The Writing Life: Writing, Rejection, and Perseverance

Rejection is a necessary hazard in writing, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. When an essay I submitted a year ago was rejected, I received a form letter along with the manuscript in my carefully folded SASE. It read as follows:

Dear Cynthia,

Thank you for sending us your article query. It was read carefully and given our full consideration. Unfortunately, it misses the mark for our pages.

The glories of a rejection form letter!

I understand that editors don’t have the time to respond to every submission that lands on their slush pile, but I’m still at a loss at the rejection. I wrote the essay specifically for that magazine. I’d bought and subscribed to it for years. I thought it fit with their general interest. But apparently I missed the mark.

How a story or article gets chosen often depends on convenience rather than quality. I’ve read that university press journals will often tip the balance toward submissions from MFA students over non-MFA students since the MFA programs are essentially the only thing funding the journals. It’s become a pay it forward system for the literary world. In another account an editorial board uses a democratic system, wherein submissions with the most votes win. Stories that are the most polarizing, and therefore the most interesting, end up being rejected for want of a clear majority. Hearing all that makes it seem as if the entire game is rigged, that even in the literary world a meritocratic system is just as equally out of reach. But even under the best of circumstances, chance and luck still win out. Having interned once at my alma mater’s campus undergraduate literary journal, I know that, among the list of possible poetry selections that went through the first round draft by students, the ones we rejected weren’t bad. It’s just that for some reason or another they didn’t wow my co-editor and me. The entire process is subjective. Another editor might have chosen our rejections and rejected the ones we accepted. It’s all a matter of getting the right work into the right hands. So I keep reminding myself not to take it personally; it wasn’t meant to be.

Yet knowing all that doesn’t sting any less when the yellow envelope reappears in my mailbox (or as the case may be a rejection email in my inbox). The entire process is maddening because I don’t know whether the actions I take will lead to satisfactory results. I’m flailing around, trying to find some soft place to land. Sure, there are rules and tips that I follow time and again, but that is no guarantee against rejection.

What would make the entire process a lot easier is if I knew why my work keeps getting rejected. However the reality of the submission process makes that next to impossible. Years ago, when the number of small literary magazines were a healthy ratio to the number of submissions they received, editors could take the time to write rejection notes, explain why each piece wasn’t accepted, or even offer criticisms. As a writer it helps to know what I’m doing right or what I could do better. But that job has been taken over by creative writing programs. As valuable as these programs can be, a jury of your peers isn’t quite the same as a judge.

Still, as soul-crushing as submission rejections can be, they aren’t the end of the world either. After the rejection, I had a good cry (I’m just sensitive that way), and renewed my sense of purpose. I doubled down, went back to work on my novel, and looked for other opportunities to place my prose. I’ve been lucky enough to get a few of my essays and reviews published and placed three of my short stories as well. Hopefully that luck will continue. All I can ever do is keep trying. Giving up is the worst rejection of all.


A Year in Recommendations: Round House, by Louise Erdrich



Few books startle me, but Louise Erdrich’s Round House was one of those few. This 2013 National Book Award winner is a gripping tale of mystery surrounding the rape of an Objiwe woman outside her Minnesota reservation. The story takes place in the 1980s, before laws concerning sovereignty and jurisdiction were changed only recently by the Obama administration, allowing the prosecution of crimes against Native Indians outside their reservations. So the mystery in Round House revolves not only on the who, but the where. The novel is also a coming-of-age tale since it’s POV is told through young Joe, whose mother Geraldine is the victim of the vicious crime. As he and his friends uncover clues about who raped his mother and where the crime actually took place, Joe’s innocence quietly flakes away as he begins to see the world in its totality: his mother’s depression, his father’s powerlessness to protect their family, the injustices and minor cruelties Indians face on and off the reservation. I was captivated from beginning to end. The novel is brimming with subtle insights and quiet, but seething outrage at the wrongs, both minor and major, committed against her people. But there is beauty and love and the resilient power of forgiveness there as well, creating a novel that is as complex as it is simple in its demands for justice.