By René Ostberg
The last day of November, I received my umpteenth rejection of 2017. I say umpteenth because I haven’t been keeping strict count. All I can say for sure is that my rejection count is in the double digits and well out of the teens, and includes multiple rejections for three short stories, a handful of poems, two residencies, and the odd pitch.
As for my acceptances of 2017…for those, I have been keeping close count, and the grand total is easy to figure, hard to face. Zero. Thus, my 2017 record so far: zero acceptances, umpteen rejections. With less than a month in the year to go, I’m looking at a year of full rejection for me as a writer.
As a person – as in daughter, cat mom, coworker, and all that – my year has fared better. I got a promotion, bought my first home. But it can be hard to appreciate these achievements amidst all the rejections trickling into my inbox month after month. If this year of writing rejection has taught me anything about myself, it’s how much I identify as a writer, as opposed to a person (or daughter or cat mom, etc) who happens to write, and how much my self-esteem is affected by my writing success and progress, or lack of it.
Rejection may be an inevitable part of the writer’s life, but dwindling self-esteem is good for no one’s creative ambitions. As my rejections pile up, I’ve begun to approach my laptop with dread, opening up my works in progress and email inbox every day with a sense of shame, like a boxer facing himself in the mirror after a brutal second round knockout beating. I’m a slow writer as it is, someone who struggles with writing anxiety and an unbridled daydreaming habit. Months of rejection has slowed me down even more, resulting in more unfinished pieces than I’d like to admit to and too much time wasted fretting over one sentence here, repeatedly revising a few words there, doubting myself at every moment, with every letter, typing and deleting, typing and deleting and doubting and doubting.
Often I think I should just quit, rip the writer’s badge off the vest of my identity, go back to watching TV in the evenings or try getting out more, rather than isolating myself nightly with my laptop and words and creative ambitions.
So for 2018, the question is: Do I quit or keep writing, keep trying, despite all the rejection?
Lately, I’ve been googling topics like how other writers handle rejection, how to stay motivated, how to build self-esteem. The last topic usually just gets me a hodgepodge of generic self-care tips, stuff like “Take a bubble bath” or “Make a list of your strong points and carry it in your pocket for when you’re feeling unsure of yourself” or “Treat yourself to your favorite ice cream.” These are great tips, to be sure – I honestly live by tips like these – but they don’t quite speak to the rejected writer’s dilemma. Instead, an idea I’ve started to find most intriguing, and potentially helpful, is the “aim for 100 rejections” advice. I’ve encountered the idea on writers’ blogs before, but never gave it much consideration. For a long time, I understood this tactic as a kind of numbers game – the more times you submit, the more likelihood you’ll get accepted eventually, even as you load up on rejections. The 100 rejections idea always reminded me of a dating strategy a friend of mine once shared with me. After a painful breakup, someone advised my friend to join a dating site and respond to every woman’s ad on the site. Every. Single. One. Regardless of matchability. “Just hit ‘em all up and you’re bound to get a few dates. And even if none of the dates lead to a relationship or anything, the point is you’ll be dating, not just sitting around the house obsessing about the past like a loser. You know, putting yourself out there.”
Well, as someone who’s been on dating sites and at parties and bars where I and every other woman within striking range have been on the receiving end of this “hit ‘em all up” strategy, and as a lit journal editor and reader who’s seen the result of writers clearly randomly submitting their work to any and everywhere regardless of fit or “matchability,” I can’t say I consider this advice all that wise. But after the year I’ve been having, I find myself reinterpreting the point of this strategy.
Rejection, like nearly anything else, can be turned on its head, reexamined, reshaped, and ultimately reclaimed as a badge of honor, a source of pride and inspiration. Though submitting isn’t the same thing as writing, it is a form of motivation, a pronounced exercise in self-belief. Moreover, earning 100 rejections takes some hustle, and hustle takes energy, and energy begets energy that can be converted into another go at this story or that poem, into words on the page. Which is a writer’s reason for being more than anything else – the foundation for her identity. In that regard, rejection and the goal of racking them up – whether you set your goal for 100 or umpteen or a year’s worth – are just the cement that help you strengthen your foundation. If you’re getting rejected, you’re not just sitting around your laptop obsessing about your failure like a loser. Rejection means you’re trying and it also means you’re writing. You know, putting yourself out there.
I can’t say I’ll be working for 100 rejections in 2018. Umpteen was more than enough. But maybe in the coming year, I’ll be able to put an actual number on “umpteen,” repeat it with pride, and answer it with something other than self-doubt, something like a sweet, at long last acceptance or two.
René Ostberg is a native of Chicago. Her writing has appeared at Cease, Cows, Literary Orphans, The Masters Review blog, Drunk Monkeys, Thank You For Swallowing, Rose Red Review, We Said Go Travel, the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, and many other places. Most recently, she served a one-year tenure as an editor for Tiny Donkey. Her website is www.reneostberg.com.