Holding Out for Acceptance: Submission, Rejection, Submission, Repetition

Quite a few years ago, when I first read Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing, I thought about how cool it would be to have as many rejection slips as King, the ones he talks about collecting in a desk drawer. Submit a story, get a refusal, into the drawer it goes, out with another submission. Just like clockwork.

Eventually, the story is published and you can look back at all the publications foolish enough to pass on it, and then you smile. Or, I suppose, you could dance, call the rejecters to gloat, or even get drunk and fashion the slips into some kind of papier-mâché effigy or light them all into a glorious ceremonial pyre. Don’t rule anything out is what I’m saying.

The point is, the scraps of paper King is referring to aren’t mere battle scars. They’re ribbons of valor. They’re proof he is a Writer. He scribbles, submits, edits, toils, weeps, hyperventilates, re-works, re-submits, all the things a good hard-working writer does. And yes, as part of that process, he gets rejected a lot.

There’s a catch, though, for mere mortals like us. The romantic notion of rejection being a badge of writerly honor only endures for a while, at least when you’re not Stephen King. We all know his story: He worked hard, got published, hit the big time, became more famous than God, and was at last able to look back with fond eyes on all those early rejections.

For the struggling writer, however, there’s no happy ending—not yet, anyway—so it’s difficult to look back and grin. I know this because I kept my own drawer full of no-thank-you slips for around ten years. Of course, this was back in the days of snail mail submissions, when Model T Fords roamed the highways and people still adhered to the old directive forbidding simultaneous submissions.

At first, the plan seemed to be working, and it felt good. Every time I got turned down, I told myself, acceptance was that much closer. The law of averages was on my side, and all I needed to do was keep the submissions going.

Somewhere along the line, though, I remembered something: Being turned down hurts. It may get easier over time, but even when it does, a random “Thanks, but we’ve decided your work isn’t right for us” can still throw you into a funk for days. It happens, trust me. If not, you’re a robot and belong in a Philip K. Dick novel.

And when you gaze into that drawer of rejections—which, these days, is more likely to be an e-mail folder or a submission tracker—inspiration is just one of the many emotions you might feel. You can guess what the others are.

But that’s okay. Rejection needs to be painful, and every once in a while, it’ll catch up with you. If it doesn’t, maybe the things you’re sending out into the world aren’t especially dear to you. That would be a shame.

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