The art & craft of the rejection letter
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
I was recently interviewed by a student of the Rachel Thompson writing course on my process around submissions and rejections. It was helpful to have someone ask me questions about this process because it's an essential part of being a writer, and yet, I don't often take the time to reflect on how I manage submissions or process rejections. It can be challenging to find the time to submit at all and I often go months without sending anything out into the world.
I think the most useful insight I've gained around submitting and receiving feedback (whether in the form of acceptance or rejection), is that, while much of writing is a solo activity wherein your work life takes place in your head, the rejection letter is a conversation, a dialogue with another human being, which — even if conveying bad news — can breathe life into your writing. I started submitting short stories to literary magazines around five or six years ago. That's about when I started writing short stories, and it took a while for me to feel that any of them were worthy of sending out. I volunteered on the editorial board of PRISM to get a feel for what other writers were submitting, and I was part of MFA workshops and my own writing groups, always reading and discussing the material that my peers were preparing to submit. I started to get a sense of when my friends felt their pieces were ready to send, and slowly, I could feel it in my own self when my stories were whole and complete. I could tell when they were saying to me, alright, let me fly now; let's see what I can do. Sometimes I imagine my stories and poems as little birds — if I can feel that I've done everything in my power to create a tiny little bird that will take off, fly, and land well, then the story may be ready. I have never sent out a story that I felt was 'perfect' or in any way unrejectable. But I have sent out many that I felt I had done my absolute best with. That's when I press send or seal the envelope. Sending the story out feels like opening a window — which is refreshing, after months or years of working on a story mostly in solitude.
Nine times out of ten, the birds that I thought might just make it out there, come back home. Sometimes they bring a little note, 'We really liked this, but we're going to pass. Please send more writing soon.' Those are triumphant rejections. I have received a couple of these notes from The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and while they are most certainly rejections, they are, to me, major victories. On a very discouraging day, I can think to myself, 'The fiction editor of The New Yorker asked to see another story!' Sometimes the bird comes back with no note at all, or something rote: 'Thank you but no.' I sometimes feel stung by these, but it's a quick-healing wound, a paper cut.
I try to view the rejection letter as proof that my writing exists outside of my head. I am not writing just for myself, these birds are meant to be seen and enjoyed and thought about and discussed. And even if the person who thought about them ultimately said no, that's only half the point. The other half is that I created something and tinkered with it, polished it, reworked it until it became a thing that I could offer. I really can't hinge my happiness on how that offering is received; I can only know that part of writing is listening to what others have to say about my writing, then incorporating what is useful into my next round of tinkering and polishing. The big moment is working up to letting the story out of your head. After all, you can't expect the bird to fly very far if you haven't opened the window.