In this month’s Getting Unstuck, assistant editor Jen Dupree offers resources on how to handle that ubiquitous writerly experience: rejection. What does rejection mean? And how do we apply those lessons to our work? Let’s find out together.
I recently met with an agent and her response to my project was like being dunked in a bucket of cold water. She had some really useful things to say, but I couldn’t hear anything other than the whooshing of my hopes. All I could make out clearly was that she didn’t like my project and, by extension, me. I ended the zoom call, told my husband I quit writing, baked a cake, weeded my garden, and did some online shopping.
If you’re writing and submitting, rejection is something that comes with the territory. We all know that, but it’s still painful. And how do you parse which rejections to take on board and which rejections to let go of? How do you know when it’s truly just “not a good fit,” versus when it’s really not good writing or not the right story? Is it ever time to give up on a piece that keeps getting rejected? Here’s some advice that helped me return to the page.
In this episode of Inside Writing, writer Kim Liao says she sends out an essay or story to five or ten places at a time and then if it gets rejected from all of those places, she’ll take a look at revising the piece. But, she says, it’s important to remember that sometimes rejections have nothing to do with the writing itself. “In some cases, there’s nothing wrong with the piece, it’s just not the right fit.” Truly, at TMR, we get submissions that are just way outside what we publish (hello, poetry). It really is helpful (to you and the editors where you’re submitting) if you’ve actually read the journal or magazine you’re sending stuff to. Understanding the tastes of (and the audience for) where you’re submitting can save you a needless rejection.
Rejections can mean a lot of things, and it can be hard to read between the lines. Sometimes a piece gets rejected because there’s been another piece accepted that’s pretty similar. There’s nothing you can do about that. Sometimes, the content is seasonally off (it’s a Thanksgiving story and the publication is looking for pieces to go to print in July). In that case, the rejection really isn’t personal and you just need to submit the piece elsewhere. Liao says, “There is something to say about persistence. This is a numbers game.” On the other hand, sometimes the rejection does have to do with the writing. If the same piece gets rejected over and over, it might be time to give it another revision or two before sending it back out.
A while back there was a thing (and maybe this is still a thing and I haven’t been paying attention) about submitting a hundred times in a year. I thought of that when I came across Jia Jiang’s TED Talk “What I learned from 100 days of rejection.” I’ve never been a fan of just blanket submitting (see above about familiarizing yourself with a publication before submitting), but there is something about desensitizing yourself to the sting of rejection by subjecting yourself to it over and over again. Jiang embarked on what he calls “rejection therapy.” For one hundred days, he asked strangers everything from borrowing $100 to getting a “burger refill.” At first, when they refused him, Jiang, embarrassed, wanted to flee. Similarly, when that agent told me my work wasn’t the right for her, it took all my self-control not to thank her and end the zoom call. But I still had nine of my ten minutes left and so I forced myself to listen to why she wasn’t interested in my project. Jiang says when he began to ask why, he could start to see what he could change. He says, “If I don’t run, if I stay engaged, I can turn a no into a yes.” Only by hearing what the agent didn’t think was working could I potentially revise my project.
Once I finally got over my hurt feelings, I told a few trusted friends what the agent had said. They were all kind enough to listen and sit with me while I teased out the specifics of her comments and how I could actually use them to improve my project. This was not easy. Part of me wanted very badly to say she just didn’t understand my work, and maybe that’s a little bit true. But there was a big part of me that knew I had to hear what she was saying. On this episode of The Creative Penn: Turn Your Author Failures, Setbacks, And Mistakes Into Success, Orna Ross says, “Creative failure becomes fodder for success…where did it go wrong, specifically?” If you can identify what’s not working, it can really help you improve the project. Not that you should make every change for every person, but it’s important to hear feedback and weigh it. That said, sometimes a project just isn’t working and letting go and moving on to something else can also be a step in the right direction. “Just deleting is sometimes a tremendous relief,” Ross says. Sometimes rejection after rejection means it’s time to move on to the next (better) project and that this one was learning material.
Sit with your rejection a bit. Do other things. Talk to trusted friends. Wallow. Repeat as needed. And then get back to work.
by Jen Dupree