Rejections bring writers together. We trade stories of abysmally long response times, boilerplate replies addressed Dear writer, and the requisite practice of pinning rejection slips to walls. F. Scott Fitzgerald covered his bedroom with the 122 rejections he received in the spring of 1919 alone. Stephen King “pounded a nail” into the wall to “impale” his rejections. Rebecca Skloot displays her rejections for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a constant reminder of editorial subjectivity.
The screens of our computers and phones have replaced the archetypal wall of printed rejections. Social media inflames the Cult of Rejection, a melodramatic threnody of authorial frustration. Before I sound too sanctimonious, I admit participation in these public complaints. It is cathartic to scream in electronic silence. Rejection is a reminder that writers are vulnerable and sensitive — and yet still pugilistic. To write is to tempt constant rejection. The statistical inevitability of rejection does not lessen the sting.
Despite these airings of shared failure, when we close the door and sit at our own desks, it easy to think that we are alone in disappointment. I asked writers whose work I admire to share their most formative rejections, whether they came from magazines, publishers, or even professors. I appreciate their candor about those moments when they realized how to fail better.
Because I have asked to air their confessions, I should share one of my own. As a graduate student in theology, I wrote an essay of biblical criticism. I was not new to the world of submissions — I had already published a book of poems and had placed fiction in magazines like Esquire and The Kenyon Review — but my scholarship was literary, not biblical.
I have always been interested in the penitent thief in Luke’s Gospel. In the scene, thieves are crucified on both sides of Jesus. The criminals mock him. Unlike the version of the story in Matthew and Mark, the thief in Luke’s narrative is regretful and contemplative. He believes that Jesus does not deserve this brutal punishment. I submitted my essay to Catholic Biblical Quarterly, a peer-reviewed publication of biblical criticism that has appeared since 1939. A few months later, I received a response. The editor prefaced the publication’s attached decision with a warning: “I wish that they could contain more welcome news.”
Submitters to literary magazines complain about form rejections. We are lucky. Peer reviews replace ambiguity with dissection. The first reviewer considered my work incomplete, but made useful suggestions for improvement. He appreciated the patristic exegesis in the latter half of the essay, but thought I needed to study the original Greek text of Luke, and reference further examinations of the pericope.
The other reviewer was less kind. “The paper is not publishable,” he began. He skewered my essay, reveling in the evisceration. Now that my literary wound has healed, his railing is entertaining and often prescient: he wondered if he was being “too harsh, since I suspect that the author is a student.” He said my essay lacked a thesis. “It is unclear how any of [the essay’s] parts relate to one another,” he wrote; “there is no coherent argument.” The reviewer’s main bone was my usage of critical language. He called it “persistent and irritating,” and produced a litany of moments where I had folded the language of literary criticism into the language of biblical criticism. I could almost feel the exhale of disgust at the end of his review.
While I would later publish a book of literary criticism, I never returned to the biblical side of scholarship. I had tried to stretch myself too wide. Pride blurred my vision. I had assumed that my experiences in one genre translated to competency in another. I had forgotten that the term “writer” is not all-inclusive: there are so many different writers, so many different forms.
Only when I step outside the world of literary magazines do I realize the narrow and fine nature of that world. It took sustained rejection to remind me what I could do well — and what type of writing should remain a hobby. I am now thankful for the rejections that used to frustrate me. I am also thankful for sharing the experiences of others. Pity the writer who thinks or he or she is finished learning from failure.
Here are seven writers on their most formative rejections.
1. Tomás Q. Morin (A Larger Country)
I’ve never received the kind of rejection letter that becomes infamous for its cruelty or the one filled with over-the-top praise in spite of the No waiting at the end. Once a year for nine years, I submitted to Poetry magazine and every year they said no. Rather than be discouraged, I relished the yearly chance to put in front of Chris Wiman (then the editor), Don Share, & Co. a poem they couldn’t turn away. Sometimes the rejection would be a form letter, while other times someone would scribble “send more work.” When the first Yes finally arrived, I had learned that you can develop a relationship with an editorial staff as much through their rejections of your work as you can through their acceptances. This is why I always tell young writers to not give up on a magazine they love just because an editor said no once.
