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MFA Sunday School (Fifteen: Dealing with Rejection)

Welcome to MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work, or peruse all of the past lessons as well as a glossary of terms by reading the MFA Sunday School Glossary and Course Archives.

You are a writer, and like all people who create things, you are going to run into rejection.  You will be rejected when you write a blog post and no one reads it/comments on it/or comments negatively.  You will be rejected when you query agents.  You will be rejected when you submit your work to magazines or publishers.  You will be rejected when you find an agent to take on your project and they are shopping it around.  You will be rejected when you ask for book blurbs or reviews of your book.  And finally, you will be rejected by the very people who take the time to read your work and don’t like it.


The question at the heart of this is why put yourself through it knowing that this is the case?  That all writers are doomed to experience heaps and heaps of rejection with only a few tasty morsels of accolades to sustain them from project to project.  Why would anyone choose to live that way?

I think it was best explained by Ethel Merman and company in Gypsy:

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props
The audience that lifts you when you’re down
The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops
The sheriff who escorts you out of town
The opening when your heart beats like a drum
The closing when the customers won’t come
There’s no business like show business
Like no business I know
Everything about it is appealing

Okay, so not everything about the writing life is appealing, but yeah,

The paper, the cursor, the comments, the books
The readers who get what you are saying
The rejections, the queries, the exasperated looks
It’s work when others think that you’re just playing
The blog post when you know you’ve said it best
The last manuscript passed on like all the rest
There’s no life like the writing life
Like no life that I know

Er, sorry, Mr. Berlin.

But truly, you write because you can’t not write.  And you work towards publication because you crave that connection with the reader, even if that connection comes in a package which by default includes rejection.

And no, there is nothing enjoyable about rejection.  Though I can’t find the story online, there is a famous one circulating out there about my old advisor at college who wallpapered his room with rejection letters from literary magazines, spit-in-the-eye to all those people who didn’t take his stories.  He ended up taking them down because they made him feel like crap, but the real spit-in-the-eye wasn’t laughing at rejection but not letting it stop him.  If he had stopped writing, if he had take all those rejections to mean that he wasn’t an amazing writer, he wouldn’t have had this long career as a novelist.

The reality is that rejection happens for many reasons beyond the quality of the project itself.  All editors and agents are looking at your work against all the other work they have in hand (or can predict having in the future) and they weigh it out, trying to make strong financial choices for themselves since publishing is about money and writing is about art.  Writing and publishing actually have very little in common.  What makes a good publication doesn’t necessary make for good writing, and good writing is often passed over because it can’t be marketed well.

When I was a literary magazine editor, I wanted to say no to every story that crossed my path because no’s were easier than yes’s.  A “yes” meant work on my end: I had to contact the writer and send a contract and pay them and edit their work and… “no” was just a form letter in an SASE.  Of course I also had stories I accepted for each issue, but I had to balance out subject matter and length and all sorts of things beyond a great story.  There were so many wonderful stories that I passed on, and when I had the time, I wrote each of those authors directly to let them know exactly what I loved and how sad I was that I couldn’t use it.  I knew it was still rejection, but hopefully it helped the sting.

So, first and foremost, reframe how you look at rejection of your work.  You have rejected dozens of things today.  You turned down all other outfits in your wardrobe to wear the one you have on.  You turned down all other breakfast options to consume the one in your stomach.  Think back in life to all the friendships you didn’t take and all the people you didn’t continue dating.  How many of those rejections were about the worth of the road not taken, and how many of them were choices you made without any meaning attached to the rejections?  I ate yogurt for breakfast, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like eggs or vegetarian bacon or cereal.  And I hope those breakfast foods aren’t silently crying because I didn’t pick them.  It has nothing to do with them or their worth and everything to do with what I was in the mood for in the moment.

And the same is true for your rejections.  They may have nothing to do with the worth of your work and everything to do with the mood or the needs of the beholder.

Knowing that, the exercise I presented this week to get past a bad comment is the very same one I use after I lick my wounds whenever I’m rejected.  Feel free to engage in this little greyish schadenfreude to get over any hurt feelings you’re experiencing, and then get back to writing.  Write a post, send another query letter, or take a deep breath and continue writing your book.

Because there is no life like the writing life.

Homework: None this week!  Keep writing.


1 Sharron { 07.22.12 at 7:48 am }

Love the advice on rejection, I have not even been brave enough to submit any of my short stories, such is my fear of rejection. It takes everything to read anything out loud in my creative writing class. Leaving this comment to say thanks for the advice and also as part of ICLW, which I think I am doing right 🙂

2 Kathy { 07.22.12 at 8:51 am }

Great post Mel! I like all the analogies you used to make your point the choices we make throughout our lives, even just today, where we rejected things and people but not necessarily because we didn’t like or care for them, but because they weren’t right/a good fit for us at the time.

3 Mali { 07.22.12 at 7:32 pm }

Yes. This. This is what has held me back. Fear. And yet, I think I’m coming to the stage that my fear of not trying is greater than my fear of rejection. And as you pointed out, blogging has been great practice for putting things out there, and preparing for (or receiving) rejection. So thanks for this!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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