Hurts So Good: Overcoming Rejection as a Writer - Murielle Müller

One thing that most aspiring writers don’t realise when they begin to write and submit to literary journals is that rejection is the norm. We are quite familiar with the more famous stories of rejection and we are fascinated, infatuated by them. When we hear that Agatha Christie had to wait four years before her first book was published, or that D.H. Lawrence was once told “for your own sake do not publish this book” about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or F. Scott Fitzgerald was advised “you’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character”, we exalt these rejection stories. We can’t help ourselves but imagine a similar road of glory for ourselves. There’s many more such stories. Lolita was deemed a “wild neurotic daydream (...) [to be] buried under a stone for a thousand years” before Nabokov could publish it. It is our sadistic side that is contempt to learn that even people we declare geniuses don’t always get it right. But by that we make rejection this glorified obstacle that geniuses have to overcome when actually, it is pretty much day to day business in a writer’s life.

At this point, as we submit to magazine after magazine, receive rejection after rejection, don’t we want to hear the more realistic stories?

Submitting to journals is exhausting; it consumes a lot of time and most of the time, rejection is the outcome. Rejection plays a fundamental role in any creative work. If we reframe and rethink rejection as something that is not tarnished by shame and defeat but imagine it as the goal to enhance our creative process, we might just be on the right track. One thing is for sure: Rejection doesn’t mean your work sucks. It can mean that your work is risky or innovative or experimental or in all honesty, just didn’t fit in with the rest of the compilation for the issue.

But...rejection means that you are trying to put yourself out there. You’re trying.

Resilience is a writer’s true gift, not the ability to write or create characters and scenes (although admittedly, you do need that too). Anyhow, patience and stamina are the ultimate skills here. Being prepared for a bumpy ride with many setbacks. The ability of keeping going when every response is no. Having a thick skin, if you will.

The good news is, if you’re anything like the cliché of a writer, the pain we feel from rejection can be transformed. Neil Gaiman (another one of those writers we put on a pedestal because he probably doesn’t have to worry about this as much anymore) said: “The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering ‘Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!’ and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write. Because the rejection slips will arrive.”

He’s got one thing right there. It is about seeing rejection as fuel, as motivation to try even harder. Other than that, there’s a number of reasonable things we can do besides dreaming, hoping for luck and transforming anger and disappointment. It’s all about setting achievable goals and acquiring experience.

Rethink the whole idea of the submission process. Accept rejection as the norm and think of the acceptance of a piece as a happy side effect. Lifting the pressure can help to make the pain of being rejected less impactful. It’s as always in life: no expectations means no expectations to be crushed.

Consider publishing other stuff. If you’re a designated poet, try non-fiction. If you’re a flash-fictionist, try poetry. If you’re a ... you get the picture. These excursions in other genres could present themselves as opportunities. Considering the idea of other genres can help you to generate a variety of pieces and you might even get surprised. You will for sure learn more about yourself as a writer.

Get practical and change the side. Work as an editor. This work will do two things for you: Firstly, after reading many submissions, you will be able to put your work into context. You might even stumble over the thought “If someone can submit this... I can do this!”.

Secondly, working as an editor will give you the opportunity to read many amazing texts and grasp the workings of the submission process. It will feel less intimidating and you will certainly become more realistic concerning rejection.

Similarly, you could join workshop groups and/or writing classes and get honest feedback on your writing from other writers who are right there with you and understand the fragility of the situation.

Submit, submit, submit! Actually do the work and submit. Don’t procrastinate on it because it seems so fruitless. Really set aside time to submit to journals, and many of them, because that is the only way to deal with it. Don’t take no for an answer and keep trying.

You can also head right over and submit to Intersections, especially to our Redefine Rejection Project that aims to break the stigma around rejection in the literary world.


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