. Michael Curtises and Barry Hannahs, and every other mentor and supportive friend in our lives, were just being nice. Sometimes we feel like nobody really wants us.
There’s a journal called Red-Headed Stepchild whose editors only consider work that’s been rejected elsewhere. As a former red-headed stepchild, I’ve never submitted there, unwilling to chance that particular rejection.
Pitching to agents and publishers requires us to distill into a handful of words what has taken us sometimes years to write and hundreds of pages to tell, then nestle these fragile dreams into the hands of strangers, abandon them there, and wait, hopefully, for a response. Submitting short stories and essays feels much the same, and for all these naked acts of bravery, we dispatch our work to vie against hundreds of other pieces as earnestly wrought and hopefully discharged as our own.
It gets discouraging. Sometimes I fantasize a dramatic public quitting scene a la Jerry Maguire, complete with tantrum and mission statement. But the act of writing isn’t public, and who would notice in this crowded, chaotic world if one writer clicked off her computer forever? Quitting isn’t an option for me anyway, because the urge to write is somewhat involuntary. The way people, especially within families, experience the same moments differently has always puzzled and fascinated me, so I’ve become an observer of nuances in relationships, a reporter on estrangements and other disconnectedness. Those of us who commit to the writing life do so for love of the work—from creation through round after round of revision. Acceptances validate our work and feel great, but they’re not what drives us to write.
Rejection is as inevitable as it is constant, so we build up defenses against it and convince ourselves to carry on. No matter how good we get at dealing with it, though, sometimes rejection twangs the chord of prior rejections, and the line between accepting and defining ourselves by it can become perilously thin.
Having backup helps. A group of women writer friends and I named ourselves the Armadill-hers, because this work requires thick skins to weather rejection but also soft underbellies to open us to the vulnerability that makes good writing possible. We talk ourselves off ledges of despair and out of failure feelings routinely, and, when we find ourselves speechless with dejection, we deputize each other to do the talking for us.
Eventually, we get used to every last rebuff. We choose resilience over despondence, then sit down and get back to work.
Sometimes the hardest thing to remember is that we are more than our best and worst work. We are built of what matters to us most, not of what we do or don’t achieve. I’ve crafted a life with time and space for writing and reading; for friendships that span decades and continents; for teaching at a community writing center; for being available to my children, even now that they’re adults.
Thirty-one years into a happy marriage, one of my greatest joys has been watching my children grow up, certain of being loved. My husband knew how to play with his kids, took great joy in it, earning the moniker Dangerous Daddy for winding them up at bedtimes with goofy games. He also recognizes value in me, and in my work, and tirelessly reminds me when I lose hope.
My children grew into amazing adults, too, determined to improve the world they find themselves in. They care deeply about people and issues, create beautiful things, love passionately. I’m a fortunate recipient of their care and love, and they love my work, too. They’re proud of me.
On my best days, I’m proud of me, too.