Susanna Mishler: In Praise of Rejection

It happens often: an envelope arrives in my mailbox addressed to me in my own handwriting. It’s a classic existential moment, like a past self (or group of selves) sent my present self a letter. The message? We don’t want what you’ve got. But thanks for thinking of us and good luck.

Then in December last year I received an envelope that was different. It was an SASE in my handwriting, a cancelled stamp, postmark Southern CT. All seemed normal until I opened it. The envelope was empty. I shook it upside down and ran a finger around the inside edges. Nothing. Not even a tiny slip of paper with the word “NO” on it.

I am here to tell you that there is something worse than getting a lot of rejection letters, and that is getting a completely empty envelope addressed to yourself in your own handwriting. I had no idea that I valued that little form letter until it wasn’t there. When I submit work to a magazine or send a book manuscript out for consideration, each submission represents hours of work – not just in composing and editing the poems but in researching journals and contests, reading what the journal or publisher has published, selecting pieces that I think may appeal to the publisher, writing cover letters, and paying entry fees and postage. The one thing I can rely on getting back from this effort is a rejection slip. If you’d asked me before December last year what a rejection slip means to me I’d have told you it means nothing. Then some intern in Connecticut forgot my rejection slip and I was pissed.

The party line for rejection letters in the writing world is that they don’t mean a thing. Maybe the editors all had five-alarm wings for lunch and read your poems with severe heartburn. Maybe your poem was about trains and they already had three poems about trains for an issue that’s not supposed to be thematic. Never give up, keep submitting – that’s the party line. They can’t be used as a benchmark for the quality of your work.

But submissions and rejection slips do matter. They matter in a number of ways that have little to do with an editor’s opinion of what you sent:

1) Rejection slips are evidence, from yourself and to yourself that you are doing the work of writing. They are evidence that you are seeing pieces through to a publishable state and that you have the guts to send them out into the world. I keep a box of rejection letters in my closet. Sometimes I actually root through them to find what an editor wrote by hand on one or, just now, to find that empty envelope and see where it came from. And when I feel on occasion like I’m not writing much or writing well then I can look in that box and see that I must at one time have written something that felt worthwhile.

2) Getting a submission together can be part of an editing process. To hold a printed poem in my hands and know that a complete stranger will soon read it makes me see the poem differently. I get more distance from the poem and can more effectively edit it if I know I’m sending it out. I almost always tweak and polish pieces before I lick the envelope.

3) The ubiquity of rejections means there’s a lot of good poetry and stories being written. This is a good thing for us collectively, though it may not always feel good individually. But a competitive publishing market pushes individual writers to better our work. I don’t mean this as code for “selling your writerly soul and writing what’s in fashion.” I mean that rejection forces reconsideration and re-reconsideration of the work to take its best and most effective form.

4) If it were easy to get published, there would be no victory in it.

5) If rejection letters are what we can expect as a response to our writing 98% of the time, then the writers who stick around are the ones who are writing for the sake of the writing process. Rejection letters are one of the many things that help distinguish those who are interested in the process of writing from those who want to be writers. If there is no glory or glamour to be expected, those who want to be writers will quickly find something more romantic to be.

The publishing world today is far from perfect. Plenty of poorly written pieces get press and publication while excellent work sits in the slush pile. But this is the system we are dealt as contemporary writers and if it can be made into a tool to improve our work and our outlook (even if it doesn’t get us an audience), so much the better.

Susanna Mishler’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hotel Amerika, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, RATTLE, and elsewhere. To read some of her work online, visit the current issue of Cirque, see Michigan Quarterly Review’s archives, RATTLE’s archives, or poet Jeff Oliver’s website. She lives in Anchorage and earns her bread as an electrician.

4 thoughts on “Susanna Mishler: In Praise of Rejection”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Interesting, Susanna. In Romance Writers of America, there is a special category of membership called PRO for writers who are actively working toward publication. And a rejection letter is your tangible proof that you are eligible.

  2. Thanks Susanna, your post has made me feel hopeful again about all those rejections. I guess it makes the acceptances all the sweeter.

  3. Your post reminded me of a Dr. Suess story – "The Pale Green Pants with Nobody in Them."
    Something about those peopleless pants was infinitely more frightening than any other creature that might have inhabited them in that story…

    I love your post about this – I found it existentially poetic; found myself musing about how I might feel about an envelope with a tiny NO falling out – just that and nothing else.
    I found I quite loved the notion of it; maybe a couple of magnetic poetry letters N O, or better, n o
    I'm not sure why but this made me laugh and feel happy.

    See what your empty envelope hath wrought?
    I dig your posts!

    Therese H

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