2. Pamela Erens (The Virgins and The Understory)
I once took part in an ongoing creative writing workshop run by an inspired teacher. I learned a great deal from him — to this day my writing process remains highly influenced by him — but he had a very particular pedagogy and very emphatic opinions. When he dismissed a piece of writing, it stayed dismissed.
At a certain point, he had to travel for a few months, and a substitute took over the class, herself a gifted writer and teacher. I started a new short story during that time, and got a lot of encouragement from her and the class through successive revisions. Then the original teacher returned. He completely trashed the story; it was all wrong. No one dared to contradict him, of course. Nor was there was going to be any discussion of what had brought my story to this point or where I hoped to go with it. I was crushed — and also furious. When I finally was able to think calmly, I realized that I needed to break away somewhat from this teacher’s orbit. I applied for my first-ever summer writer’s conference, and there I got to know writers other than those in his classes, as well as teachers who taught in other ways. Later, online, I developed a larger network of writing colleagues, generous people who encouraged my work and supported me emotionally. I stayed in my workshop teacher’s class for a while longer, but I never let myself become so dependent on one person’s opinion or ideas about writing again. Artists are very vulnerable people. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing a lot of the time, and it becomes easy to transform someone else into a guru who has the Word.
3. Justin Taylor (The Gospel of Anarchy and Flings)
When I was in grad school, or maybe just after, I was introduced to an Editor at an Important Magazine and pitched her — within 10 minutes, while sitting at a bar, which itself was deeply uncool — on a few ideas, but mostly on the idea of me doing something — anything — for her magazine. She was gracious about it, and my ideas weren’t awful, so she told me to email her and the next day I sent a detailed pitch to review a new book by an Established American Poet whose work I’d long admired. I hadn’t actually read the new book yet, but I knew enough of his catalog to make the case for the Important Magazine giving him a feature review. She accepted, and I dove into the galley, which it turned out I mostly hated. This was as much a surprise to me as anyone, and mortifying considering how much I’d professed to love the guy, but — and I think this is to my credit — I didn’t pull any punches. I excoriated the book in detail, basically arguing that he’d gone lazy and soft. When the piece was spiked, the Editor was kind enough to share her reasoning: She didn’t question my judgment of the book (though for the record she never said she shared it) and neither did she have anything against so-called “negative reviewing” (that question never even came up), but she simply didn’t see the point of using her platform to hand an ass-kicking to a book of poems most of her readers wouldn’t have heard of in the first place. It struck her as a waste of her publication’s resources and space. This was, more or less, my introduction to the idea that editors and publications have a sense not only of their audience but of themselves: their cultural position and reach, and that they wield whatever “power” they have (or think they have) with deliberation and intent. Put another way: This was the moment I learned that context is a form of content. The universe then saw fit to drive this point even further home for me, so if you’ll bear with a brief P.S. I’ll share what happened next: I took my kill fee from the Important Magazine, licked my wounds, and in the end gave the piece away to an upstart indie book website. Some time later I got an email — from the Established American Poet! It was brief, but exceedingly generous considering the circumstances. He had come across my thrashing of him and had written to say — I’m paraphrasing here — no hard feelings. To be sure, he did not share my view of his book, but he seemed to respect my work, and perhaps my ability to get so worked up over a book of poems; more than anything else, he seemed pleased that this upstart indie book website had been interested in him in the first place. He may have even thanked me for my time.
