Like so many others, I’ve been a writer since I can remember. In recent years, long beyond my adolescence, I’ve found that I write creative nonfiction better than I write anything else. It has been a blow to my long-held dream of writing the next ‘Great American [fiction] Novel’, and the fact certainly stings my little poet’s heart, but it’s the truth. I am a better nonfiction writer than I am poet or fiction author – although you won’t see this keeping me from either genre. I’m still submitting all and any of my work that I think is good enough. It’s something of a goal of mine this year as well, to submit enough to get 100 rejections. It’s a lofty goal, and it’s a daunting one. Already, I’ve had plenty of rejections, and each time I feel inoculated to the sinking feeling of reading ‘unfortunately…’ I learn that there are new depths to facing and feeling rejection.
Being a nonfiction writer has its own specific traps when it comes to rejection. It is a craft that is inherently imbued with the self. The dismissal of the story that tells the truth of your life is more acutely felt than the rejection of characters and events spawned purely from your imagination. That’s not to say that there aren’t many blurred borders between these genres and others. It is too ambitious for a single blog post to detail the many ways in which fiction and nonfiction overlap, whether consciously or subconsciously. So, when I talk about rejection here, I’m actually going to talk about all rejection, but I want to highlight that when your work is your life, when your art is a cathartic release of trauma or love or all the many ways your heart can break, then rejection is a different beast.
Rejection is such a concrete word. There is so little room to stretch and find the spiritual place inside of it. The act of rejection can be a display of power, and we know that being rejected, feeling rejection, is one of the most devastating human experiences. People have murdered because of it and many of us go to great lengths to avoid the possibility of experiencing it. Because rejection is personal. No matter how much we lather on the sugary excuses of ‘business’ or ‘taste’ or ‘subjectivity’, each rejection is a blow to our ego. It’s a blow to the perceptions of ourselves and the pain of that, of not being seen as who you truly believe you are, or worse, being seen as you truly are and being deemed unworthy or unwanted is the root of the suffering of rejection.
To create art is to release a piece of ourselves, to make the internal external. Then to give this to another, for them to judge or deem worthy of publication, or payment, or accolades, or simply audience, is an act of pure bravery. I think too, for the most part, many modern editors and publications consider this bravery and the pain of rejection when they consider our work. I know that Epoch Press does. I know that particularly well because I write about 90% of the rejection letters that we send out each issue. It is a trying job, but oddly, not one that I hate. It was writing these letters that inspired me to submit my work in earnest this year. I knew from my experience that the pieces we chose for each issue were, by and far, not the only great pieces we received. I saw too, for the first time, how wildly diverse the opinions of editors could be on what was ‘good’ and, particularly, how often I would love a piece and see it fail to make it to our final list. We have a pretty good system here, and I take pride that so much variation is considered, even as the loss of some pieces feels a little heart breaking.
That’s the truth of it, you see. As a writer, you may never witness what this process is really like, but so much of what we see, we love. A huge variety of considerations and a spectrum of opinions are all at play when we make our decisions. This isn’t some great defence for the institution of journals and magazines. In fact, there are many flaws inherent to the industry. So, while we do what we can to mitigate bias, gatekeeping, and accessibility, every writer should know that this is just one space your work could find a home; our opinions are hardly universal.
Ultimately, the task of submitting over 100 pieces means many things to me. It means that I am going to face a hell of a lot of rejection; it means that I need to create A LOT more than I’ve ever attempted; and finally, it means that I am going to have to become a better artist. And that, that growth, is my real aim. Being published is amazing. It’s a beautiful ego boost, and a sweet validation that is comparable to your parents telling you that they are proud of you (something that so many of us are seeking). But, being published, and the feeling that accompanies it, only grips you for so long. You know that you must keep going. You must submit again and again, and write and write (or shoot or paint or sculpt or etc). You learn that the publishing is nice, it’s lovely, but it’s not actually the point.
You learn too, that you can see the point more clearly in the rejections. Because the point is to create, to pull, like taffy, the sinew and tendon and meat from your experience and refine it all into thin and consumable fragments. Rejections tell you what can’t be consumed, what is unappetising, or outright rotting. Even if they’re wrong, the rejections have a message and a task for you. And in that space, that aching, ego crushing space, you can find the room to stretch and grow. There are countless philosophies and spiritual guidelines that encourage people to minimise their ego, or move beyond their ego, and I cannot speak to the validity of this in anything beyond writing and artistry. The ego has never served me anything but pain, and while I am predisposed to feel an intense dysphoria when I, or my work, is rejected, I believe that I can inoculate myself to this suffering. And I believe we all can.
This is tremendously easy to type and outrageously difficult to implement. Some days, I get emails that tell me my work isn’t accepted and it’s fine. I shrug and I make a note of it and move on. Other days a rejection comes for a piece I love, maybe a piece I feel is done, and I’m paralysed by feelings of inadequacy. There is no method or how-to listicle I can impart to you. There is nothing I can do, really, that will assuage your own stings of rejection. All I can do, on this platform, at this moment, is reassure you that you actually aren’t your art, you aren’t your rejections, and you aren’t your awards. It’s a craft, and we all have to work to be better. You can lay on the couch the whole week, soak up the sick feelings and the imposter syndrome, and you can get up and keep writing too. You can face the truth: your writing needs work. But you can also see the whole truth: all art needs work.