I’m not somebody who saves things. I don’t collect objects, I don’t stockpile memorabilia. I don’t keep copies of things that can easily be reproduced, like research and papers.
But there is one category of object I sort of wish I’d kept. Rejection slips. I know, this sounds really peculiar. But allow me to explain.
I am a writer. More than thirty years ago, I started publishing scholarly articles. And op-eds. And books. And now, as readers of this blog know, I have begun publishing poetry, some of which I wrote long ago, some of more recent vintage. It is this last enterprise which puts me in mind of rejection slips.
You see, I’ve been getting them. For each poem offered publication, I get at least four or five rejections (and I’ve heard from only a small proportion of the journals to which I’ve submitted, so I expect many more). And the funny thing is, they still hurt. It’s not like rejection slips are new to me. Had I saved all that I’ve received over the course of my career, they’d probably stretch to the moon. But I haven’t tried to publish poetry before. So this is a new sort of rejection, even if the form is the same. And, given what poetry is, this time it’s personal.
So why would I want to have saved these things? Well, in a sense, the aggregate of my rejections is the backbone of my career. Of course had I received only rejections, I wouldn’t have a career at all. But all of those rejections are reminders of imperfection, teachers of humility, groundings in grace, and epistles of perseverance. Had I succumbed to the first rejections (which I hasten to assure you I received before any promise of success), my entire body of work would not have come into being. Had I taken refuge in that last of scoundrelly writers — “they just don’t understand me” — I would have skulked off and eschewed responsibility for the fate of my work. Had I taken them as a refutation of talent, I would have given up long ago.
How should one take a rejection slip? As just that. A single rejection. A decision that a publication outlet doesn’t want the piece. There probably are dozens of reasons why this might be so. Perhaps the work doesn’t fit what the editors need. Perhaps they didn’t like the topic. Perhaps it wasn’t to their taste. Only one reason is the following: the work is no good. There are too many more for that to be the default assumption.
I’ve been thinking about this perhaps more than usual, not only because, as noted, I have just begun to publish in a new medium, but also because of an unusually kind and thoughtful rejection slip I recently received. The editor praised my poetic “instincts,” and then went on to admonish me to read more “contemporary poetry,” to let my images speak for themselves and — in that most common of writing critiques, to “show, not tell.”
I was taken aback. “Instinct?” I’m pretty sure I have some talent. “Images?” I’ve got plenty. “Show, not tell?” What is that about?
I was hurt. A younger me would have become very discouraged, and then reluctantly begun to read and rather more immediately start to change my style. But then I thought about it. The editor certainly was right. Assuming a particular aesthetic. But what is my aesthetic? I know that my poetry is romantic. I know that my influences are not contemporary, although they are modern. Whitman. Frost. Dickinson. Thomas. Williams. cummings. And, going back- Dante. Shakespeare. Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth. There are narrative traditions in poetry. There are philosophical traditions. There is the Bard, weaving images with declarations of love. This is the poetry I like to read. This is the poetry I like to write. I philosophize. Sometimes I suppose I preach. I weave images. I tell stories.
And there it is — my ultimate response. I consider each poem I write to tell a story. A story that may be emotionally intense. A story that is always short. A story with significant imagery. But a story, nonetheless. And that story can be told in a variety of aesthetic settings.
So I shall keep to my own knitting, and be lucky to find publishers (as I have) who share my aesthetic. And I shall be grateful to that editor for, by writing thoughtfully as he did, he evoked a thoughtful response on my part, one that pushed me to think through what I do and why I do it. And, in doing so, in this case to affirm my own approach, and to take pleasure in a mature confidence I lacked when the first rejection slips appeared so long ago.
Would that every rejection slip were so expressly thoughtful. But each, in their own way, can teach, and all, as an aggregate, can help to form the backdrop of a literary life.