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Rejection Letters: A Personal History

Wherever this finds you, I hope that you are well and taking care during this difficult time. This week, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what it means to be a teacher when there is no classroom, as well as how we each find ways as humans to take care of ourselves and be good to each other. I hope to share more about those reflections in the weeks to come, but I want to give myself space to articulate those thoughts in full. Right now, I want to stick with thoughts I’ve been considering for weeks, in an effort to preserve some kind of normalcy in the present moment. Hopefully it helps you in some way.

I feel like I’ve been thinking about rejection for my entire life. The ways that rejection from peers in grade school bred fear and mistrust into my core, the ways that I have worked to root out those poisons from my person and relationships. The ways that older generations criticize the millennial generation for being coddled through participation trophies, as if we do not face frequent and course-altering rejections from an increasingly unstable job market that offers no guarantees, as we were told while we earned multiple degrees and sunk ourselves into college loan debt.

The fear of rejection has led me to avoid various risks in my life, some I regret and some I am thankful to have dodged. As a writer, rejection is a constant source of anxiety for me, even as it’s an expected part of eventually being published. I studied writing in my undergraduate program, where a professor asked, toward the end of my time there, if I was going to apply to an MFA in creative writing. Paralyzed by the thought of rejection, I just told him that I was considering my options. He encouraged me to do so quickly, as deadlines were approaching, but I did not know how to tell him that I was too insecure at the time to try, that I had not seriously looked into anything.

Still, since graduating college, I continued to write poetry, articles, blog posts, creative nonfiction, scholarly essays, and the occasional, embarrassingly bad short story. Although I was insecure, I believed I had something to say, enough to keep myself working. I later applied to a summer workshop with a publishing house I revere, and got in. The opportunity was incredible, bringing with it invaluable wisdom and lifelong friends, but I still walked away from the workshop feeling less qualified than everyone else. Even when accepted, something in the back of my mind told me I should have been rejected.

Again, I did not stop writing, but I kept excusing myself for not sending my work into the world. My blog, which focused on teaching, was relatively popular at the time, and I felt content to share my writing within the comfort of never being turned down. I eventually made an account on Submittable, where I would send a poem or two out, every now and then. I would wait around for the rejections and use them as an excuse to not submit again for another few months. Somehow, years passed in this way.

I was encouraged to see that Submittable was hosting a #Rejection100 challenge in 2020. In order to be accepted, they encourage, we have to learn to live with—not overcome—rejection. To that end, they encouraged writers to seek to be rejected 100 times this year, and to collect those rejections as badges of honor. Although I have not yet been brave enough to join their Facebook group, I downloaded their rejection tracker and set about collecting my letters. 

Surely, I thought, I have received 100 rejections already. But while studying my Submittable history for the first time, I found I have only been rejected 40 times across three years—2017 to 2019. During that same time period, I received 5 acceptances. Thinking I had been rejected in the triple digits, I learned I had not even submitted in the triple digits, not even half of 100. My rejection pile was pitiful, an embarrassment to my overinflated sense of insecurity.

Not only this, but I started to consider acceptance and rejection in broader terms—through jobs, graduate programs, and other freelance writing opportunities. In a notebook I found this week, I had written that I had three articles published on DJBooth in 2017 and wanted to double that in 2018. In fact, they published 14 of my articles that year, but I had forgotten my goal of six in the process. I also received several rejections from MFA programs, which I finally applied to in December. Against that small pile of rejections, I was accepted into two and waitlisted at one.

Suddenly, when I began to count my losses, I found more to celebrate. My wins stood out in sharp contrast, and my insecurities started to lose their footing. I’ve collected 15 rejections in 2020 alone, nearly 40% of my total rejections over the previous three years. Alongside those 15 rejections, I’ve received five acceptances, the same amount I received in the previous three years collectively. Still, averaging five rejections a month, I’m behind schedule and need to seek out more opportunities to be told no.

I’ve also learned that not all rejections are hard denials. While some journals email me with notices that read like they were written by bots, others encourage me to continue working on a piece and submit again in the future. Some rejections even look like “not right now, but maybe later.” Such nuances add perspective, leading me towards areas of growth and voices of encouragement, and away from ill-fitting goals. A friend told me that an artist residency she wants to apply for usually only accepts people after three or more tries to ensure they are serious applicants. While I see some shortcomings in this approach, I also understand that persistence sometimes beats, or at least complements, pure talent.

Other people’s successes can sometimes lead us to believe that other people are always only successful. By extension, we might also start believing we are personally lesser-than because we have not experienced the same amount or quality of wins. 

What is more likely is that the successful person has been rejected over and over again, but we do not place a premium on sharing losses. In the art and writing world, we do not celebrate rejection until someone has already made it. When a person becomes famous, we include their rejection stories as a part of the mythos of their success: the Beatles performed in Germany for 10,000 hours before making it big, the Harry Potter series was rejected a dozen times, and Walt Disney was reportedly fired from a job because he “lacked imagination.” 

Each example is to teach us that rejection is an important and perhaps necessary step on the road to success. Still, in our normal lives, we are far less likely to mention our failings to our friends. Rejection is not yet a widely accepted, much less encouraged, practice. Social media, much like our jobs, encourages us to optimize, to appear like we have our lives together, to cover our blemishes. But if social media, at its best, is meant to connect us with one another, we surely isolate ourselves and others when we only share the highs and never the lows. If we are to live in community with one another, we cannot present an ideal self and call that real.

We might be better off passing notes to each other, confessing to rejections like secrets dying to be told. In the process, we might also become freer to define ourselves outside the terms of success, to find ourselves among good company, to celebrate victories all the more because we are keenly aware of the losses that preceded them. Yesterday, a rejection notice in my inbox stopped me from writing this post—I was disappointed, and my confidence took a small hit. I woke up this morning to a different piece being accepted, and I was back up again. But I want to grow until both rejection and acceptance serve to build my confidence, and neither inflates my sense of insecurity or pride.

I’ve been rejected throughout my life. Only recently have I come to realize that this, too, is a gift, one I want to share with as many people as possible.

4 replies on “Rejection Letters: A Personal History”

Benj,
I’m reminded of a quote good for consideration, copied from The Quotations Page,
“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Calvin Coolidge (1872 – 1933)
Love you the most!

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