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Rejection: Give Up or Show Up?

by Kelli Russell Agodon

It’s never fun being rejected. Unlike the acceptance that can make you scream the Sally Field Oscar speech, You like me, you really like me!, being rejected can reduce us to feelings we thought we left behind in junior high when we sat alone at the long lunchroom table. This is how it feels sometimes: All of the cool kids are wearing paisley minis and I’m in a denim prairie skirt with my rejection slip showing.

But we’re never really alone when we are rejected; it’s the other side of being a writer, the side that isn’t shared as much as our successes. So I decided to look into rejections a little more deeply to remind myself that it happens to everyone. With the help of the book Rotten Rejections: The Letters that Publishers Wish They Never Sent (Robson Books Ltd., 2002), I found a few noteworthy rejections some of the best writers have received:

“... overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian…the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy.  It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream…I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”      

A rejection of the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – now imagine receiving that in your mailbox. 

“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”

A rejection received by Sylvia Plath from an editor.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.”

A rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank, which received sixteen more rejections before being accepted by Doubleday in 1952.

When I read such negative responses, I always think: What if the writer had just given up? To continue on when the world isn’t singing one’s praises reminds me that much of success is being persistent, being the one who keeps showing up. I have shown up a lot in recent months and have eight rejections acknowledging my efforts. I find that if I feel down about others’ successes, I turn to the indispensable advice my mother gave me as a child, “Don’t compare yourself with anyone else…unless it’s to make yourself feel better.” (Ah Mum, she always knew what to say!)

There have been times, after receiving rejections, when I’ve thrown myself a pity party that included trashy magazines, bad television, a down comforter, and chocolate. Now, I e-mail a few good friends who I know will always be on my side. They send me encouraging notes that say things like “Their loss!” and “You’re too good for them.” Oh, my lovely lying friends. It’s amazing what a dose of friendship can do. Plus, it’s fewer calories than a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. 

While I prefer to receive Yes, we really like you! rather than Sorry to say no responses, I keep trying. Not because I like self-punishment, but because I’ve realized that the writing life is a marathon and not a sprint. I am quick to remind myself that just because I slowed down in mile two doesn’t mean the race is over.

We are all in this together. Writers can support each other by recognizing the difficulties and celebrating the successes. And maybe offering each other a glass of water every so often as we jog by, or, if we’re really down, a swig of friendship or a Hershey’s Kiss.

Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of two books of poems, Small Knots and the chapbook Geography. Her work has been rejected by The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Paris Review, and has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Prairie Schooner, Notre Dame Review, North American Review, and Crab Orchard Review. Her work also has been featured on NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor and in Keillor’s second anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, where she received her MFA. She is currently co-editor of Seattle’s literary journal Crab Creek Review.


[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Soundings, the quarterly newsletter of the Ranier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.]