Also, you want a great high? Get a great rejection letter from a place like Esquire. I did and do and I save them all.
Somewhere, deep in our garage, I think I still have my first rejection from The Atlantic (ca. 1990). Blue embossed type on heavy card stock, if memory serves. Classy. Distinguished. Albeit, not signed.
And, I can’t begin to explain the emotional complexity of finding that modest little piece of cardboard in the mailbox of my $275/month garage apartment in Sarasota, Florida. To be dead honest?
Sure, I was superficially bummed that the joyless purple knob to which I’d subjected my favorite magazine had not been greeted with an offer for a regular column. What talentless 22-year-old with a Cultural Studies degree from a public college wouldn’t be?
But, that disappointment was quickly displaced by a more pure awe and terror at what the card had really meant; it meant that an adult human at The Atlantic had read something I’d written. Read it. Seen my name. Seen the
Palatino 12 letters from my ImageWriter at “High Quality.” Felt each page’s rough edges where I’d torn off the tractor feed guides. Noticed my overuse of semicolons, suffered through my superfluous adverbs, and rolled their eyes at my fondness for hypothetical questions.
This was scary to me then. But, it’s horrifying to me now. Because, it’s one thing to sit around thinking you’re clever and gifted, and quite another to realize your dreck is sitting around in the same office as the manuscripts of your heroes. That’s some grown-up stuff.
I realize I sounded harsh yesterday in talking about rejection slips, but I stand by what I said (or maybe should have said more clearly):
Readers and editors are not your Mom. And they’re not your Junior Comp. teacher. And they’re not your fairy godmother.
They’re ruthless curators with a thankless and exhausting job. They get paid (or intern for free) to sift through garbage bins looking for diamonds. It’s a crappy job where you say “no” to thousands of strangers who’ll hate you and “yes” to a handful of people who (after their own multiple years of hearing “no”) don’t have any particular feeling about you one way or the other.
Those writers don’t lack emotion because they’re mean, callous, or dead inside; it’s because they’re pros. And they know it’s just part of the game.
So, pro writers don’t over-sweat rejection any more than a good salesman yells at you for not buying the ill-fitting and out-of-style shoes he’s got to sell. It’s just business. You evolve.
I understand that it’s really natural to be discouraged and a little saddened by rejection, but that emotion is instructive. Learn from it. It either means you’re doing it wrong (sending to the wrong places, not sending to enough places, not doing your research on who’s buying what), or it means you’re simply not ready yet (your work’s not there yet, or you lack the distance to see it as a product people buy).
The part of you that creates and sweats and toils has to get really okay with the different part of you who manages the business and publishing stuff. Especially at first. Until you have relationships and a portfolio, get ready for lots of rejection and zero explanation. Like: lots. But try to learn from it where you can and then totally ignore it where you can’t. It’s. just. business.
Seriously, don’t let the part of you that reads rejection letters have too much negative influence on the part of you that wanted to write in the first place. If you concentrate on helping that original, more artistic person to learn, improve, and mature as a writer, you’ll notice that he and the business guy start getting along a lot better. And start thinking differently about where things should go, who might buy it, and how things might be tweaked for different audiences.
And, if you’re a talentless 22-year-old with a Cultural Studies degree, living in a garage apartment in Florida? Maybe don’t start with The Atlantic. Hit the batting cages and pick-up games for a couple years before trying to walk-on with the Majors.
Finally? Yes. Keep writing. No matter what.
Fuck the business side of it. Especially if it gets in your way or drags you down. Find a way to pay the bills that doesn’t hurt your Good Thing, and stop playing when the game’s not fun.
Writing is hard and it’s lonely and no one will feel an iota of sympathy for you one way or another. Keep it lively and fresh, and keep pouring glue on that chair. The offer for that column might be out there. Somewhere. But, it doesn’t matter one way or another.
Write for yourself, get good, and be a grownup. That’s step zero.