Three Thoughts About…Rejection

The reason I and many other older writers and writing teachers advise young would-be writers to do something else unless they feel absolutely driven to be a writer is that being a writer can be extremely hard. It rarely pays enough to live on and there’s no guarantee that, however hard you work, you’ll ever succeed. In fact, given the vagaries of the writing and reading world, the odds are against you.

The hardest part of being a writer, though, at least a career writer, is the emotional side. Every writer has faced rejection of her work, and all but the most commercially successful writers face it again and again, even after they’ve achieved a fair amount of publishing success.

Rejection of any kind is hard on anyone. What makes the rejection a writer (or any artist) experiences even harder is that the work she does, she does alone, usually for hours on end. It is emotionally taxing just to muster the belief in yourself and the work you’re doing to return to the desk day after day, creating something at the outer edges of your abilities without any insurance that anyone else will see its value. But once you’ve finished it—or think you might have finished it—subjecting it to the opinions of often-distracted and almost-always-overworked editors or agents is more taxing still.

So how does a writer navigate rejection and keep writing? Here are three thoughts:

1. Rather than submitting your finished work immediately to magazines or an agent, cultivate a circle of smart writing friends who will give you their honest opinion on it first. If you can, join or form a regular writing critique group. Make sure the group members are dedicated and at a relatively similar place in their writing development.

2. When you finally submit, do so on a tiered basis, sending out to the places you’d most like to be published first, and then, when the inevitable rejections come back, sending to the next tier down and then the next and the next. Every time a rejection comes in, send your piece out to the next place on your list right away so you always have things in circulation, always have a reason to hope.

3. Pay attention to any comments editors might give, since most don’t do more than send a form rejection anymore. Comments mean you’ve caught their attention. But don’t put too much stock in rejection of any kind, with or without comments. The best thing about rejection is it clarifies your intentions, helping you see if you’re writing because you feel a deep need to write or writing only for the supposed reward of seeing what you’ve written in print. Of course every writer wants to see what he has written be published and read, but the most important thing is to write what you have to write rather than trying to write what you think someone will publish.

Welcome rejection. It is a sign that you have taken the risk of sending your work out, giving it a chance to find its place in the world. The more rejections you experience, the less any one will bother you. If you persevere, rejection builds fortitude. And, if nothing else, it means one more person has read your writing. 🙂

Three Thoughts About…Teaching

I have been teaching writing for over 25 years, and during my 17 years in Portland State University’s creative writing program, the students chose me to receive the English department’s John Eliot Allen Outstanding Teacher Award five times–almost every year I was eligible. (You had to sit out two years each time you won it.) I mention this only to suggest I know a little bit about teaching writing. Or maybe just teaching in general.

Whenever I received one of the Allen awards, people would ask me the secret to good teaching. My answer was always that you have to love your students, caring about them as individuals. Beyond that, every teacher has to teach in her own way, according to her own personality and vision. Here are three basic principles that have worked for me:

  1. Challenge students to achieve beyond what they think they’re capable of doing by setting high goals and high standards.
  2. Actively and persistently help each student to achieve those goals and maintain those standards, without relenting.
  3. Work harder than your students work.

And one more thing: Encourage your students in every possible way at every possible moment.

The most consistent thing students have said about my teaching is that I’m tough but fair. If you aren’t tough, you aren’t helping students do anything more than they could do on their own, in which case they don’t need a teacher. If you aren’t fair, they’re going to stop listening to you no matter how right you are about what you’re trying to teach them.

Announcing a New Series of Posts about Writing and Being a Writer

Just over a year ago, I took early retirement after 20+ years of teaching writing at the college level to focus on my own work. Most of those years I taught literary nonfiction or fiction to both graduate and undergraduate students. The students at my last school, Portland State University, honored my efforts by voting me the English department’s Outstanding Teacher five times in 17 years, almost every year I was eligible.

I continue to work with individual writers and teach in summer programs at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota and the Manhattanville College MFA’s Summer Writers’ Week, but I no longer have regular, year-long exposure to students. So, before I forget all I talked about in those classes, I’ve started writing a book about writing and being a writer.

As I work on the book, I’m going to be posting a series of short meditations on different aspects of both writing and living as a writer, to be called Three Thoughts About… The thoughts in the individual entries might be formal or informal, technical or creative, practical or whimsical. I’m hoping mostly just to have fun with them and share some of what I’ve learned in my decades of both teaching and writing.

To see the many kinds of writing I’ve done myself, click on the About link above. And please let me know what you think of my Three Thoughts About… entries or, better yet, share them with others by linking to them on social media or your own website.