4. Matthew Salesses (The Hundred-Year Flood and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying)
In 2011, The Hundred-Year Flood went out to a number of editors, all of who rejected it but several of who asked for revisions. Each time some feedback came in, my agent-at-the-time said I should try it. They all wanted contradictory things. When I sent that agent my revision, she sat on it for months, avoiding my emails. Finally she called and scheduled a meeting in New York. When we met, she said I should either write a different book or find a different agent. We parted ways. It was all very shocking. A month or so later, I found out that she had dropped another writer I know at the same time in an equally mysterious manner.
5. Holly LeCraw (The Swimming Pool and The Half Brother)
In August, 1992, when I was 26 years old, I sent out my first story submission ever. I had aggressively small expectations: I knew I’d probably receive a form letter, or more likely a photocopied rejection slip, not even a full sheet of paper. I’d recently started reading the slush at a small literary magazine myself, and knew that words of encouragement, never mind signatures, were doled out very sparingly. I also knew that such magazines took weeks or even months to respond.
I printed out my story on my dot-matrix printer, tore off the edges and separated the pages, filled out my SASE, wrote and printed my (very short) submission letter, weighed the whole thing, put stamps on the manila envelope, and sent it off to The Atlantic, which back then published fiction every month.
Two days later 00 yes, two days — my SASE came back with a letter, which read, in its entirety: “Dear Ms. LeCraw: You write intelligently, but ‘Sailing’ seems to us loosely organized, short of event, mannered in the telling (present tense), and inconclusive. Try us again?” It was on letterhead, and signed from C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor.
A friend of ours, not a writer, was over for dinner that night and kept saying how sorry he was that I’d gotten a rejection. He couldn’t understand why I was excited about any of it. He was sure I was putting on a brave face, and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.
I never did publish that particular story; it was indeed very short of event, mannered, and inconclusive, and I couldn’t save it, nor many other stories that followed. But that first kind rejection convinced me I wasn’t crazy to try. Eventually, I realized I needed a bigger canvas, and started writing novels. To this day I remain vigilant for work that’s mannered and uneventful. And I’m still astonished by the efficiency of The Atlantic, Mike Curtis, and the U.S. Post Office.
6. Jessica Mesman Griffith (Love & Salt)
You know what I hate almost as much as being rejected? Crickets. There is something so humiliating about just being ignored, as if your work doesn’t even dignify a response.
That being said, I’m fresh off a formal rejection from a publisher for a book I pitched. I was, of course, insulted and embarrassed that the publisher didn’t want what I pitched, especially since said publisher had asked me to pitch this particular book to them and requested revisions to the original proposal. But I was also relieved, and that unexpected feeling of relief made me realize that I really hadn’t wanted to write the book I’d pitched after all. What I wanted to be working on was far riskier, and I’d been avoiding it and sticking to what I thought was safe. In this case, a rejection gave me the time and the guts to pursue the scarier project.
7. Andrew Ervin (Burning Down George Orwell’s House and Extraordinary Renditions)
It took me a long time to understand that every editor who has rejected my fiction has done me a favor. That’s especially true of one man I’ve heard described as “Hungary’s greatest living philosopher.” I’ll get to him in a moment. The first story I ever published, in a now-defunct print journal, required 25 fresh drafts. When it finally appeared, it did so next to some prose by one of my heroes, Andy Kaufman. That made the whole maddening process worth it; those 25 rejections proved invaluable.
The most formative rejection I’ve received to date, however, came in 1995 from Miklós Vajda, then the editor of The Hungarian Review. It said:
“Thank you for sending your story. I am sorry to say, however, I found it crudely written, superficial and much too long for the little it says. It seems your main concern must have been finding expression for the contempt you feel for your colleagues, for modern art, people in general. You have talent but this story does little to prove it.”
That is a tremendous rejection. Over a decade later, I read a subsequent — and published — version of that same story at my MFA graduation. The opportunity to continue improving a story is one I’ve learned to appreciate. To this day, every story I write needs to pass my internal “crude, superficial and too long” test before I send it out.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“Elected silence, sing to me / And beat upon my whorlèd ear, / Pipe me to pastures still and be / The music that I care to hear.”
