“It fucks you up,” one of my writing students said to me. They meant all the no's from agents and editors in response to their submitted work. And it can. Zero question. Still, I had to remind them that you can't personalize it. Rejection in the writing business is inevitable; but I qualified with, “or maybe don't personalize it for long, not too long.” I never use that line about needing a thicker skin because it's their sensitivity to language and living, to all the nuance and feeling in and around them, that compels them to do creative work in the first place. But rejection can be more useful than they know: it tests a writer's resolve to keep at it, to find their voice, their own authority about that voice, and over time it strengthens their own capacity for yes. I'm an editor who's said no a lot throughout her career. For literary agents and editors, that's a big part of our job, to turn work down, and often for reasons that have nothing to do with quality or vision but with fit, that outlet's vision or voice, its mix of pieces or titles, ensuring the content is part of a current conversation or cultural shift. For magazines, what's left of them, they have to sell relevance to keep their advertisers coming, which requires names recognizable at a glimpse on their covers, fame to capitalize on. Instead of continuing to internalize that rejection, I had to turn to finding other collaborators for my book. It can make the writer cynical. The editor too. Being both an editor and a writer can complicate being the other. Like lots of editors and editor/writer hybrids, I've turned down some of the finest writers out there for all of the above reasons, and it can be tough to stomach. That's why my rejection letters in their first drafts can come close to reading like love letters to the work I'm letting go. I usually cut them back to something terse, professional, but I always apologize (“sorry to disappoint” and I am). I […]
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