Please forgive me Mr. Remnick.
The Rejectionist is hosting an UNContest today where her legions of loyal followers have been commanded to post something on the following topic: What does form rejection mean to you? Since I consider myself a loyal follower—albeit a lurker—I am nevertheless bound to comply…because who can say no on a one year anniversary? Not this bleeding heart. Happy first year Le R!
I will share a story that happened to me back while I was at university, writing until all odd hours of the night, raising hell with my friends, so on and so forth. Typical Jack Kerouac nonsense. I was Hot Shit Young Writer at that point, because I was in a bunch of upper level writing classes and receiving, without fail, very high praises and very little criticism from every creative writing and English professor I ever had. My poem the first day of class made my poetry professor cry. I was chosen for a reading at a symposium. I was Billy Badass and Chuck Palahniuk rolled into one.
Needless to say, my ego swelled to roughly the size of New Hampshire. Luckily I come from the South, or I probably would have turned into an insufferable braggart. Instead, I (mostly) just internalized all the compliments until they began to take the opposite of their intended effect and the Ego Bubble burst. Suddenly, I didn’t believe a single nice thing anyone ever said about my work, no matter how sincerely expressed. Work on what I considered to be The Next Great American Novel, the Novel That Defined A Post-9/11 Generation, crawled to a screeching halt. I would do dozens of revisions on any piece I worked on. It’s little wonder that I went into college as a writer and left college as an editor.
However, when I started submitting work and people—random people I didn’t know—started to reject it…I actually loosened up a little. Rejections were a release for me. I let myself lighten up and write shitty first drafts, focusing on output rather than perfection. This is all one big game, I thought.
These days I still try to think of rejection that way. If I send a story to someone and they reject it, I try to immediately revise it and bat it back to someone else who might have more use for it. There’s no point in dwelling on rejection, because at the end of the day it’s not a rejection of you, it’s a rejection of your story. You are not your story, and if you make a life out of writing, you have a gazillion more where that one came from. Suck it up, buttercup: Revise, rebound, and keep writing throughout. The more you write, the less attached you get to any particular story, which I find greatly decreases the disappointment of rejection.
I still haven’t submitted very much work compared to some people, more due to an intense hatred of the post office than anything else (online submissions are helping me in that regard) but I’ve had my share of form rejections at this point. I’ll share a moment of private humiliation on the off-chance that someone else down the line somewhere decides to share it first at my expense.
Soon after I began submitting stories, I wrote a short story about a serial killer in South Boston called, “A Study in Red”. After receiving quite a bit of positive commentary back on it, I felt myself start to puff up with what can only be described as temporary insanity. I thought, “This story is so good, it could be in The New Yorker!” (True story.)
So I sent it. (Also a true story. Stop laughing.)
And they form rejected it. Duh. What did I expect? Some no-name twenty-something upstart from Boondocks, Alabama sends one of the most highly regarded publications in North America a short story completely outside of their demographic. No sort of dazzling query letter will save a faux pas like that.
And that was the first form rejection I ever received. I’m also happy to report that I’ve been form rejected from Black Warrior Review (for a story I’m happy to say was a lot closer to what they were actually looking for). BWR is the rag at my alma mater and is also a publication where I happened to intern as a rejectionist/first reader/slushpile minion one summer. So at this point I can cheerfully say I’ve been dumped by the best and the brightest (and several in between). Things can only go up from here.
In short, form rejection happens to everybody. The most important thing to do when it happens to you is laugh it off and move on. The second you let self-doubt constrict your creativity due to the rejection of some random person you don’t even know (who may be rejecting you for a reason that has absolutely nothing to do with you) you’re putting unnecessary limitations on yourself that stifle your growth as a writer.
Keep the ball in play.