In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Habit of Perfection,” that “elected silence” becomes spiritual song. A Jesuit whose entire canon reveals the tension between artist and priest, between temptation and temperance, Hopkins found that silence could sing. In “Listening for Silence,” Mark Slouka considers the ubiquity of sounds, how “we’ve grown adept…at blocking them out with sounds of our own, at forcing a privacy where none exists.” He quotes Henry David Thoreau’s soft words of contemplation — “I love a wide margin to my life” — before admitting his own fear of a perfect silence. And yet “if silence is the enemy of art, it is also its motivation and medium: the greatest works not only draw on silence for inspiration but use it, flirt with it, turn it, for a time, against itself.”
Tucked away in a quiet room or hunched in a hushed library, writers crave silence. Silence is an escape from daily noise, from frustrations and obligations and distractions. Silence might equal solitude, a residency of the mind, but often silence is analogous to the sense of control needed for writers to create and craft. These are romantic conceptions of art, but in both practical and creative senses, writers must discover conditions that support focus and production. For poet Catherine Pierce, silence reigns: “I don’t — can’t — listen to any kind of music while writing. I learned long ago that when I listen to music, not only am I unable to focus on language in the way I need to, but — even worse! — I also tend to get a false sense of the work’s quality. If I’m listening to Tom Waits, I think I’m writing a tough, gutted, whiskey-soaked poem; if I’m listening to Joni Mitchell, I think I’m doing something elegant, sad, and strange. Then I read the poems sans soundtrack and am sorely disappointed. I first learned this lesson in high school, when, in full-on angst mode, I churned out what I was pretty sure was a genius short story while listening to the Violent Femmes. When I read the story the next day in the quiet of my bedroom, I recognized that the story was plotless and, worse, toothless — only the songs had any bite. These days I strive for total aural deprivation — silence in my home if at all possible, white noise on headphones in the coffee shop if not. After years of trying to trick myself into believing I could have music while writing, I’ve finally learned my limitations.”
Yet from the days of poems accompanied by lyre, verse has always been wedded to music. Poets have written about music, and they have considered songs that can compliment their art. Some, like Terrance Hayes in “Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist,” see songs as locations for the insights of poetic narrative. But I am most interested in how poetry relates to composition; how some poets, like Pierce, require silence, while others are fulfilled by sound. In my own experience, sound complements prose well; in fact, while writing and revising my novella, “Ember Days,” I listened to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” on repeat. I wrote after midnight, and that looping contributed to a somber atmosphere; the story is about atomic bomb testing and opium trafficking, but it also follows how one man’s lust for a woman leads to betrayal. Lightfoot’s guitar opening sets a folk-ominous mood, and the lyrics follow suit. After a few times at the desk, I needed Lightfoot’s music to sustain the story. It was a way to return to the words I’d left during the previous darkness.
Poet Michael Earl Craig has explained to Zachary Schomburg that he is “too engrossed and/or confused for music in the beginning stages of a poem.” Once he gets a “handle” on the work, when he can see a sense of “direction emerging,” he can later return to the poem with music “not distracting but more like a breeze at my back.” He has written with the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me playing, and doesn’t listen to it in “any other context. I don’t put that on while driving, or chopping parsley. The feel of that album just suits me perfectly. Poems should be dipped in it.” I have never written a poem while listening to music, but am curious about the intersection of those artistic worlds. Poetry and music share a word of process — composition — and are linked by negotiations of melody, harmony, rhythm, proportion, and discord. I contacted some of my favorite poets and asked if they listen to music while planning, drafting, revising, or finishing poems.
Here is a poetry playlist: 10 poets offer their composition soundtracks. Enjoy their reflections on craft, and links to the poems and tunes that formed beautiful marriages of word and sound.
