Rejection is the inevitable, sometimes painful part of the submission process for all writers. I keep twenty years’ worth of rejections in a series of portfolio books, and once in a while, I take the books out and flip through the pages to read over the wealth of responses: “Thanks, but no,” and, “Sorry!,” and, “Your writing does not meet our needs,” and, “Try to avoid abstractions,” and, “I’m afraid the humor here didn’t quite work.”
I learned, over time, what things not to do; for example, never send, as an unpublished and inexperienced “writer,” that poem you drunkenly wrote last weekend about unrequited love to The New Yorker. I also learned not to write the clever cover letter as a way to “stand out” (I cringe over such audaciousness, and all the unnecessary bolding and italicizing). As I got older and more experienced, my approach to my submissions became more professional, more polished, and, slightly more successful. And I say slightly because acceptance is still elusive, even with all I have learned. Perhaps it’s not seeing the work clearly enough or not knowing exactly where it might fit. It’s not always clear who the audience is, where they live, and if they’re listening. And, in the meantime, as I search for the right fit, the right place, the rejections slowly trickle in.
Some rejections sting more than others. When I submitted that poem to The New Yorker, I was wholly naïve and impulsive, and yet I also knew better. I knew sending an unpolished, unedited, hell, stupid poem to such an esteemed publication was a waste of time. But I did it anyway. Sometimes, I think I just wanted the fancy slip of paper with its lovely letterhead, as if it was a notch in my lipstick case. Something kind of cool.
Some rejections are helpful. An editor might provide feedback that explains why the piece wasn’t for her, or, a note of encouragement to submit again, which lessens the sting, and keeps hope alive. But some rejections take longer to get over, perhaps because they strike at your very being. Just this past week, I received two rejections, but one stood out more than the other. It included this gem:
“Your work was almost there.”
Almost there. The words punched me in the gut. Where, I wanted to cry to the unnamed editor, is There? And if I’m not There, where am I? Nowhere? It’s the kind of rejection that aims to be hopeful, like that time you ran into an old friend, someone you hadn’t seen in years, and she told you how glad she was to hear you’re still at that writing thing. Hopeful and kind of condescending. It’s the kind of rejection I’ll carry around in my head for a while. Even if I know that there could be anywhere or everywhere or even here.