The other day I was updating my submissions spreadsheet. Yes, I’m that big of a nerd. The spreadsheet tracks the articles, essays, and other creative works I’ve written, so at a quick glance I can tell what I have to pitch, where I’ve submitted it, and when—if at all—I’ve heard back from a publication.
There are a lot of blank rectangles on the spreadsheet.
In the past, the blank rectangles used to indicate that I had yet to submit my work. Rejections seemed scary so I wouldn’t even submit to journals because I was so worried the editors wouldn’t be interested in my work. This meant my work had zero chance of getting published. When I became an editor myself I realized how much editors depend on writers. It’s not this terrible power struggle I’d imagined. Editors really want to like writers’ work. They want to publish us. Getting a rejection doesn’t mean they hate us. If you want to have your work published, you have to send it out.
After a while, though, it was the “accepted” column that had the blank rectangles. I carefully sent queries or unsolicited manuscripts out and then suffered to hear from someone—anyone! Opening my mailbox and refreshing my inbox became subtle forms of self-torture, as I never knew when I’d hear back from a publication and what the news would be.
But more frequently I’ve been getting rejections. This is not a bad thing! I’ve come to realize that the greatest writers have gotten rejections. Jack Kerouac couldn’t get On the Road published for years. Stephen King nailed all his rejection letters to the wall, the stack growing larger and larger before he found fame.
I just read an article in Bloomsberg Businessweek about a guy named Jia Jiang who is doing a project called 100 Days of Rejection Therapy, in which he opens himself up to rejection at least once a day in order to desensitize himself to the pain of rejection so that he can go after his dream. The concept is attention-grabbing, and I think there are some valuable lessons to learn from it about courage and perseverance. There are also fundamental flaws to this approach, though. It’s easier to not get hung up on a rejection when you’re not invested, and in this case the rejections Jiang is receiving have nothing to do with his real dream. Furthermore, the project title itself suggests and attracts self-defeat. Although Jiang hasn’t gotten rejected from everything he’s tried, he believes he will be rejected. Although his rejection therapy is supposed to give him the courage to not let fear of rejection keep him from pursuing his dream, it essentially is saying that he thinks he will get rejected. Otherwise, why not call it Achievement Therapy? Or Success Therapy? Or Acceptance Therapy?
Also, as the article itself points out, there are valid reasons for rejection and we can learn from them:
But career coach Nemko suggests Jiang focus on what made the initial investor balk. “I have clients who apply for a number of jobs [and] who get rejected a bunch. They like to brush it off, like, ‘Oh, it’s the economy,’ but I say: ‘Take a look at yourself. Do you need more skills? What’s your employment track record? Are you obnoxious?’”
Back in 2011, I blogged about how Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was rejected sixty times. Here was someone who was truly invested in her work, and yet she didn’t start asking donut makers to do strange things to her donuts in an effort to build her confidence in her writing abilities and achieve success. She actually took a good long look at why she was getting rejected and revised her work accordingly.
Sometimes you need criticism, even if it comes in the form of a rejection, to improve your work. Other times, there may be nothing wrong with your work, but it’s just not the right fit for that publication at that time. It happens. It’s worth being part of a writing group and getting honest feedback on your work from more than one person who is not your mom.
Lately, the rejections I’ve been getting have come with personalized notes that say things like “great story but it’s not timely enough” or “great writing but it’s not for us. Feel free to submit again in the future.” I don’t like getting rejections, but I have learned from them. I’ve taken the comments I’ve received from editors and revised my works. I’ve grown as a writer, and even when my work isn’t what the editor wants, I know it’s getting closer to hitting the mark.
The other day when I was updating my spreadsheet, I smirked at the callousness with which I treated my rejections. There was a time when I would’ve taken them so personally, but now I realize that rejections come with the territory.
This applies to life too. No one ever did anything great in life without taking a risk.