I kept the rejection letters because I was told to.
In my first year of graduate school, a professor described a poet who’d wallpapered the bathroom with his. Without questioning why one would want their failures staring them in the face while they did their business, I nodded gravely and made a note of it. Apparently, writers saved—and sometimes displayed—their rejection letters.
That first year of grad school I learned all kinds of things about “what writers did.” For one, I learned to say “I’m a writer” when anyone asked, because if you didn’t believe it yourself, then who would? And that night, I went home and started a “rejections” folder, eagerly awaiting my first one.
As I got accustomed to sending out my work, the folder filled up. In fact, after one shockingly early acceptance from a good literary journal, rejections were standard. The daily post became a bittersweet moment of anticipation. Would there be any kind comments? A form letter? Just bills, or a check from my mom? Into my rejections folder went uneven slips of paper from short-lived lit mags and sterile, letter-headed sheets from big-name periodicals.
Some had words like “try us again” and even “these were close.” Some I stewed over; why was I rejected by an editor who took the time to remark “this is awfully good work”? Not awfully good enough.
But that was the way I’d been raised and the tenor of my MFA program, with its rigorous standards: Nothing was ever quite good enough. The rejections folder was testimony to my need to work harder. As it got fatter and fatter, I told myself I didn’t feel discouraged so much as hardened. This writing business was tough, but I was tougher. I was nearly a hundred rejections in! How could I stop now?
It wasn’t until I met my husband the year after I graduated that I began to wonder if hoarding my rejections wasn’t a bit “sick.” Ben wasn’t as hard on himself as I was, and he loves questioning anything he’s told to do.
“What’s the point?” he asked.
I mumbled, “You’re just supposed to keep them,” and changed the subject. Why did I hold onto all those markers of my failure?
I didn’t know, but as the folder reached a couple of inches thick, it became difficult not to get disheartened. Hardened turned to jaded, and after the twentieth no to my poetry manuscript, I quietly stopped sending it out. Honestly, it was a bit of a relief.
By then rejections came more and more over email, anyway. If putting a letter in a folder felt a little Sisyphean, printing out an email and putting it in the folder felt even more so. Eventually, the whole submissions process moved online, as did my records.
More often as not I heard nothing at all from the places I’d submitted to, just blank silent space where once there had been poems, or essays, or finally, a memoir. About five years ago, I moved the folder to the back of the closet, a relic to a life that seemed to belong to someone else.
Then one day I received a whopper of a rejection.
The journal had my essay for nearly a year, which can sometimes mean good things. Not in this case. Let me tell you: It’s one thing to hear when you’re first starting out, “you should read more Kerouac” and “be sure to keep writing!” To hear it fifteen years post-MFA is devastating. I thought I might cry. Had I learned nothing from my years of failure?
Perhaps to make myself feel even worse, I marched over to the closet, dug out the rejections folder, and dumped it on the floor.
There were a whopping 282: Terse form letters from places I’d hoped were a sure thing, and sweet notes about delays due to office moves and sick wives (that editor sent me a fresh stamp, since he wouldn’t be able to read my poems after all.)
There was the heartbreaking letter from the Fulbright committee telling me they couldn’t fund a year studying poetry in England, and the more heartbreaking one telling me my poetry manuscript had been number two in a prestigious book contest.
Reading these missives, I felt a surprising and delicious nostalgia. Instead of depressed, I found myself giddy. To have tried so many times? And for so many years? That’s dedication, I thought to myself.
Maybe it’s cliché to say that the rejection slip is a great metaphor for life and the many times a day we hear “no”—from a boss, a crush, a loan officer, a blood test, a judge. That we choose to seek out more rejection than life already hands us—I marvel at our particular brand of masochism.
But I get, now, why I’ve held onto that folder. It doesn’t chide me that I’m not working hard enough; it reminds me how hard I’ve worked already. And it’s testimony to my growth, too. An editor’s words don’t slay me like they used to. The yeses come more frequently now. It took fifteen years, but my poetry manuscript recently got accepted.
Most of all, the folder reminds me that sometimes you have to love something enough to fail at it, and to believe in yourself even when someone else doesn’t.
That love? That’s the part of the story that really matters.