In Defense of Not Writing #12: Dealing with Rejection

This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.


Rejection is part of being a writer and trying to live this writerly life. We are rejected constantly: from schools, from journals, pitches we put a lot of time and effort into just thrown away after an editor never emails us back. If I haven’t received a rejection in a while, it’s purely because I haven’t been submitting. To submit is to be rejected. That is the reality.

I used to have a mentor that joked the only time she was published in The New York Times was her wedding announcement. She’d published a beloved memoir, written plenty of essays that went on to be published in various spheres, but she’d told me herself: She never pitched anymore. Her agent handled it. Took the pieces and reached out on behalf of this mentor. “I don’t deal with the rejection because I never hear about it in the first place,” she told me.

Oh, to be like her.

A friend of mine has recently been dealing with quite a bit of rejection. They’ve been shopping their book out, finally hearing back from Submittable submissions months after the fact, and it’s been a barrage of bad news. They’re an incredibly talented writer. I’ve had the pleasure of reading their book (so, so slowly which is completely and utterly my fault), and it’s incredible. I’m not saying that because I’m their friend. I’m saying that because two pages in the characters are already fleshed out and tangible, the plot gets running but in a way you can keep up with, and the pacing is simply unbeatable. I’ve seen them work on this for two years, and know they’ve been spent even longer on it. How could people be rejecting this? And how are they dealing with it?

Admittedly, not the best.

Writing after you’ve been rejected countless times is like getting on the horse after, in a very Montaigne style, it’s chucked you off its back and dragged you across the stones for miles until you pass out and think you’re dead. Only a sadistic would want to continue putting themselves out there, time and again, when there’s a looming threat of someone, some stranger via email, telling you, “it’s just not right for us at the moment” (what does this even mean, by the way?).

My writerly friends and I make some peace with the sadism by distinguishing “positive rejections” from the rest of the onslaught. “Positive rejections” are personalized, usually with a sentence or two detailing what they liked about the piece. Just last week I received one: “One of our editors particularly enjoyed your first poem. Please be encouraged!” Sure, after a while these become as frustrating and depleting as your traditional rejection. But initially — in those seconds after the email from Submittable comes in and there isn’t “Congratulations” or “Permission to Publish” in the subject line — it does offer a bit of respite.

Some people find rejection empowering, motivating. They get the “no” and it brings them back to the computer time and again until that “yes” does finally arrive. There’s nothing personal to it; just a part of the job.

Others — myself included — often need to mourn a rejection. An idea you thought was great and pitched out being shut down in a matter of days, maybe hours, stings. Hurts. Leads to overall feelings of inadequacy. We writers are an emotional bunch. It’s what makes us sensitive to other human experience, what allows us to be writers in the first place. Everything around us has meaning, purpose, soul.

Which means this moment from New Girl hits quite hard:

JESS: Schmidt, these are such obvious rejections. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.

SCHMIDT: Hurt their feelings? Do you just walk around all day thinking about other

people’s feelings?

JESS: Yeah! Don’t you?

SCHMIDT: No. How do you get anything done?

JESS: It’s hard.

It is hard. It is hard to be inherently sensitive, to react fully emotions blazing to every bit of news. I’ve been working on it in therapy.

And, I will always, without a doubt, campaign for taking a break. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: not writing everyday, not writing for months at a time, does not make you a bad writer. It doesn’t even mean you’re less creative. Taking a break is often necessary for the creativity to come back, for the ideas and characters to find a doorway in. Not every writer is made to work daily (another thing I will repeat whenever I have the chance).

The important thing is to find your way back to the page. Meet yourself with words and new ideas. Remember this is all meant to be fun, creative, joyous.

Though sometimes, writers dealing with all that we are — lack of stability, little in the hope for funding, dealing with rejection — simply need a goddamn break.

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