by Pj Holliday
When I submitted my first set of poems in 2014, the rejection letter I received devastated me. It’s not like they ripped my work apart; it was simply not wanted. Rejection stings in every area of life to which we give ourselves, and there’s almost always a long recovery process. I didn't submit my work again for another three years after that initial rejection. I became apathetic, which was easier than feeling the pain of rejection. And when I finally did start submitting again, I remained apathetic — I submitted to just one publication at a time, in six-month intervals, and I received one rejection letter after another.
But being timid about submitting your work is not how you see that glorious word — Accepted — on the other end of your email.
One of my writing mentors talked with me about the publishing process, which helped me let go of the fear of rejection from literary journals. She said, “Ninety percent of the time when you’re just getting started, you will be rejected. After a while, you’ll begin to see the percentage change in your favor, and journals will appreciate seeing the growth of your new work.” I felt released by her words. No one had informed me so honestly about rejection before. I finally realized that accepting rejection was like a muscle I needed to strengthen, and that it would help be to break out of my apathy. It was going to take all my energy to push against this fear and create a habit of acceptance when there was great resistance within myself.
“But if you want to get published, vulnerability is terrifying, but necessary. And you have to build that muscle and make yourself do it.”
Eventually, a writer builds so much “muscle” around submitting that they can easily disregard the thoughts that create submission lethargy. Before we build that muscle, we might have thoughts that devalue our work, perhaps due to a history of harsh criticism or not believing in ourselves enough to begin with. These thoughts can create an apathetic response to putting our work, as we allow ourselves to be pushed back by our fears. Vulnerability is terrifying, but necessary if you want to get published. And you have to build that muscle and make yourself do it.
I find the submission process to be similar to exercise. When I get up in the morning to run, everything in my body is screaming at me not to. But I’ve become like a machine, ignoring the fear and intimidation that hinders the success I know I want. I quiet my mind and put my body in submission to get myself on the treadmill. I visualize the person I desire to look and feel like, which has enabled me to maintain a running habit. I don’t let myself quit and I literally speak to my body out loud saying, "No. You are going running. You love it." That wasn’t true at one point — I hated running. But I spoke what didn't yet exist until it became real. As weird as that sounds, it really works. I also set myself up for success by dressing the part and having workout clothes on long before I’ve scheduled a run. I call a friend to go with me and don't rely on myself alone, or not much exercise will get done.
I’ve finally realized that I can use the same methods in which I conquered physical exercise to create a habit of writing new material and submitting to journals. This is exactly this frame of mind needed to pursue publication of your work: if we anticipate the rejection, and push against resistance, we can build immunity to its sting.
I built my immunity by accepting rejection. It's a given for writers that most will experience it with the majority of inquiries and submissions. Expecting rejection has helped me get over my resistance to it and avoid becoming apathetic for another lengthy amount of time.
In her Netflix special, Brene Brown talks about accepting the fact that “failure is inevitable.” Rejection may be failure, but it’s beneficial as a practice. When we embrace our failures and rejections they don’t remain as painful and scary to experience, and eventually the scale will tip toward us and success becomes a more common theme.
Another thing that helped me build immunity to rejection was knowing I wasn’t alone, and that every other writer shared the rejection experience. I’m a part of a community who aches in the same way and celebrates one another when we finally gain ground in the publishing world. Sometimes, our work just isn’t ready. And that’s a good thing. It means we get to keep reading and writing and evolving as people. Staying in conversation with other writers helps me remember these things.
Finally, during those times when I have a strong sense of completion in my submission piece, I build immunity to rejection by trusting my intuition and knowing that the piece will be received by the right person at the right time. Muriel Spark reflects in her essay “Emerging from Under Your Rejection Slips” on how, in her early writing years, “rejection slips, if they fell out of the envelopes at a rate of more than two a day, depressed me greatly.”* Eventually, because of her great tenacity and love of her work, she saw almost all of the “once-rejected pieces...subsequently published.”
If someone doesn’t think your work is right for their journal, release it by moving on to your next hopeful submission, like moving on to the next push up at the gym. The right time will come. Keep submitting, learning your craft and creating new drafts. Apathy only hinders your hopes for publication. Consider rejection letters to be something to celebrate as you know eventually, someone, somewhere, will recognize your hard work and believe in you as a writer.
*Spark, Muriel. “Emerging from Under Your Rejection Slips.” The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, edited by Marie Arana, The Washington Post, 2003, pages 53-57.
About the Art: “Barbed” by Pj Holliday, 12”x 12”, Acrylic on canvas, 2016
“The painting represents the way I centered myself in a solidified circle as rejections and insecurities grew around me, acting as barbed wires would encircling us in desperate times. The art speaks to how we need to work through difficulties because these painful entanglements are inevitable and the trick is centering ourselves.”