A Stack of Rejection Letters

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There are dozens of them in my email – some I have deleted and others I meant to delete but didn’t for one reason or another. Many of them have the same stock phrases,  such as “not the right fit” and “we wish you the best.” They are from agents, magazines, literary journals, and websites, and they all the same thing – no, we will not publish this.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Whenever I make a life-long goals list, it’s at the top. I went into journalism because I loved writing, but transitioned into communications to keep writing but do so without getting reader hate mail. This blog exists because writing is how I process my emotions and feelings.

I know that I have some skill at writing; it’s part of the reason I enjoy it. At every job I’ve had, my superiors have commented on what a strong writer I am, and through this blog, many people have reached out only to tell me how much they enjoy my writing. But I’ve always doubted how strong that talent really is and if it could make me a real writer. There are shortcomings – my copy is often messy, my descriptions are shallow, I pander to easy themes and language. My mom likes my blog, but could I write something that people would be willing to pay for?

Three years ago, when I was working for Peace Corps, a career coach led a professional development session and we were all asked to come up with goals. From there, we were supposed to identify the thing we really wanted to do in life and find ways to work toward it. I was lost; I didn’t know what my dream was. Since then, that question of what should I do has plagued me. As other parts of my life have started to fall in place – meeting Ethan, settling in Chicago – I felt very unsure of my career and whatever path I was on. This led me to look at graduate schools without exactly identifying what I wanted to study.

For months, I looked at programs in international development, social work, journalism, non-profit management and on and on. All of them seemed great, but none of them felt like that one big thing I should do. After one information session for a master’s in health communications, I was talking with Ethan, trying to decide if it was something I wanted to pursue. Ethan, who is always a good counterbalance to my internal doubt, asked what I would be giving up if I did the program. It was only a year, at a prestigious university that would definitely lend itself to career opportunities down the road. Stunning both him and myself with harsh honesty, I said that I wouldn’t be able to write as much, that I would be giving up my ambitions of being a writer if I did that program or any other that wasn’t focused on writing. Isn’t writing always what I wanted to do? Why wasn’t I doing that instead of shooting a dart at other ideas, hoping one of them will make me as happy as I knew writing could? So, I decided to take a year to try and make it as a writer, to become a real writer.

Currently, I get paid to write at my job. I get paid to do a lot of other things, but I do write quite a bit, from video scripts to magazine articles to social media posts to blogs to whatever it is they need from me. I write, but I want to be the kind of writer you envision when someone says, “Oh, she is a writer.” I want to see my books in airports, have my name in national distributed newspapers and magazines, and I want to write about the things I am passionate about.

To me, the biggest reason I hadn’t become a real writer was because I was too afraid to try. I have written two drafts for two different books, but they were hidden in my hard drive. Fear of failure kept me from attempting. I didn’t have any rejection letters because I never gave anyone the opportunity to reject me. More than publishing a book or writing a viral story, I wanted to know I at least tried.

About a year after the professional development seminar, I opened one of those book drafts, which I wrote while in the Peace Corps, and started rewriting. I enrolled in a creative writing class, joined writing groups, and met with people who were full-time freelances for advice on breaking through. For the novel, I asked for beta readers and hired an editor to go through the first three chapters so I could start querying. In a Writer’s Digest book,  I highlighted every single agent I thought would be interested in my book and noted literary agencies mentioned in the acknowledgement section of some of my favorite novels.

And, I wrote. I woke up at 5 a.m. to write. I wrote on my lunch break. I bailed on plans with friends to write. I wrote blog posts, short stories, personal essays, and three additional drafts of the book.

Then it was time to put that writing into the world. I submitted my fictional pieces to literary journals and pitched reported story ideas and essays to editors across the country. Also, I queried every literary agency in my spreadsheet.

Sometimes I never heard back, even with follow up, other times I received a formulaic sorry-but-we’re-passing note. I did not, though, receive any acceptances.

There were pieces that I only pitched because I thought needed to, as a real writer. My book was one of them. I had one agent ask to read more pages, which is not nothing, but she ultimately passed. I asked several friends to read the book, and none of them finished it, which is a good inclination that it was probably not good and they didn’t have the heart to tell me. I’ve been writing long enough to know when something has potential, and I didn’t get that feeling with the book. It had themes and ideas that I do believe are strong, but really I was pushing through because I wanted validation from someone else that I am a good writer, even if my heart wasn’t in the piece. When the last rejection for representation came, I put the book back in the corners of my computer.

However, there were also pieces I really believed in, that I knew were good, that didn’t get picked up. I don’t write a lot of fiction, but I did work on a short story that I thought was unique with a salient message. No one wanted it. I also spent months working on an 8,000-word personal essay, pouring my heart and soul into, that can’t seem to find a home. These kinds of rejections are harder to swallow.

After hearing no so many times, I stopped writing. All the nasty things I’ve said to myself and the criticism I’ve received had validation. I was an OK writer for this blog, but I was simply not good enough for a larger platform. My goal was to be a real writer, and I failed. 

Except that I didn’t fail, because that wasn’t my goal. What I really wanted to do was try, to collect those stack of rejection letters as proof that maybe I won’t get published but not because for a lack of trying. I can live with someone else telling me no, but it excruciating to tell myself no before I even started.

In the last month or so, I’ve been writing more. I missed it. I needed it. Coming back to the blog has reminded me why I love writing, and I am thankful for the 50 people who read each post. So, some of my writing didn’t get published, but that doesn’t mean it never will, unless I stop trying. The desire to write still boils in my blood, and it’s my duty to answer it and let whatever I create be what it is. As Anne Lamott says, the only way to be a writer is to put your butt in the seat and write.

So, I will write and I will fail, because rejection is the only way to become a REAL writer.

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