Why Would Writers Compete for the Most Rejections?

“I’m up to 60 rejections for my writing so far this year,” I said.

“Oh my God! I couldn’t take it. All that rejection.”

“I know. It’s crazy.”

But true. As my friend Cheryl and I sat on her back deck watching Annie nose around the garden and steer clear of the cat giving her stink eye from a chair by the door, I tried to spin my usual story about how I’m selling a project. Like any product, a lot of people will choose not to buy it, but eventually someone will come along who wants exactly that item. Look how many people pass by the handmade earrings at the Farmer’s Market. The earrings are beautiful, but they’re expensive and they aren’t looking for earrings. They want fresh strawberries. Think of my essays and poems as earrings.

But Cheryl was stuck on 60 rejections in six months.

She didn’t ask how many acceptances I’d had. Three.

That was in July. I haven’t told her that I finished 2021 with 98 rejections and a few more acceptances.

I belong to a group of writers who try every year for at least 100 rejections. In poetry, that means for a group of poems, not for each individual poem. In order to get that many, you need to submit a lot, and that’s the point. If you don’t put your work out there, it will never get published.

Cheryl, who lives in the woods down the road from me, is not a writer. She’s a reader and a fan of my books. My dog loves her because she keeps a big jar of treats in the garage.

When you look at it from her point of view, it does sound awful. Nobody tells the plumber after he’s fixed the sink: “Well, I’ll see if I like it and then maybe I’ll pay you.” No. You hire the plumber. They do the job. You pay them. Like the plumber, we’ve done the work. Time to publish and pay!

But that’s not how it goes.

My father, an electrician, had trouble understanding this too. For him, work was only real if you went to a job site, worked for eight hours, and got paid every Friday. After a few years, you were promoted to foreman and bossed other people around. Eventually you maybe even owned your own company. But this business of sending in writing and getting it rejected? That’s not a job. That’s not work. That’s a waste of time.

My parents were proud of the things I got published, but they didn’t understand the process.

I make every submission believing that this essay, poem, or book manuscript will be accepted, that it is a perfect fit. I study the market, follow the guidelines, and meet the deadline. More often than not, a few weeks or months later, I receive an email saying thanks but no thanks. They wanted strawberries, not earrings. Or they love earrings, but they have too many earrings right now. That does not mean my earrings aren’t lovely.

“How do you stand it?” Cheryl asked.

“Well, I have been doing it a long time.”

So long. Since high school. Since the days of typewriters, since rejection slips arrived by mail, along with your wrinkled, coffee-stained manuscript.

But there have been acceptances, triumphs even. Publishers have said yes to my books, articles, essays, short stories and poems. They have included my writing in their anthologies and nominated it for prizes. Readers thank me and tell me how much my words mean to them. That’s far better than eight hours on a construction site or under a sink.

When an editor says yes, I still shriek so loudly the neighbors probably wonder if I’m all right. In 2022, I have already had three rejections. Why bother? Because when they say yes, it’s better than sex.

Writers understand. Anyone can grow strawberries, but some of us are meant to make earrings.

Brevity blog editor Allison K. Williams recently published a good piece on rejections. Read it here.

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