The Art of Rejection

January 16, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 10 3 min read

I’ve been submitting my fiction to magazines big and small for six years, since I was a senior in college. It took two years to receive my first acceptance, and another two years to receive my second. Since then, my record has improved: I had a story published last year, and two more are forthcoming. Still, the rejections come.

My first year at Iowa, I took a seminar with Cole Swensen called Poetics of the Book. Our first assignment was to make a book out of unconventional materials. One student wrote a poem on gingersnap cookies; another student silkscreened words onto panes of glass. I took my big pile of rejection slips and sewed them together with some ugly brown thread. The stitching was poor (I can’t even replace a button), and because I hadn’t done much planning, the book unfolded in many different directions and was difficult to puzzle back together. Still, my work was impressive (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!), and also pathetic (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!). At the very least, it was proof of my tenacity.

I’ll admit, the process was therapeutic. Those slips, some small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, now had an artistic function, and if my stories weren’t going to be bound, at least something could be. I continued to sew new rejections to the collection, and it didn’t take long for the thing to grow unwieldy. Finally, I put it aside. Now I’ve got a drawer stuffed with new rejections. What should I do with them?

Sometimes I imagine having a dress made out of the slips, a shift maybe, or some slinky thing with an open back, to wear on a future book tour. Or I consider building a mobile to hang above my desk – as a threat, perhaps? I’ve heard that Amy Tan wallpapered her home’s bathroom with past rejections, and in his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the spike on which he impaled his rejections. And there’s always this idea.

But why I am keeping the damn things anyway? On author M.J. Rose’s blog, Dr. Susan O’Doherty explains:

It is the childish, hypersensitive, irrational aspects of our psyche that connect us with the deep, primal themes and images that drive our most powerful writing. That primitive self is woven into the manuscripts we have the highest hopes for–and that self experiences every rejection as a blood wound, no matter what we know intellectually. I suspect that it’s this self that doesn’t want to let the slips go.

Dr. Sue suggests a ritual of letting this pain go, perhaps by lighting a fire and burning each rejection, bidding goodbye or a fuck you to each one.

I found Dr. Sue’s advice via Literary Rejections on Display, a blog devoted to the anger, pain and frustration that follows every “Good luck with placing your work elsewhere” from an agent or editor. This blog is itself an answer to what to do with your rejections: throw them away, but first, complain about them on the internet! The posts, penned anonymously, are sometimes funny, but the bitterness and wrath sadden me, especially when they’re aimed at small literary journals. Stop blaming them, and start subscribing.

As much as I fret about my rejection slips, and get pissed off when I get a new one, or wonder when such-and-such magazine will get back to me, I try my hardest not to encourage the fixation. Too much attention on publication means less attention on the work itself: to the sentences, the images, the characters. Whenever I get frustrated by a rejection, I remember something my teacher Lan Samantha Chang once told me. “Publishing a story won’t change your life,” she said, “but revising it until it’s the best it can be, will.” Let’s all remember that the next time the mail comes.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Edan- If you ever make that dress, I can commission a tux to go with it, made from my own rejections. Several tuxes, actually. I recognize some of the letterheads from your photographs. I remember a teacher who dumped his own rejection slips onto a seminar table the first day of class. "This is what you have forward to!" It kept us honest, at least, in the sense of reminding us to write for the right reasons. Maybe a good reason to hang on to them?

  2. I say, unless they include a personal note of encouragement, THROW REJECTION NOTES OUT. They have very bad vibes. Then, as they say in sports psychology, CRA– consistent resiliant action. Your action might be to go back to the story and revise. It might be to send it out again to another journal, immediately. It might be to e-mail a note of thanks to the journal that did publish something of yours. It might be to update your website. It might be… you get the idea.

  3. Why does the whole Stephen-King-impaling-rejections not surprise me?

    Personally, I do nothing with them. But your post has made me start to think about high fashion jewelry — purses, earrings, necklaces — to go along with your dress and Garth's tux.

    Maybe we're all in the wrong business? Perhaps we should be designers! (No rejection there, right? ha!)


  4. I think we should have a rejection slip fashion show. Thanks so everyone for sharing their thoughts and experiences with the process.

    And, Max, thanks for defending me!

  5. There is only one way to look at rejection. It is the opinion of one person, and it is a good bet that he or she has not read beyond the first line. If it is a magazine rejecting on a cold submission, the chances are that the editors are making their choices from coteries of sycophants and favorites that are part of their backslapping clique. If you are rejected by an agent, it is because he never sees his mail unless there is a check in it. If you are rejected by an editor at a publishing house, it is probably because he is scared shitless that he is about to choose a book that tanked like his last choice. Flush your rejections down the toilet. If it is a rejection on the telephone after listening to bullshit praise of your work for the first three minutes, hang up. Chances are the rejector will be looking for another job anyway in a month or two. Most people know squat about which books will make it. But if you want to stay in the great literary crap shoot, persevere, believe in your own talent, and if one door closes try another, then another until one opens. If you are a real writer, you will not be able to help yourself anyway. Above all do not let the bastards beat you down. I have survived five decades of rejections and most of the rejectors are now either drunks, dead, or in real estate.

  6. Although I love the idea of rejectors eventually turning to a career in real estate, I think I have a more positive view of the publishin industry. I know people who have read for magazines, and they cared about the work and read through it carefully. In my experience, agents very much want to find new and exciting voices, as do editors. I don't think the lit mag and book world is as much of an exclusive club as people make it out to be. That said, yes, a rejection is just one person's opinion (or, if you're lucky, the opinions of an editorial board). It doesn't signify that you should quit.

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