How Rejections Tell You to Keep Puckering Up

Yeah, but couldn't you have bought me a drink first?

Trying to place an article about a man who drives nails into his scrotum is a challenge. You have to find a publication that is appropriately (or inappropriately) edgy, but as a writer with an interest in circulating ideas, not so obscure as to not have an audience. And also as a writer interested in circulating cash, you would want compensation, even for a piece that might need to have dark curtains pulled over its stage.

These concerns came to mind the other day when I received a rejection notice for my memoir-style article about a night in San Francisco long ago. I’d attended what I thought was going to be a tattooing display and discussion, but its main event was an S&M demo, where aside from the scrotal crucifixion mentioned above, the artist in question sewed up his testicles over his penis with dental floss, much like a woeful pig in a blanket. Live, naked, onstage, much to my appalled eyes.

The Taste of Rejection
Where I’m going with this is not into any discussion of better choices among an evening’s entertainment (my article does that), but rather the various flavors of writer’s rejections, and how those taste on a writer’s tongue. The image for this post is a shot of my rejection folder, in all its glory. It is two inches high, and weighs almost two pounds. You might think that by my keeping that folder, I have a different—but just as pointed—sense of masochism as my pal with the pliant scrotum. By no means. That pile of “nos” is just a thing writers can step on to be a bit higher on their way to “yes.”

Looking over my hummock of rejections, you can see traces of their evolution over time. Sure, most of them are form letters of the “Dear Author, because of the number of submissions we receive, we regret that we are unable to respond personally ….” variety. But for those publications from twenty years ago where the editorial assistants or (victory!) the editors themselves spent some effort to tell the writer just why something didn’t fit the publication, the “no, buts” are longer and more developed extenuations. In the main, the handwritten rejections from the last few years are brief and pointed. They reflect more of today’s hurried and “next!” pace.

In fact, the letters themselves these days are so much more often little strips of paper, a slight ribbon that perhaps rejects a little more softly, because the “we regret” isn’t followed by the full page’s damning white space of emptiness. And as the evolution of electronic publishing is pushing paper aside, physical rejection letters are fewer seen. The ease of an electronic “no” is hastening their demise. Speaking of demise, I hadn’t gone through my reject slips for years, but in doing so, saw that many of the magazines I’d tried so fervidly to enter have shut their doors for good. Little solace, that.

Aiming High Keeps Your Head Up
But it was fun to flip through my collection, and note my ambition. There’s a partially handwritten, partially printed (from a dot-matrix printer, oh my!) sheet from 1988 on what I pushed that year: Articles to Atlantic, Esquire, Paris Review, Harper’s, Playboy and a host of smaller publications. None of those titans bit into what I was serving, but there was consolation in getting “an intriguing idea” from a Harper’s editorial assistant, and a “It’s a good one” from Esquire. A long handwritten response from a Travel and Leisure managing editor in 1992 detailing alternate publications that might accept my piece that he graciously declined. Even the form salutation from the Utne Reader: “Dear intrepid writer:”

So many of the letters are undated and don’t specifically mention the rejected article or story, so I have no idea what these limbo letters refer to, just a vagabond “no” telling me at some point I mailed, I waited, I hoped, and it was for naught. But clasping hands with those closed hands in my “no” pile are a number of yesses—the extended correspondence I had with Peter Sussman, a San Francisco Chronicle editor, much of it handwritten, about an article of mine he published about my much more extended correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. A series of letters from Lynn Ferrin, the late editor of Motorland magazine (precursor to Via) who had been trying to locate me—pre-email address—in the midst of a couple of moves. Regarding my piece on driving cross-country trying to locate a good cup of coffee, she told me, “Out of the piles of unreadable pap that come over the transom every day, by dump truck, suddenly there’s something that stirs my coffee….”

Here’s my message: keep sending your stuff out. I’ve had articles accepted for publication that were years old, that were sent out 10 times. My rejection folder weighs two pounds, but that’s considerably less than the weight of the 200+ magazines, newspapers or books that accepted and published pieces of mine. The reject folder is just a reminder that you have to do the work, and keep doing it. I’ll pass on the advice of Howard Junker, the longtime, former editor of ZYZZYVA magazine, whose typed signature in his rejection letter is preceded by, “Keep the faith.” And whose handwritten note reads: “Onward!”

Onward indeed. Now, what editor is likely to go for that scrotum piece?