I read somewhere that, as a writer, I should aim for a hundred rejection letters a year. The theory is that if one submits a flood of work onto the world – enough to warrant a hundred negative replies – there will be a handful of acceptance letters in the mix as well.
My wife reminded me that a goal like this one actually focuses on the negative rather than the positive, but I told her that a rejection goal might actually numb the sting of each individual letter.
“Whacking your toe on the coffee table hurts like heck,” I said, “but whacking your toe a hundred times makes you forget about the first time.”
“I think you should stay clear of the coffee table,” she replied. “Or buy some steel-toed boots.”
I soon discovered that less than half of all submissions receive any kind of response – negative or otherwise. Some take a few days, while others take months. Some are encouraging, but most are not. Very few offer any kind of feedback. But still I plugged on. Some weeks I received half a dozen rejection letters, while other weeks were strangely quiet.
George Orwell famously wrote, “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” This is true, of course. Writers harbour a vulnerable ego, and want to feel loved and accepted as they mumble and grumble at their antique roll-top desk while blowing cat hair off the keyboard. Submitting work and hearing nothing back – broken occasionally by form rejection emails – can be tough. Yet this painful process is a necessary evil if writers are ever to climb out of the cocoon of isolation and share their work with the world.
I sent out 244 submissions in 2017: manuscripts, travel pieces, stories, essays and poetry to publishing houses, magazines, journals, e-zines and websites. That’s an average of 4.7 submissions a week.
“Can’t you just be satisfied with the act of creation?” asked Paula.
“No, I can’t,” I replied. “For some reason I need to stress about having my disembodied voice read by strangers.”
Though the high of getting my work accepted (even by major magazines) doesn’t trump the victory of the well-constructed paragraph or poem, I cannot do one without the other. While it is the act of writing that feels like flying, something compelled me to knock on 244 doors this past year.
It became a game – a race against time – and I derived some weird pleasure from collecting rejection letters. I checked my email each morning and the post office box every afternoon, and the list got longer and longer as the months rolled on. It gave me something to focus on. It was like an advent calendar of rejection.
I received my hundredth rejection letter a week before Christmas. And it was a moment of celebration – albeit a strange one. Over twelve months, a hundred people told me that my writing wasn’t what they were looking for. Sometimes I laughed it off, but other times I fell into a week long funk and wondered why I bothered. I questioned my motives, especially when I thought of it in terms of finances (or lack thereof). But I kept at it. Another story. Another poem. Another couple emails. Maybe I’m a sucker for punishment.
After a year of submissions, I still can’t tell what pieces will be accepted and which ones will be rejected multiple times. Maybe a large part of getting anything in print is timing and luck. One never knows what appeals to an editor or a reader. Some of my pieces have been rejected by small journals only to be accepted a couple months later by internationally recognized magazines.
I think it helps to see rejection as a conversation: for every piece that is rejected, at least one other person has read it, thought about it, and really considered whether it would be fit for their publication. At this point, I no longer worry about submitting and I don’t flinch (much) when I receive inevitable form rejection emails. Instead, it motivates me to send away another five or ten or fifteen pieces.
I now have a greater understanding about the struggles of all artists: the musician that walks home with only a few dollars in his tip jar, the actor that spends years being told she is too tall or too thin, the painter that hosts an art exhibition but doesn’t sell a single painting, or the potter that spends cold Saturday mornings at farmers’ markets before packing every piece into the station wagon for the long drive home. The reality is far from romantic.
I received thirty-three acceptance letters this year, and my writer’s résumé is looking a little more impressive. While my manuscript hasn’t yet been picked up, I continue to write and submit and check the mail and play the odds. Writing, like any art, isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey: the long and winding road, with the ocean on one side and majestic mountains on the other.