On my phone, I see a letter from an editor while I listen to the kettle boil. I get them every day. I’m a struggling writer and, aside from coffee, the most rewarding way to begin my morning is with an acceptance from a magazine or a journal.
Scrolling Twitter, I see complaints about the monotony of submitting and querying. The boredom and tepid anxiety of awaiting a decision is customary, though some writers seem demoralized by rejection letters. Occasionally, I point out that they’re something we all face. What really matters is how we perceive them. And I rearticulate the tired chestnut that if you wish to survive as a writer, you must develop impenetrable skin and learn to enjoy rejection. Because rejection toughens you. Because rejection makes you work harder. Because rejection makes you take more time with your craft. Because rejection makes you a better artist. And, ultimately, because rejection makes acceptance sweeter.
I know we can’t all be Toni Morrison or Dostoevsky or (insert hero here), though I’m sure they faced rejection too. And I know an increasing number of writers ply their trade by crafting, revising, submitting, and publishing. I also know that sheer talent isn’t enough. Talent must be combined with tenacity, dexterity with determination, proficiency with persistence. Persistence keeps us from giving up when doors slam in our faces. Persistence dulls discomfort, vacuuming errant crumbs of self-doubt.
This morning’s rejection letter comes from a journal in the Pacific Northwest; the subject line references a story I submitted several months ago. I had forgotten all about it. And then, after an excruciating preamble, the editor spends three Dostoevskian paragraphs apologizing for making me wait (I wasn’t). They describe the infinite psychic anguish that composing this particular rejection letter caused them. Their letter is somehow longer than the work I submitted. I am half-inclined to tell them.
In a moment of pre-coffee clarity, I recognize that this editor is projecting their own writerly insecurities onto me. Perhaps they feel guilty. Maybe they’ve had their heart cauterized by rejection. I’ll admit—my first dozen stung. The early rejection letters made me reevaluate my ability. Eventually, I stopped referring to them as such; I began calling them “declines,” finding comfort in the idea that opinions are, by definition, subjective. For me, work that’s been declined by one publication has almost always been happily, even greedily accepted by another. It’s simply a matter of hustling to keep it out there or refusing to give up.
Thankfully, a handful of editors tell me in brief, tightly wound sentences that they have no place for what I’ve submitted. They don’t waste any breath—even if their letters come straight from a template. They never catalog the colossal quantities of work they receive daily from other writers. They never plead with me to understand how difficult it was for them to decide not to accept my work. In fact, a favorite editor of mine simply says this: “Thanks, but I won’t be keeping your work for this issue.” Brilliant. And it doesn’t hurt, not even a little bit. But having to live within the mountainous paragraphs and Proustian freighting sentences of a guilt-laden, remorseful rejection—like the one I got five and a half minutes ago—steamrolls my soul into a pancake. If you’re an editor and you do this, please stop. Pretend you’re Nancy Reagan in 1982 and just say no.
Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Entropy, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. Jason played the drums in numerous post-punk bands before overcoming a traumatic brain injury from an assault. Relearning to walk and speak, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. Jason lives in Seattle with his wife. He hopes to finish his first novel soon. Jason enjoys birdwatching, especially crows, the keepers of the earth.