“Let Me Down Easy”

I’ve gotten a couple of rejections this week — certainly nothing unusual.

It’s just a fact of the writing life that most submissions are rejected.  I ran the numbers just now, and I have a 5% acceptance rate (well, 4.59, but I’m rounding up).  So, statistically speaking, I can expect rejection 95% of the time.  This is not self-pity, but empirical fact.  And, honestly, I don’t feel too horrible about those stats.  As demoralizing as it can be to scroll through the rows and rows of rejected submissions in my spreadsheet, this percentage actually seems fairly decent.  Unless they’re very lucky or very good, I’d wager that many young writers have a similar rate of success — or unless they send out a ton more submissions than I do (which would not be hard to do).1

So I don’t bring up these rejections because they’re anything out of the ordinary.  One was perfunctory, a bland, faceless rejection — not even an individual notification, but a general blanket email announcing the winners.  The other, however, was personal and very kind, from a journal I really respect. I may not have made the cut, but I know that a real human being read and enjoyed and really seriously considered my work, and that’s worth a lot.

There are times (this afternoon, for instance), when I begin to wonder whether I “have what it takes” (whatever that means).  It’s very easy to look at my mounting pile of rejections and think, ‘Maybe this doesn’t mean that I’m an unsung genius.  Maybe it just means that I can’t hack it.’  The definition of insanity, etc, etc.  Most of what I do as a writer, it seems to me, is about not being good enough: the submission process is brutal, workshop can be brutal, and most of all I can be brutal to myself.  But I also know I can’t take it personally.  Having a submission rejected often has very little to do with the quality of my writing.  Critique in workshop pushes me to improve and is often highly subjective.  And while I can sometimes be my own harshest critic, I need that editing voice (to a degree) to prevent myself from churning out utter tripe.  It’s not always easy to bear all this apparent failure and inadequacy, but neither is it really too much to bear.

And I would argue that a thoughtful personal rejection like the one I received this week is almost just as encouraging that a straight-up acceptance.  Yes, it’s bittersweet, but it means there’s hope.  It means there’s someone out there — maybe more than one someone — who would be interested in hearing more from me, even if this story, this time, wasn’t quite what they were looking for.



1. I would be very curious to know what others’ success rates are. It’s possible that I’m delusional to feel satisfied with this number. Compared to the percentage of submissions that many journals accept, it’s pretty good, but I have no way of comparing it to the numbers for individual authors. Anyone care to share?

2 Replies to ““Let Me Down Easy””

  1. Oy. I feel you. My acceptance rate is alarmingly high (I haven’t figured it out, but it’s probably close to 80%, and that feels like a failure in and of itself, because it means I’m not stretching enough. I’m not aiming high enough and I’m not putting enough work into it. One of the poets I most respect told me he has an acceptance rate of 2%. Hearing that was humbling, and made me realize I need to get myself in gear.

    And I hear you on the “not being sure if you can cut it” business. I’ve been in a workshop I don’t love all semester, and I feel like I’m constantly being told to change who I am as a writer. It’s been frustrating, and especially in the past few weeks, I’ve been considering just going into non-fiction, where I can write with style, but write about the topics I care about. I’ve also been wondering if it’s just enough to feel stable and write what I want to write, without caring if it has an audience or wins me any prizes. I don’t know. I’m of two minds about it. But I just wanted to let you know that I feel you, and you’re not a voice crying out in the wilderness.

    1. Damn, KM. I don’t even know how one gets to 80%. Maybe it’s a matter of not challenging yourself, but I suspect you may just have the golden touch. I’ve also been having a frustrating semester, workshop-wise, but I wouldn’t second-guess yourself too much, because you’re pretty awesome. And I spend a lot of time trying to accept the idea of writing what I want to write, without caring about readership or accolades, ’cause that is clearly not going to be forthcoming any time soon, if at all. It’s a powerfully lonely sort of thing we’re doing, and it seems like the only way to stand it is to do what you love for its own sake. And also it really helps to know there’s someone else out there in the wilderness.

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