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How do you respond to rejection? Do you think your response is productive or destructive?
A few years ago, while I earned my undergraduate degree in professional writing, I worked as a teaching assistant for a professor who taught poetry at my university. Along with teaching classes, grading papers, and conferencing with students, my professor instructed me to submit his poetic works to literary magazines as part of my job.
I wrote the query letters, formatted the submissions, and sent them off. I also received the rejection letters. For three years, my inbox was full of poetry editors saying, “No, this isn’t for me.”
That’s a pretty kind rejection response overall. But when a continuous avalanche of polite rejections suffocates you, the politeness doesn’t seem to matter anymore. It also didn’t matter that the work being rejected wasn’t actually mine. My job was to help my professor’s poems get published, and I failed with every rejection waiting in my inbox.
But it wasn’t all just rejections. The occasional acceptance came through, to my delight. Bolstered by these few successes, I started sending out my own poetry. Before I knew it, I was sending out queries five times a day, and suddenly, the rejections got more personal.
Every “No, this isn’t for me,” might as well have been, “You’re not good enough.” Never mind that my poems simply didn’t fit the publication’s theme or preferred style. I wasn’t good enough. Soon I stopped sending out my poems. I hoarded them and contented myself with writing them. The risk of rejection had grown greater in my eyes than the benefits of publication.
I wasn’t dealing with the rejection; it was swallowing me whole.
As a writer, a lot of my experiences with rejection have been non-experiences. Fear paralyzes us. We become so afraid of the word “no” that we go out of our way to avoid hearing it — and not just “no, we don’t want to publish that,” but also “no, this isn’t worth my time,” and “no, this isn’t good enough.”
My way of avoiding fear was by not trying to publish. Not trying meant no rejection, which meant no pain.
Somewhere along the line, “rejection” became synonymous with “criticism,” which became synonymous with “insult.” Rejection being, “I have no use for this,” and criticism being, “This doesn’t fit the criteria,” and insult being, “Go back to your reeking pit of inadequacy, you filthy troglodyte.”
But the truth is, we can receive criticism without receiving rejection. We can be rejected and insulted without receiving any criticism. Ideally, rejection comes paired with criticism — helpful points of improvement — that gives us the window for growth. Insult has no window, and often we perceive every rejection to be an insult.
We don’t have control over which of these three we get, or in which combination, so we have to prepare to respond productively to all of them.
We have three responses in our tool belt: defense, despair, and acceptance. Defense is the easiest. It’s the knee-jerk, reactionary response we all feel when we’re sure the rejection is wrong, while despair is feeling absolutely certain that we should never try again. Acceptance is absorbing the rejection, mulling it over, stripping away the beneficial parts, and discarding the useless ones. Easier said than done.
I cycle through all three of these responses as a writer, and my tendency is always toward the destructive responses of defense and despair. Only when I prepare do I feel able to accept. And the preparation? It’s hard.
Jia Jiang was made famous when he embarked on a 100-day therapeutic endeavor now known as “100 Days of Rejection.” In his list of rejections, there were some realistically scary ones like “ask a girl out to dinner” and “write an article for Businessweek.” There were also these gems: “Challenge a CEO to a staring contest,” “buy a quarter of a shrimp,” and “slide down the pole at a fire station.”
The point is to get rejected so much and so often that the words no longer hurt. Until your response is no longer destructive but productive.
The best preparation—and I know this seems painfully counterintuitive— is to get rejected as much as possible. Until it doesn’t hurt so much and the pain is minimal. Until accepting it and moving on is second nature.
So how do I deal with rejection? By seeking it out. By sending out five poetry submissions every day and waiting for the “No, this isn’t for me,” email to arrive in my inbox. By soldiering on in the hopes that one day, someone will say, “Yes. This is for me.”