The Truth about Rejection (and why we keep on fighting)

I'd finished writing for the night and finished prepping for class, and was just about to head to bed. Then I decided to check my facebook one last time, and there it was, a young friend's status: "feeling insanely butt-hurt by the rejection letter I just got in the mail." I started to join the chorus of well-meaning comments after her status. I thought of all sorts of hopeful, cheerleaderish things to say. But as I typed in that tiny little box, I thought about my first rejection, that first moment when I realized the world would not shift because of the words I wrote. And I remembered the sting, the hurt, the black despair.

So I told this writer--who I've no doubt is very talented--that she shouldn't try not to feel this. And I'm telling her and myself and everyone else who does this job and takes it seriously: There is no point in pretending rejection doesn't hurt. There is no point in conjuring up a thick skin if by nature you are too sensitive to grow one. There is no point in telling yourself that this is just another part of the game (even though it is) and that this means you're playing it. There is no point in doing any of that, but what you do have to do is move through the hurt and keep yourself from stagnating. You have to wrap that grief around yourself and take it in and hold it, then channel it into fuel, fury, ferocity and fight back as hard as you possibly can. Fight by sending out another piece. Fight by sending that one out again. Fight by taking a hard look at yourself and seeing if, perhaps, they might be right, and maybe the piece needs another revision. And by all means, fight by going back to your notebook or your computer and writing something else, something new, something that can only come from you.

Because in the end, the only reason we hate rejection so much is that we so crave acceptance. We want someone to like our writing enough to publish it, to put on it their stamp of approval. We want our writing in the world, to grow and inspire and challenge and entertain. If we don't get that, we think that the work is somehow lacking, that we are somehow lacking. And the sad truth is that sometimes they are right. But sometimes, the rejection has nothing at all to do with the quality of the writing--it's just the tightness of the competition and a matter of personal tastes. I've read for some of these magazines. I know! Often, strong pieces are rejected because the editors do not agree; the piece resonates with one but not another, or one loves it, but another thinks it's too controversial, or any number of other reasons. This is why whole websites are given over to the discussion of rejections, and why countless famous writers will tell their rejection horror stories.

But of course, none of this matters when you hold that post-it note little F-You in your hands. None of this matters, and you will feel it. But if you let it, it will make you better. Hang in there.


This is so wise and so true. Repeatedly smashing your head against the brick wall of rejection really is painful, but it's part of the process, something nearly every writer faces at every level. But the smart and stubborn can learn from it if they're willing to keep risking bruises.

Terrific post!
Anonymous said…
This is a wonderful post that applies to academic non-fiction writing just as well as to poetry or fiction, or acting, or music, or any kind of performance where we crave the acceptance and applause of others. I've often thought that if I could write just for myself, the book that I wanted to read, and if that were enough for me, I would be so much happier. Sophia
Vicky said…
I found this post refreshing and sympathetic. To be honest, I've always disagreed with the "grow a thick hide" advice. Why? Because doing so also affects our writing. We may find ourselves holding back as we write because we're trying to be careful. I think rejection should hurt because if it doesn't that means you're not emotionally invested in your own story.

There are no guarantees for any aspiring writer, but I'll tell you the rejections only made my first sale all the sweeter.
Suzan Harden said…
True words, Kathryn.

And a little chocolate doesn't hurt either. ;D
Nancy J. Parra said…
Oh- a writer after my own heart. :) I quit trying to have a tough skin years ago- oh, and suck it up- lol. I allow myself to wallow in hurt and self pity and chocolate for at least a day. It means I care about the work. It means I'll care enough to try again.

Thanks for the great post!
And you'd think that reading for magazines and judging student contests would make me hate it less, because I've seen first-hand how arbitrary it sometimes is. But it still doesn't take the pain away! I've thought about taking some of my rejection letters and making some sort of visual art piece out of it, something that would show that the rejection really is part of the process and dealing with it is really an art of its own. But I've never had the courage (or maybe the navel-gazing capability) to do that. So in the meantime, I stick with angry walks, NCIS and other shows about dead people.

And chocolate. Yes, there's always chocolate.
Jessica Trapp said…
Great post.
tia prouhet said…
I'm not so young :)

I'm usually okish with rejection letters. When I got my rejection from Poetry magazine I felt empowered-- someone who read Charles Simic READ ME TOO and they can't unread it. They can't. HA.

It taught me something-- no more submitting to places I don't love for the sake of kicking a piece out the door.

Thanks for this, Kathryn. I'm gonna add this rejection to my pile. And try to remember that my ratio of rejection to acceptance is still pretty rockin'.

Chocolate is good, but wine is much faster.
Johnsie Noel said…
"If we don't get that, we think that the work is somehow lacking, that we are somehow lacking" This thought smacks of so many truths. I am guilty of quitting once the rejections come through. Great blog. Thanks Tia for leading me to it.
Christie Craig said…
Great blog!!!

Rejection stings. But for most of us, it is a part of this business. It's sort of like playing football. Sooner or later, you will probably get knocked down. The fact that we get knocked down, or even how many times we land on tushes isn't an issue, it's that we always get up.

Great post!
Linda Barrett said…
Excellent post, Dr. Kathryn! Writing is about taking chances whether in the work as we stretch ourselves to improve or in the submission processes. Heck, if you don't submit, you'll never be published. That's a guaranty. I agree with you - when rejection hurts, fight back. Submit something else.

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