On Rejection

How writers can benefit from seeking out rejection

My New Year’s resolution worked so well last year that I am making it again.

I didn’t resolve to clean around the outside of the toilet or floss my teeth daily.

I didn’t resolve to improve myself in any way.

In fact, my resolution makes no sense at all: I resolved to get more rejections.

I need to write that again in case you’re reading quickly. I resolved last year to get more rejections and I’m resolving to do the same this year as well.

Why would anyone want to get rejected? I hate to be rejected. It hurts when someone says no to something, for whatever reason. In Psych 101 we learned about two kinds of personalities: the people who believe bad things are just situational, temporary glitches in an otherwise sound world; and the people who take bad things as dispositional and attribute their failures to a lack on their own part—to their own unworthiness or incompetence. The personality test assigned me to the latter category, an even better reason to eschew failure no matter what.

But if you are scared of failure and rejection, guess what? You can’t succeed. No one can reject you if you don’t apply, but they can’t accept you either.

I remember hearing about the manager of a wildly successful computer company who came storming into the office one day saying, “this is just not acceptable!” His employees were utterly perplexed. All of their ideas had been working well, the company was at maximum profits, and here was their boss angry with them.

“You are not failing enough!” he insisted. “If you don’t fail, you’re not pushing the envelope. I want real innovation here. And real innovation means failed attempts. Now start making some mistakes!”

That’s what I set out to do last January—start making mistakes. I realized I was too complacent in my writing life and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I also realized that the only way to learn that rejection is not about me or who I am was to get more of it. The more I got rejected, I figured, the more I would be comfortable getting rejected. Instead of wallowing in self pity, wondering why an editor vetoed my idea, I could send it out again and get more rejections, thus fulfilling my New Year’s resolution and learning to be a situational instead of a dispositional thinker.

And it worked! I got scores of rejections.

But I also got something else: acceptances.

I broke into two writing markets I’ve been wanting to crack: “The New York Times” (a lifelong dream realized that I never would have pursued without my New Year’s resolution) and the “Christian Science Monitor,” a newspaper I’ve been admiring for years for their in-depth coverage of Africa. I also applied for an overseas fellowship, contacted editors at travel magazines, and wrote articles for the likes of Parenting and Budget Living. Since I needed to get rejections I couldn’t stay comfortable where I was, I had to look for new opportunities. And the dozens of rejections I got—I can wallpaper our entire house with them—started to sting less.

It’s not easy to keep a constant flow of rejections coming in and for awhile there was a lull. The inevitable let down happened and I walked into my husband’s office (he also works from home) with a long face.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“So and so rejected another idea,” I sighed. “I thought this one would work. I can’t do this. I feel so bad.”

My husband gave me a hug. “There’s another way to look at it,” he said.

“There is?”

“You’re fulfilling your New Year’s resolution by getting rejected again! Good job!”

We both laughed and I went back to work. In my in-box was a message from an editor wanting to assign me an article she needed written. This same editor had rejected ten of my other ideas (but in an encouraging way, inviting me to send more).

I did a little happy dance.

That’s the thing about looking for rejection—along the way you may find what we all really want: acceptance.

NB: This post was originally a column in the Ashland Daily Tidings. I also wrote about rejection when I was the Creative Nonfiction Editor at Literary Mama.

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Categories: on writing.


  1. I love this. I just got a rejection in the mail from the Atlantic. Blah. I knew it was coming, but still. But now I’ve made a list of other places I need to send my essay…and this post was the perfect reminder that I just have to keep going, keep sending stuff out.

  2. I really like this approach. It goes well with a favorite saying that the only failure is in not trying. Fear of failure paralyzes me. I think I’ll try this reverse approach and that will lead me to try more. And, thus succeed more. Right?

  3. You’ve inspired me — you and a second read of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I’m stealing your resolution. May both our in boxes be filled with rejection this year.

  4. This is so inspiring, I actually heard this story about you from another writer on the FLX boards! I need to do this, too, because subliminally I catch myself giving up on markets because of a rejection. I realized the other day that every single writer we know gets more rejections than acceptances — that’s just the way it works. Thanks for this!

  5. I really like that attitude. I’m the type of person who always has to have something to check off at the end of the day. But I don’t always get an assignment every day!

    I think I’ll try your strategy.

  6. Well said, Jennifer! I’m on a querying blitz to start out 2011, so I’m sure I’ll get my share of rejections soon. Hopefully it’ll bring me closer to a yes, though. Happy New Year and best of luck for a productive 2011!

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