The Art of Rejection
Rejection is a sign that you’re pushing boundaries, opening doors.
To be an author is to be rejected. Sometimes a publisher rejects your work. Sometimes a friend or family member responds unfavorably. Sometimes you reject yourself. Rejection for a writer is akin to water for a fish, except rejection doesn’t include the life-giving nutrients and oxygen that water provides for a fish.
Or does it?
Years and years ago, before I truly knew anything about the writing life, I took a karate class. I was no Bruce Lee. My body has never been limber, and my balance has always been wobbly, which was why I decided to take the class.
On the first day, the instructor introduced the concept of Osu, a Japanese contraction of the words Oshi (meaning push) and Shinobu (meaning to endure) that is a key concept of karate meaning patience, determination, and perseverance. My instructor told me that students aren’t expected to say things like “Yes, sir,” when given a command, but to instead say, “Osu” — I will endeavor.
It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. By saying Osu, you’re saying that you will forbear during the stresses of training, that you will persist and keep trying. The emphasis is on striving, not just achieving it.
It isn’t easy when facing rejection. Rejection can feel like not just one person rejecting you, but an entire conspiracy of all the universe’s forces. Fear of rejection is in our cells — we don’t want to be expelled from our tribe.
Rejection is generally not personal, though. It can be random, accidental, or entirely ill-considered. I’ve read story submissions for several magazines over the years, and if you read 300 stories with the goal of selecting 10 for publication, do you know how many stories almost make the cut? There are so many ties, so many almosts.
And then, yes, the criteria is inherently subjective. There isn’t an objective rubric to judge the merit of a story. In the end, it’s always about the editors’ tastes and publication goals. Which is why so many wonderful books have faced a slew of rejections.
Madeleine L’Engle received 26 rejections before getting A Wrinkle in Time published. Stephen King received dozens of rejections for Carrie before it was accepted. Beatrix Potter had so much trouble publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she initially had to self-publish it. “Nobody will want to read a book about a seagull,” an editor wrote to Richard Bach about Jonathan Livingston Seagull. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was described in a rejection letter as “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
When faced with rejection, our instinct is to recoil with self-loathing, but one thing I’m sure these authors knew is that the most painful thing is often the best thing for your work. Despite the stings of rejection, you have to find a way to make rejection your friend. A rejection can lacerate the soul like few other things, but you have to find a way for your hope to live and grow within that incision.
Rejection teaches independence, strength, and grace.
Rejection is an opportunity to look at your work and analyze it from the point of view of an editor or agent — or your best friend who perhaps reacted in a not quite complimentary manner. Rejection teaches a writer that valuable skill that every writer needs to know: to listen, to consider, but to also know when to say to hell with you. A rejection is an invitation — a peculiar invitation, a cold invitation, but, still, an invitation — to improve your story, to keep going. Rejection teaches independence, strength, and grace.
I know, I know — despite whatever heartening words I write here, rejection never feels good. We’re social animals, genetically wired to seek approbation, if not celebration, so rejection on any level can feel like we’re not good enough to be with the others. The ignominy of rejection is such that I sometimes prefer physical pain. Rejection can knock the wind out of you, and if you’re not careful, it can be a force of asphyxiation.
I’ve been asked by many a writer when they should stop — either writing entirely, or on a piece that has amassed rejections. There isn’t an answer. A rejection creates a fork in the road, defines which way you’re going to go and how. Your determination shouldn’t lead to an unreasonable stubbornness that prevents you from pursuing more fruitful creative projects. On the other hand, if you feel the passion, the interest, the obsession to keep going, then keep going.
I’ve received so many rejections that my skin is as thick and calloused as an alligator’s, yet I still often plummet into a sinkhole when I receive a rejection. That’s where osu comes in. When you receive rejection, focus on pushing, enduring.
“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try,” said Sylvia Plath.
Practice not taking the rejection personally. Practice not getting angry, not blaming the stupid system that is rigged against you. Practice not complaining to the universe that your friend is a dumb reader with an ungenerous spirit. Practice the graceful approach of acceptance — because beating yourself up is counterproductive to your creativity. Practice thinking of rejection as an opportunity — to improve your story, to fortify your endurance, to make a statement by not giving up.
Sometimes an editor might like your work but just doesn’t think it will sell. Sometimes your writing group friend is just in a bad mood, or doesn’t know how to give constructive help.
“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try,” said Sylvia Plath.
Rejection is a sign that you’re living to the fullest, that you’re pushing boundaries, opening doors. Because do you know the best way to not be rejected? Don’t put yourself out there. Many a writer is cosseted by a world in which rejection hasn’t been risked. It’s a comfy strategy, but it’s guaranteed to limit one’s growth. Put yourself out there, and you’ll find the special nourishment that only rejection can provide.
Try This: Say Osu
Write the word Osu on a piece of paper and hang it above your desk. When you start writing each day, take a moment to say Osu to yourself and think about what it will mean to your writing. The next time you feel rejected, say Osu to yourself, and reflect on how you can have patience, determination, and perseverance. Revere the art of pushing and enduring and make it part of your attitude.
Grant Faulkner is executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He’s the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.