Navigating Rejection: From a Room Full of No's to that One Naked Yes

It’s submission season again, and while it seems like everyone you know has a poem/story/essay/blog/yelp review being published and revered, for most of us, these months are met with nothing but tepid rejections. The kind that are so inoffensive, they somehow end up being the ones we obsess over the most.

Certainly there are also the romantic versions of rejection tales we take to bed with us at night. Those depicting the harrowing journeys of our favorite writers, surpassing all odds, to get from that pile of no’s to that three series book deal.  And if not a romanticizing, then at the very least there is a need to chronicle our rejections, as if they are tokens initiating us into the fraternity of literary legends, souvenirs of a harder time meant to inspire.

Knopf editor Judith Jones’s 1971 rejection sheet for Alice Munro’s collection, Lives of Girls & Women. Of the Nobel Laureate's prose, Jones contends, "...there is nothing particularly new and exciting here and it could be easily overlooked, or sampled quickly and forgotten." From the Harry Ransom Center Collections.

That’s why there are websites dedicated to uploading individual rejection form letters, only to have anonymous commenters analyze them at tedium. Just look at our history of entombing rejections in museums and libraries.

Here at The University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, there is an archive of rejection letters from the publisher Alfred K. Knopf. Letters, rejecting Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar, and multiple short stories by Noble Prize winner Alice Munro, among others.

These are meant to be emblems of hope.

And perhaps, for some, they are. For me, these letters and their accompanying stories represent our ever-changing, and always personal, relationship to rejection.

At Bat City Review, we can’t offer writers advice when it comes to handling rejections, because, as stated prior, that process is deeply individual. But we do hope, that if you are receiving rejections from us, or any other literary avenue in your life, you are comforted by the fact that as writers ourselves, we take that responsibility seriously.

So much so, we want to share with you our own relationship to rejection, and how that comes into play in our daily lives as writers, but also as editors and readers of an established journal.

Katelin Kelly, Bat City’s Managing Editor, reflected on her initial experience submitting, “The submission process felt a lot like Tinder, but in a whole other context. Submissions were analogous with swiping right. When journals swiped left, I felt like the rejection was a ‘we don’t like you.’ I now realize that’s not an accurate parallel and certainly not a healthy one for aspiring poets and writers to subscribe.”

After working on journals ourselves, it’s clear that the decision to “swipe left,” so to speak, is never that simple. Katelin reflects on her own paradigm shift, “Adjusting my mindset to the reality of these board-based decisions helped soften the blow of rejection. The ‘not a good fit for us at this time’ can literally contain multitudes. People analyze and categorize their positive or negative rejections, but I take it at face value and understand that my work is not for everyone.”

Gertrude Stein's rejection letter to an anonymous submitter. It's vintage Stein: "Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one." From Letters of Note Volume 2.

Those multitudes Katelin talks about are real. Sometimes, the simplest of rejections has a complex conversation surrounding it. Nick Almeida, Bat City’s Editor-In-Chief, is no stranger to these complex conversations. Sometimes board decisions are split right down the middle.

Other times, one of us acts as a solo herald to a submission, offering up what Nick refers to as, the naked yes, “When I receive rejections to my work, I always think of the ‘naked yes.’ Sometimes there is only one strong advocate left for a piece. This editor votes yes alone, and becomes a loving agent for a piece of writing. They explain its merits, why it moved them, and how it innovates. When I'm rejected, I hope it's because of a naked yes, even if that person was ultimately outvoted, because it means that I've done my job. I've reached someone.”

This naked yes is the reason I continue to submit. Because I have to believe that if we go to bat for the work that moves us, then hopefully, someone, somewhere, will do the same for us. Because sometimes one yes is loudest when spoken in a room of no’s. Sometimes it’s loud enough to change the minds of a room full of opinionated readers. Trust me, I’ve seen it first-hand.

Not that it isn’t helpful to have every reader on a journal’s staff vie for your work, but often that can be as simple as knowing your audience. I, myself, have used the phrase, “Yes, but not for Bat City,” a handful of times during this reading period. These are poems and stories that I know will find a home, that home just isn’t with our journal.

Elizabeth McCracken, novelist and James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas, notes that this was one of the major issues she faced early on in her submission days, “Things turned around for me when I actually started to read literary magazines and realized I'd been sending work to magazines who'd never have printed it: what I did just wasn't their thing, which is fine. So I sent to magazines whose published work I loved, and sometimes they turned out to like me, too.”

As for her rejection letters?

 “I burned them, all of them,” Elizabeth shares, “in my tiny backyard barbecue. I had another friend who papered her bathroom with them”

Part of me likes to imagine that if we still received physical rejections in the mail, I too would have made my own small trashcan fire by this point. But there’s another part of me that feels a beating pulse behind each rejection. Or, as Nick Almeida puts it, “a reconnecting to the literary community, like our participation here is a real, breathing thing, with actual consequences. And that living engagement is the most important thing rejections supply. They're a reminder that someone out there is reading. Your work lives in that way, in someone else's mind. A rejection means someone cared."

Jessica Hincapie received her BA in Writing and Rhetoric from St. Edward's University. She then became Programming Assistant at The Writing Barn, a writing retreat space here in South Austin. Currently, she is receiving her MFA in Poetry at The University of Texas and is in the process of completing her first chapbook.