Writing Life: How to Deal with Rejection

Last semester one of my student’s poetry submissions was rejected by Young Arts (A literary contest for high school students.)
She’d spent a great deal of time on it. The work had been edited, memorized, and she even spent several hours recording a perfect performance of the poems by video. She’s tough on herself in several areas, an overachiever to be sure, so when she received the rejection she was devastated.
She cried in front of my desk for several minutes while I tried to talk her through it. “This is one place, one group of people who rejected your work.” I told her. “Rejection is part of being a writer.”
“But Young Arts is THE place, she said. I told her I knew how she felt and recounted a recent experience where my own work was rejected by a contest I respected. I told her how I cried, and I’m an adult who has been dealing with rejection for a while.
“But how do you deal with this all the time?” she said.
This question almost made me cry with her. It’s relevant to all of us. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

1) Accept that you will have your work rejected more often than not. On average, for about every 10 places I submit (individual poems) I’ll probably receive about 4 publications. My Submittable is pitiful. Submittable is a platform many literary journals and magazines use to compile written submissions. I have about 70% more “orange” (rejections) than I do “green” (acceptances.) About once a year I lead my students through the process of submitting to literary magazines. I only have them submit to five places and facetiously tell them to aspire to have 99 rejections before they are ever accepted for publication. One student walked in class one day and excitedly told me her work had been rejected and I gave her a high five. (This student was recently accepted to Yale but has never received a publication—this is a prime example of why one shouldn’t stop pursuing their craft in spite of rejection.) Rejection is part of being a writer.

2) Once you receive a rejection, make a practice of sending the work back out, immediately. Re-submit as tears of sadness are still drying on your cheeks. If you feel it needs editing, edit right away and get it back out into the world. Your work should always be under consideration somewhere. Since it takes so long to hear back, you don’t need to waste time to be depressed about it for a month before re-submitting. Google and find another literary journal/ press/contest and get it back out there. *Remember when submitting you can have the same work under consideration at one time. (I’d recommend having the same work at no more than five places.)

3) Make sure you sent the work to the right place. All literary journals, magazines and presses have an aesthetic, and publish work with certain themes, subject matter, etc. Use websites like Poets and Writers and New Pages to find places that match up with the type of work that you are submitting. When you find a literary journal or press, make sure that they actually publish the type of work you are submitting. You can do this by thoroughly reading their site, looking at previous work they’ve published, etc.

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I took this photo of myself last summer, right after an ugly cry. MEND had been rejected for the Cave Canem Book Prize. As a fellow of Cave Canem, they are my jam. It was my toughest rejection of the year.

 

4) Realize that a rejection of your work is not always a rejection of you. There are so many reasons why work can be rejected. Here are some: your work wasn’t completely edited before sending, space in the publication (perhaps there’s a limit in page numbers, the press feels that your work doesn’t connect with their mission/vision, they received hundreds of submissions and yours was one of the last ones they considered, one person on staff was sick the day they reviewed your work and was in a bad mood…okay, I’m reaching here, but you get the point. Writers continue to the work after they are rejected because they love what writing does for them.

5) Keep it in perspective. Cry, be upset, do what you have to, but don’t stop. Don’t stop writing. Don’t stop submitting. Don’t stop improving your craft. One place– no matter how much you’ve built it up in your mind–should not decide the future of your writing career.

6) Know that someone, some literary staff, organization or press is going to see your work and love it. They are going to get it. They are going to say, “YAAAAASSSSS… this is what we’ve been waiting on!” If you’ve done the work of getting your submission in the best shape possible, it’s going to happen. Be patient.  And when it happens you will receive affirmation that your work is respected by your peers. You will be on cloud nine. You will glow with the warmth of success.

And sometime after, you’ll submit somewhere else, and you’ll face another rejection. Cause it is what it is, as they say.

 

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