The Art of Rejection

January 16, 2008 | 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.