Maybe the rejection letter was curt, churned out like a widget, or maybe it was wordy, with a misused semicolon, and penned in a respectable Serif font. Maybe the missive employed grotesque let-you-down-easy phrasing such as, “There is much to admire about your work.” (Imagine if some guy said this to you: “There is much to admire about your figure, but that face…” The ignoramus sucks teeth and then licks lips. Or vice versa, as the ignoramus possesses no method for prioritizing offensive facial tics.)
Maybe the rejection was a personal email from the editor of the journal, and therefore lulled you into a false sense of comradeship—made you feel you were/are maybe, baby/kinda-sorta/right on the cusp of the impenetrable circle jerk of the club. Now, now, be fair. The circle jerk dig comes from your stung inner bitch, lashing. (She’s hurt.) “It’s what comes after the ‘but’ that you have to listen for,” Daddy’d always say. So you listen for it. (It comes after the back-handed compliment but before the closing salutation.) In such always-a-bridesmaid letters, the journal is swimming in extraordinary work, or they just aren’t into white girls right now, or they are looking specifically for third-person, non-linear chupacabras written in meter. (But definitely no sestinas. Who do you think you are, Bishop?) But ultimately, they sigh, they will have to (unfortunately) (regrettably) (sorry!) pass. (And just to have a little editorial fun at your pity party, you read the letter and tack the word ‘gas’ onto this last line. They will have to pass gas.)
One rejection came in the mail on Crane’s stationary with a woodblock print that just made you pine more keenly for membership. (“Please, sir,” you imagined in your Pip voice, “just a glimpse of the roast duckling and roaring fire!”) And as you (Pip) peered in, the people were radiant with cashmere sweaters and prep-school pedigrees, and real oak popped in the fireplace at the athenaeum. Okay, so you’ve seen too many movies. (But you knew some Exeter boys, and some are really like that. Privileged and over-medicated with underwhelming dicks you’d suck just to get a snort and be on the inside for one lousy night in the back of someone’s mom’s Mercedes.)
Some rejections are just form letters, written with a bored affect in which you imagine the sender cutting and pasting a tight piece of coal into the body of the email, then yawning, then hitting send. And he’s probably 22, and that fact alone is grounds for (legal) (or clinical) indignation. You consider the havoc you could spend on his (probably) sexless, pathetic form. You could slice him to confetti, eat him for breakfast, mix so many metaphors that he wouldn’t know what hit him, the little douche bag. You plot revenge, in which you appear in his office door in a fetching dress and say something like, “Do you even know who I am?” You’ll clutch your scorned manuscript and wave it under his pimply nose, “You’ll pay for this, intern!” But still, SEND, and he has you withering.
In what job other than writing must you seek out frequent and concrete rejection? Okay, fine, but go get your own self-pitying rant. You have to seek it out if you want to get into the VIP mixer at AWP, even though you’ll probably sulk in a corner, popping cheese balls, and trying to ignore the cob-webbed poet who just told you for the third time about his “new and selected.” You have to suffer rejection’s big blows, its mini-pelts, its hopes and just-maybes, and you have to shoulder into platitudes from non-writers and writers alike. Your mom: “Just keep at it, honey; you will get there. You’re a great writer.” (What does she know?) A well-published writer: “You have to get 100 rejections a year even to call yourself a writer.” Fuck you. (Can you send me your submissions spreadsheet?) From other well-meaning types: “You’ll get there; it takes time.” (You are 37 years-old and have been writing seriously since 19. And you are good. You think. Pretty good. Maybe.)
The reason you write is that you want to be heard. And maybe you want to make money. Just a little, so you can stop fill-in-the-blank drudgery and spend more time writing and get better and get rejected less. Or get rejected better, or however that old Samuel Beckett line goes. And to be heard, you’ve got to publish in magazines, journals, and blogs. (Or wear a sandwich board on the highway, but this seems dangerous. And ineffective, as you live in Vermont.) You’ve simply got to get in the submission/rejection game.
So how do you handle it? They say that Fitzgerald was advised to drop Gatsby as a character, and Rudyard Kipling was told outright that he couldn’t write. Gertrude Stein got a mocking rejection: “Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.” So you figure there are a few options: you can be über-rational and recognize that submitting is just a numbers game, but then you wouldn’t be a writer. (You’d be an engineer. Or someone who is into numbers.) Option two: you can pretend to let it roll off (fake it till you make it) and preen yourself with your imaginary duck oil gland. Even though only a pose, it’s useful because in your duck suit, you can do things you don’t want to do—like email back the editor and say something along the lines of, “Thank you for your kind response. If you feel inclined or able, I would welcome any critical feedback you might have.” (For this exercise you’ll need an Internet connection, a professional attitude, and a vomit bag.)
Or you can do what I did today. You write back—polite, brief. You cry and think what a ridiculous baby you are, but also how the rejection confirms some deep truth that you’ve been waiting for everyone else to discover. (Who are all these people? You don’t know.) You are a loser. A fraud. You think that friend who never gets rejected should accept a hot poker up his ass. (Not really. Well, maybe just the tip.) So you watch a little Doctor Phil and still feel crappy (see: daytime television) and think how writing/submitting is exactly like teenage dating. The indignity. The angst. The awkwardness and self-esteem so tenuously on parade. So you nap for an hour or two, crawling into a cocoon of yummy flannel with a non-threatening book, something by Nelson Demille, and you sleep it off. You sleep hard.
And when you wake, you sit down at the keyboard and use it all for fuel. The rejection emails, the slights you committed to memory like slam-book poetry, the anxiety, the yearning—you pour it all into the writing. You use it—even the petty, foul-mouthed stuff. (Maybe especially that stuff, the gooey innards of your own human frailty.) You use it all, for you are a writer. You put on your god-damned head gear and smile gawkily through your imaginary writer’s braces. And you write. You fucking write.
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.