Listen to this story
I recently experienced my first viral tweet. It was my contribution to the #ShareYourRejections hashtag on Twitter, where writers and other artists were sharing their stories of hearing “no” professionally.
Many of the most popular stories on the #ShareYourRejections thread were from noted artists sharing their eventual stories of success:
But, honestly, as much as these women are wonderful and talented and inspirational, I didn’t feel like they were telling the full story—or the real story of how rejection functions in the lives of professional artists.
So I shared my favorite example of rejection from my own writing career, from about 10 years ago when I was just starting out:
The reaction to the story was mostly one of collective mortification and outrage — a lot of OMFGs and a lot of SWEET BABY JESUSes and a lot of GIF responses.
How could I have possibly survived to submit stories another day? More importantly, where was the happy ending where I got my big break and rejection was finally behind me?
My answer: Rejection isn’t something that happens to you on the road to becoming a professional writer. Rejection is an integral part of being a professional writer.
I’ve been a writer for my whole life, and the thing that I’m most proud of is that I’ve lived off my writing for the past 10 years. I’ve had a series of breaks and successes, big and small (my first viral article, my first acceptance in The New Yorker, sending in the down payment for my house—all from money earned by writing), but I’ve also had innumerable failures and rejections. Just one example: The follow-up article to my most recent viral piece went through three rounds of painful rewrites with the editor and was never published, to my heartbreak.
Those failures and rejections weren’t prefaces to my successes. Both the failures and successes are just different moving parts of being a working artist.
One of the most encouraging things I’ve ever read about rejection was from my personal writing hero Jack Handey. He told interviewer Mike Sacks that his acceptance rate at The New Yorker was 50 percent. In other words, the person who is probably the greatest humor writer of our time gets rejected half the time. He’s written books. He’s written for SNL. He’s a household name. And every time he opens emails from his editors, it’s a flip of a coin between yes and no.
Rejection doesn’t mean you suck. It also doesn’t mean you should stop.
That’s not depressing. It’s uplifting. Rejection isn’t horrible—not because one day it will stop but because it’s just part of an artist’s day. It’s an unpleasant aspect of our careers, not something that stops when our careers take off.
Rejection doesn’t mean you suck. It also doesn’t mean you should stop. Sure, it might mean your genius has been overlooked, but more likely it means you shouldn’t work with this editor or the timing isn’t right or a different publication would be a better fit. A lot of the time, it means your piece needs work, and you need to keep writing and editing.
People love to tell the story of how Tori Amos’ first album, Y Kant Tori Read, was a horrible failure just two years before she dusted herself off and rebounded to release the double-platinum classic Little Earthquakes. But I prefer the story of how she was dropped from her major label 18 years later and dusted herself off again and kept creating.
People love to tell the story of J.K. Rowling getting rejected repeatedly when trying to sell Harry Potter. But, honestly, the story that inspires me more is that she faced just as much rejection when she tried to cross over into the adult mystery genre.
It’s easy to see rejection as this super shitty monster—something to be angry about or to blame others for. And while I was extremely disappointed regarding my rejection above, in the broad world of rejections, it’s just funny. It’s a good rejection, entertainment-wise. It’s like a microcosm of a writer’s relationships with rejection: the terrible lows, the dizzying highs, and then the terrible lows again right when you thought you’d finally notched a win. Since the experience of rejection isn’t going anywhere, no matter how big we go, all we can do is laugh, listen to feedback, and keep writing.