We’ve all heard the stories of writer’s who have saved every rejection slip or have papered their bathroom walls with them. They are the impetus for many to hone their craft, to push themselves forward. For others they are dejection, a reason to drink, a debilitation. For most, I would guess, they are a little of both.
I am a fan of Castle. In “Head Case,” his daughter is rejected from early admission to Stanford. Their exchange goes like this:
Alexis Castle: How do you do it, dad?
Richard Castle: Do what?
Alexis Castle: Well, that letter that you have framed in your office.
Richard Castle: [reminiscently] My first manuscript rejection.
Alexis Castle: Yeah. How can you stand having it there?
Richard Castle: Because it drives me. And I got twenty more of those before Black Pawn ever agreed to publish “In a Hail of Bullets”. That letter… that letter reminds me of what I’ve overcome. Rejection isn’t failure.
Alexis Castle: It sure feels like failure.
Richard Castle: No, failure is giving up. Everybody gets rejected. It’s how you handle it that determines where you’ll end up.
Alexis Castle: My whole life has been about making sure I could get into any college I wanted. What’s it about now?
Richard Castle: Give it time. You’ll figure it out.
One of the reasons I like the show is for scenes like this. Castle, the character, is a writer–yes, he’s a playboy, an amateur detective, a child at times, but he is also a writer. He writes; he procrastinates; he feels pressured by deadlines; plus, he creates; he makes up stories. He can’t help himself. And in this scene, he puts a writer’s spin (okay a published writer’s spin) on rejection.
I want to feel this way when I get those, “Thank you for submission. Unfortunately,…” letters (or as is more and more common these days emails). I want to frame one of those letters and let it drive me. I want to tell the story some day of how I overcame the rejection slips.But, most of the time, I just feel like hitting the delete button or shredding the letter, and crawling under the covers for a while.
I tell myself that art is subjective and I just haven’t found the right reader yet, but the form letters most publishers send out are cold. There is nothing in them to encourage the writer, to validate her craft, or to offer constructive criticism. The writer is left wondering why. And in the solitude of the writer’s room, that wondering can spiral into a maelstrom of doubt.
Of course, it is easy to understand why presses, publishers, literary magazines use the form letter. The field of literary magazines is shrinking, but the pool of prospective writers continues to grow. The small staffs and volunteers are overrun with submissions. Yet, that understanding only holds firm when one is not holding a rejection letter in her hand (or screen).
Over the summer, I entered a number of contests for both poetry and prose. Last week, I received a form letter. Thanks, but no thanks. Then today I received a different kind of rejection. “Although you didn’t win, I enjoyed reading this piece. It was unsettling in a pleasurable way, and the writing was good.” Well, that’s positive, for a rejection. Then the editor went on to express his “one quibble” with the piece that he thought ” it’s kind of ‘cheating’ to introduce a stranger at the end to serve as an observer and to wrap things up.” This quibble did a couple of things for me. The first, knee-jerk, reaction is to think that the reader missed something. That character isn’t introduced just at the end. The second reaction is that at least this editor read the story. I once received a rejection letter that stated, “Honestly, I didn’t read beyond the first page.” How dejecting was that! I’ll take a form letter over such harsh honesty any day. But this editor did read my story. And as I thought about it more, I have decided to go back to the story and beef up that character’s part so that he does not feel like such a stranger when the end rolls around. I have an even clearer sense now of “what the story’s about.” I have hope that this insight will lead to revisions that truly strengthen the piece.
I won’t be re-papering my bathroom any time soon, but I’ll save this rejection email to remind myself that there are editors who care even if they do not choose my piece. The entire email is six sentences, but, like Castle says, it drives me.