Rebecca Gayle Howell
“I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by Stevie Wonder
While I was writing Render /An Apocalypse, I listened to a lot of old Motown — The Supremes, The Jackson 5 — it’s that beat, that drive, that hammer. It doesn’t quit. Doesn’t let you quit. But this Stevie Wonder song is the one. The man rides the climax until he falls off. He’ll scream before he’ll pretend something’s over when it’s not.
Render is a Southern agrarian myth. The protagonist wakes up in a landscape he’s forgotten how to survive, and the poems act as his instruction manual. “How to Kill a Rooster.” “How to Kill a Hog.” “How to Be a Man.” Mostly what the protagonist has forgotten is tenderness, but the animals try to remind him of it, even as he slits their throats. Reviewers have called the poems “brutal,” “gruesome,” “religious.” Maybe so. Unrequited love often is.
“How to Cure,” from Render / An Apocalypse (Cleveland State University)
“The Only Living Boy in New York” by Paul Simon
This song contains the epigraph to my collection of poems, New River Breakdown, and I listened to it a lot while composing the book, a collection of poems dealing with a couple who are, at times, separated by both physical and/or emotional distances during the narrative. We often hear about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, but what really resonates with me in “The Only Living Boy in New York” is the line “half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where” because it also speaks to how we, as people, can be “with” each other but really apart, and not even realize it — like when you come home from work, but you’re really still at the office in your head — making lists, reliving arguments, remembering paperwork you didn’t turn in, etc.
“The Surrendered” from New River Breakdown (Unicorn Press)
“One More Time with Feeling” by Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor was ambient in my new house just after my divorce. My daughter decreed her music the soundtrack of our new life. Spektor’s music was jarring and beautiful at the same time — which was sort of like our lives. I’m serious — whenever music was on, it was Regina Spektor, or the Regina Spektor Pandora station. The tone of her song “One More Time with Feeling” resonated with me, so I stole a line to use as an engine for a new poem, thinking I would later cut the line. “Breathing’s just a rhythm” stuck, however, and appears, slightly altered, in my poem “How to Miss a Man.” Both deal with the loneliness of the other side of something — the slogging. My poem appears in PANK, and in my collection, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, with permission of this great artist, who arguably helped my daughter, and me, gain footing.
“How to Miss a Man,” from Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
Tomás Q. Morin
“Christo Redemptor” by Charlie Musselwhite
I usually don’t listen to music when I’m writing or revising. I’m very easily distracted so I prefer silence. However, once I think a piece is done or I’m going over a book manuscript for what feels like it should be the last time, I will listen to Charlie Musselwhite’s “Christo Redemptor.”
I’ve listened to this song so many times that I can enjoy it and yet it can still be the equivalent of background noise that won’t distract me. The interplay between harmonica and piano is fantastic and it feels like the song could go on forever without ever losing any of its potency. One way in which the song helps me during this final, final stage of editing is that if anything seems off in the poem/book then it’ll immediately interrupt the spell of the song and I’ll have to stop the song and examine what’s going on. If I can play the song uninterrupted throughout the whole editing process then I know the piece is done.
“Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin
I listened to Patty Griffin’s album Children Running Through — specifically her tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “Up to the Mountain” — on repeat while writing “Greece Is This Run-Down.” Something about Griffin’s understated lyrics and soaring voice made it possible to confront my own fears at the time, specifically the escalation of the Iraq War and whispers of reinstating the draft. Listening to the same music helped me get back to the same mood each time I worked on the poem, my longest to date.
“Gymnopédies No. 1” by Erik Satie
For me, poems begin as combinations of sounds — words or phrases that are sonically magnetic and eventually attach themselves to some kind of meaning. Erik Satie’s elegant Gymnopédies work the same way. The pieces subvert traditional piano composition by giving preference to individual notes — and the atmosphere created by the order of those notes — over conventional melody. In my poem “Gymnopédies No. 1,” I tried to connect words in narrative and imagistic shapes that emulate Satie’s arresting phrasings in the Gymnopédies.
Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D major,” 1st movement
YouTube compresses some of the sound and splits the first movement into two parts. But my favorite moment occurs at right around 8:17, where you can really hear the sound of the violin and the orchestra hitting the back wall of the concert hall.
When I’m drafting poems, I most often don’t listen to music. But when I do, it can be pretty eclectic: anything from Jay-Z to Beethoven is fair game. When I’m working on prose, I listen to music constantly. Sometimes I play a game where I type bands into YouTube and see what is recommended to me. (That’s how I learned of Kid Koala, a DJ that dresses in a koala suit and spins records: I found him because I was listening to Emily Wells.) However, the piece that I listen to most — because I am obsessed with it, capital O — and that influenced many of the poems of Tongue Lyre (but one in particular) is the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, performed by the 20th century violinist Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Fritz Reiner in April 1957).
I wrote “Performance” when I had a fever: I drafted it in bed, and I remember that in between reading, naps that led to bizarre dreams, drafting this poem, and tea, I listened to this piece. There is a Johnny Cash reference in the poem, so it might be surprising that I wasn’t listening to the Man in Black. But no. “Performance” was influenced by Heifetz’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, the first movement in particular. The poem moves rapidly through constructed spaces: “I would be caught, like now, when I am nowhere but pretending to be / standing in the Pittsburgh Aviary watching flamingos.” When I listen to Heifetz playing Tchaikovsky, I am amazed at how quickly and elegantly he makes and re-makes the landscape of the concerto — as though conjuring it out of nothing. I wanted to try attempting something similar in a poem.
“Performance” from Tongue Lyre (Southern Illinois University Press)
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” by The Beatles
There’s a recursive quality to the song both in its lyrical and musical motifs that fed into the dialectical structure I was developing in my manuscript overall and that captured for me something specific about being the new mother of a baby girl. The poem “Through the Bathroom Door” is a direct consequence of listening to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” on repeat and reflects my thoughts about the existence of the child in the adult and the adult in the child, the shifting but omnipresent shadow of the past upon the present, the constant vigilance that is necessary in marriage and parenting to separate the self from the other, and the fact that vigilance is an inadequate safeguard against living. The lines, “Didn’t anybody tell her? / Didn’t anybody see?” just kill me.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” by Velvet Underground
I write about memory and from memories, so I need to listen to music that takes me back. “I’m Waiting for the Man” grabs me by the shoulders and commands me to write a poem, and pushes me into the gritty landscape where poems come from.
At first this poem, “Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man,” might appear to allude to The Pixies, but in fact it is an homage to “I’m Waiting for the Man” by The Velvet Underground, and was written in attempt to imitate the song’s arc and pace, as well as relating to its subject. It also includes the title of a fake Velvet Underground song, as a wink to the reader.
“Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man” from her forthcoming book, Small Enterprise (Black Lawrence Press)
(Fans of this poem will also enjoy Biddinger’s previous books, including O Holy Insurgency — Nick).
Sara Eliza Johnson
Elgar’s Cello Concerto, 1st movement (Jacqueline du Pré’s performance)
I listened to Jacqueline du Pré’s rendition of this piece often while writing the poems that would become the “Archipelago” sequence in my book, Bone Map, which is a group of poems inspired in part by the seafaring pilgrimage Saint Brendan undertook in the 6th century. The atmosphere of the piece is, for me, oceanic, and powerful in that way, like great swells of water rising and falling through the ear, threatening storm, and then shipwreck. In the video, you can see the way Jacqueline throws her whole body into the cello, and I think you can hear that in the intensity of her performance; while writing I tend to listen to music with intensity, with whatever will get me fevered and feeling unreal, and transport me away from thoughts of obligations and deadlines. In that way I suppose the practice is escapist.
Three “Archipelago” poems from Bone Map (Milkweed Editions)
Image Credit: Flickr/MaxiuB