January 22, 2019KR BlogBlogWriting


Literary rejection can appear at any time, like magic. I’ve been rejected early in the morning while shivering at the bus stop. I’ve woken in the middle of the night to see a “But please try us again!” notification lighting up my phone. I’ve received rejections on holidays, on my birthday, and while sitting in a hospital awaiting news about a loved one’s surgery. Once I even received a “We regret to inform you” email from a journal while I taught a workshop about literary rejection—I consider that one peak rejection.

Sometimes, writers complain about the timing of their rejections. They might be upset to be rejected on New Year’s Eve, or on a Sunday, or at midnight. But most literary editors are underpaid (if they’re lucky to be paid at all) and overworked. They’re always scrambling to keep up with an unending stream of submissions, and they might only find the time to read on weekends or at odd hours. As an editor, my personal rule is to refrain from sending rejections on major holidays, but otherwise, I consider it a courtesy to let writers know the fate of their work as soon as possible. After all, there’s never a good time to be rejected, and rejection is never welcome news.

Take the rejection I received recently when I was visiting New Orleans with some of my writing friends. (No really, take it.) We were sitting on a sunny balcony drinking cheap sparkling wine, laughing and gossiping and reveling in the warm weather, when the notification came through on my phone. In theory, this should have been an ideal time to receive a rejection: I was surrounded by supportive friends who understand how heartbreaking the writing life can be, and I already had a full glass of wine in my hand. But this particular rejection stung anyway, and more so than most. It was for an essay blended with research, something that was at once personal and (at least I hoped) universal, and I wrote it for a specific publication that I’ve long tried to break into.

I worked hard on that piece. I researched it, and shared it with my writing group, and revised, and studied the sole publication I planned to pitch it to. A two-line rejection email wiped away all that work and stirred up emotions that are familiar to most writers—doubt in my abilities, anger that a publication I respected had unceremoniously passed, worry that I’d never reach certain milestones in my career, frustration that I may have wasted my time (and the editor’s time), and shame that I ever thought the piece was good enough in the first place.

In the moment, however, I simply skimmed the rejection before putting my phone face-down on the table without saying a word about it to my friends. I was still absorbing the blow, and I wanted to deal with my disappointment and embarrassment alone.

The next day, another notification came in on my phone. I glanced at the preview and registered the name of a literary journal and the title of one of my short stories—the same story I recently referenced here on this blog, the story that has received many close-call rejections but seemed destined to remain unpublished forever. Part of me had already come to terms with that. So as soon as I glimpsed the notification, I put my phone away. I refused to let rejection intrude on my vacation yet again.

Hours later, I took another look—and I saw it wasn’t a rejection after all, but an acceptance. I almost couldn’t believe it. I had to pass my phone to my friends to have them read the email to confirm, to ensure that I hadn’t just hallucinated the good news.

In the last few years, this story was rejected twenty-three times (and an additional fifteen times before that, as a previous iteration that I ended up rewriting nearly from scratch). It’s the story that received personal notes and praise from editors at prestigious magazines while never closing the deal. It’s the story I suspected no one would be willing to publish, the story I revised again and again over time, and the story that would eventually make me feel delusional for still believing in it.

That story finally had a home. It finally found editors who thrilled to take it, who are not only willing but excited to put into print what others deemed “too much” or “too dark” or “too controversial” or too anything other than publishable.

This is a rejection story with a happy ending. This is a rejection story about how the steady stream of “not for us” and “we admire your writing, but—” and “best wishes placing your work elsewhere” can be diverted when the right editors come along and say yes. When you finally find the readers who connect to your work, who understand and appreciate it, who want to send you a contract and make it official. This is my rejection story about a piece of writing that had its day in the land of submission but will never, ever be rejected again.