photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson



March 2005

There's a story that someone once asked the poet Richard Wilber how he dealt with rejection slips and he confessed that he didn't know because he'd never received one.
David Huddle, "Let's Say You Wrote Badly This Morning,"
New York Times Book Review. 1-31-1988.


Rejection and the Creative Process

Dear Reader,

As I began to draft this journal entry, I counted nine submissions that are "out there" in the form of groups of poems, slides for group art exhibitions, or a manuscript (see February's journal for more about Reciprocity). Each trip to the post office served up an equal mix: part hope and part dread.

Poet bg Thurston said, "They don't call it submission for nothing." She understands the psychological dues artists and writers pay when submitting work to jurors, judges, editors, publishers and agents. I always hope for acceptance, otherwise, why waste my time and theirs? So, except for submitting to The New Yorker for my regular dose of rejection, I know enough about the submission's destination to believe my work has a fighting chance.

Rewind. The piece is revised or repainted and resolved; I finally feel it is strong enough to stand up to others' scrutiny. I research competitions, journals, exhibitions, and calls for artists. I write the cover letter, put the package together, add the information to my records, and stand in line at the post office. Then the waiting begins.

When I began submitting my poems fifteen years ago, it took twenty-eight tries before one was accepted. That day, I jumped up and down in the back hall after having driven through a snowstorm to get home. My first poetry acceptance necessitated adding a column to my record sheet: "Accepted." Until then, I didn't have one. Now, 154 poetry submissions later, I have received 111 letters containing the words "sorry" or "regret." So, it is with some authority that I write what Richard Wilber could not.

Boston Globe columnist and writer Don Murray said, "There's not a lot to learn from rejection." If that is true, then what have I learned from receiving those chilly form letters, warm personal notes, impersonal emails and postcards? First of all, Don Murray also said, "No one will come to your door asking for your work," so I have learned to accept it as a part of the process. If my work is rejected from one place, I believe in it enough to have another place ready to send it. So, acceptance of rejection is important and having the next place to send it is just as important.

I still take rejection personally. Paintings, poems and manuscripts I have worked hard to create have been returned, usually with little or no illuminating or helpful explanation. It hurts. Prevention magazine (January 2005) published "Rejection's a real pain." Neuroscientists measured the brain's activity in college students who played a computer game in which the other players were programmed to stop tossing a ball to them, simulating social rejection. The same area of the brain that registers physical pain lit up on the students' brain scans. One might argue that a distant editor or juror and I are not in a social situation, but my poem or painting becomes the face I present in this interaction. It's my best work that is being turned away, translating to "your best is not good enough for us."

So, what to do? My husband, John, and I have come up with a simple strategy: I give myself 15 minutes of complete, unadulterated, verbal expression of emotion. I say anything. I hoot and holler. I harangue (the more passionate and pompous, the better). In my best Al Pacino imitation, I embrace disappointment, then push it away. Lately, I've discovered that I can't afford to take the whole 15 minutes, but the effect seems the same. It's over.

I don't waste much time trying to figure out the "could be's" or "might be's" of rejection. Is it political? Is there no market for poetry (this is an in-joke among poets)? Were they swamped with submissions? The answers remain unknown, so I just get back to work. That's the commitment I've made: to do the work. I've learned that rejecters are not full of reasons why my work was rejected. They don't have to be. They need to get back to work, too.

Misery loves company, even for 15 minutes. Years ago, I clipped "Better Luck Next Time, Kipling: Rejection Slips for the Ages" from The New York Times Book Review. It's so old that it's yellow, but still works for me if I get to 13 minutes and counting.
· The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank, 1952: "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."
· The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass, 1961: "It can never be translated."
· Sanctuary, William Faulkner, 1931: "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be put in jail."
· Untitled Submission, Rudyard Kipling, 1889: "I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language."

If you have strategies or stories about the rejection of your artwork or writing, you can email me at And for the sake of balance, next month's journal will be about acceptance, which seems to be just as baffling as rejection.