You know the scene: the poet or novelist is sitting at his desk, head in hands, thinking, thinking, thinking. The doorbell rings. Envelopes tumble through the mail slot. The poet thumbs through the envelopes, picks out one and holds it up, a look of hope suffusing his countenance (“suffusing his countenance” is de riguer in these scenes). He carefully opens the envelope and removes a slip of paper, reads it hurriedly, and then heaves a long sigh. In the next scene, carrying a jar of paste and an old brush, he shuffles into the bathroom. The camera slowly, slowly pans up the wall, where you see hundreds of slips of paper, all carefully glued in place all the way to the ceiling, and then zooms in so you can read them: “Thank you for your submission. We have read it carefully, but. . . .”
I used to collect rejection letters, back when I submitted poetry to literary magazines, and I had the fantasy of someday papering a wall with them. I don’t know why except that there’s not much else you can do with them, and you sort of feel you should have something to show for all that work. I’m guessing there’s probably no one left who sends out actual paper slips through the mail, though; most rejections come by way of email, like everything else, and in some ways that’s too bad because you miss out on that grounding sort of ritual of getting the envelope and tearing it open, and you have nothing to show for rejection except, well, a sense of having been rejected–a sense that, for whatever reason, you have failed at something you wanted to accomplish.
In the years since I collected that sizable cigar box full of rejection letters, I have written five books and contributed to a bunch more, and people think that means I get to do whatever I want: I come up with an idea, propose it to my editor, and we’re off. Not at all. It may work that way for, oh, Stephen King or JK Rowling, but it doesn’t work that way for the vast majority of us. I fail as often as I succeed: my latest proposal was recently rejected, and quite soundly: sometimes you’re told that a little tweaking is all that’s needed, and sometimes you’re encouraged to re-think your idea and submit again. In this case, the entire concept was rejected: there’s no way I’m going to get to write this particular book any time in the near future, if ever. And no matter how many times you’ve been told “no, thanks,” it’s always disappointing. Sometimes it’s hugely unsettling because nobody, no matter how often it’s happened to you, likes to be rejected. And right there is the key: we think of it as if *we’re* being rejected, rather than our *idea* that’s being given a pass. It often feels that way: if it’s an idea you loved and worked on for weeks or months, it’s come to feel like it’s a major part of you, and having it rejected really does feel as if you, yourself, have been tested and found lacking. For some people, that becomes a slippery slope: I failed, ergo, I’m a failure. Therefore, nothing I do is going to be successful, and I might as well throw away all my notebooks and paints and canvases and forget living the creative life and go down and apply for a job at the call center.
Don’t go there. What you must remember, however hard it is, is this: while your ideas and hopes and dreams are a part of you, they are not you. You are more than that, and by pinning everything on one idea, you’re limiting what you can accomplish. Sure, it’s disappointing. Sure, you deserve to mope a little. That’s why I miss the days of rejection slips: they offered the perfect ritual for moping, even if all you did was flatten them out carefully and tuck them into a box. Or, even better, stand over the kitchen sink and set them on fire.
Another thing you need to keep in mind is that it’s not the editor’s fault. She doesn’t have it in for you, and chances are pretty good that’s she’s bummed, too. Editors like working on fabulous new ideas–that’s why they do what they do–and every one I’ve ever known has hatedhatedhated having to give someone disappointing news. So write a nice note to the editor, thanking them for considering the idea, and then come back Wednesday and we’ll talk some more~~
To learn more about how to get your artwork published, check out this online seminar “Get Published” compiled by the publisher and editors of North Light Books and Magazines.
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