Pebbles at the window, Elizabeth Smither

Elizabeth Smither urges writers to recognise the rewards of rejection. 

I once spoke to a writer who assured me he had never had a rejection slip. Years later I met an editor who told me he had received frequent submissions from this writer and routinely rejected them. “Like pebbles being thrown up at a window,” the editor said, describing the persistence, admirable in its way, but ineffectual. I guess you can get used to stones pattering against your window in the early hours. Eventually you might not even get out of bed. (I imagined the editor, who was English, in nightgown, nightcap and leather scuffs.)

There’s a javelin quality about the word reject: to throw out as useless or worthless though this is only its second meaning in the Collins Concise English Dictionary. To refuse to accept or use is the first, and milder. It’s the third (and presumably declining): to rebuff (a person) that perhaps does the most harm. There’s a stonewalling quality here, the rigid back of the dressed editor at his desk. The imposing chair with its high back, that rotates from side to side, while the disagreeable letter is dictated, or the rejection slip inserted (though this may be done by an assistant) in the envelope with the now tatty-looking poems. (The best rejection slips, I’m informed, keep the actual rejection until the last, and thank you for the material first.) Being writers and naturally thin-skinned, we see through that at once. There is no way rēicere can be made pleasant.

And yet I think it is so important to master this disagreeable experience that it might almost be taught in schools. Spelling, reading, mathematics, social studies, rejection. The child who wants to bring a friend home without consulting a parent (potentially this child is trying to get around an editor). The child who is not allowed a cellphone; the teenager who is not allowed to wander the streets at 3am (though, also getting around an editor, this one might pretend to retire and get out the window).

Of course, like all writers, I am prevaricating. The above problems are for parents or CYPS. At low moments I tend to console myself with quotes from my Commonplace Books (now three volumes). “There are only three possible answers to prayer: yes, no, and wait.” Wait is my favourite. Or this, from a Persian love song: “Nothing in this world flows as we would have it flow.”

None of this is any real help, of course. Any writer who has held a thick envelope that swaddles a returned ms is close to holding a child in her arms. Re-swaddling, writing a new covering letter, sending the child off again, is only a temporary comfort. Like changing from day school to boarding. Hoping the bullying problems can be solved.

And yet and yet. I have found rejection at times both salutary and liberating. I have become good friends with editors who have initially responded with that word fearful to poets, “quite”. “Not quite what we are looking for.” “Please send again.” Ha. It’s a plain and simple rejection. I am quite angry, I think. I am quite annoyed. But then comes the thought of the editor himself, or the group of volunteers who help put a literary magazine to bed. I see the piles of paper, the covering letters – so diabolically hard to write before you are experienced. I see Keats after reading the review in Blackwood’s Magazine, the gutted feeling.

It’s quite natural to feel aggressive at this point but it’s a mistake. Yes, No, and Wait. All you are doing really is waiting. Using your imagination. Thinking of those soldiers borne home on their shields, wounds properly in front. Thinking of the Spartans who, before they went into battle, often combed one another’s long wavy hair. The doors will open, even if there are lions behind them and, like Homer Simpson, you can’t read the Roman numerals. Take a pause. Rejection is a rich experience. One day when the Yes comes, you will oddly miss it.

Were there too many poems that month about love or animals? Did you not read the theme of the month which was Robots? Did you not read some back issues online? You bristled (quite rightly) at the implication you should subscribe at the time of your first submission. You bristle more when they send you a flyer about a workshop you might like to attend in Tennessee. Swearing is allowed because rēicere is a tough word. Ugly, too.

But what you mustn’t do is allow anyone – false friends, tutors, fellow-writers – to say it doesn’t matter. To say it can’t be as rich as humus or as pared down and full of potential as winter, setting the scene for spring, and spring bulbs and all that falderal. To imagine that, as a writer, you should be endlessly protected, guarded, counselled (just in case it arrives, despite everyone’s best efforts) from rejection. Better to go out to the gate and welcome it in, after you’ve recovered your breath. There are breathtaking things to come if you’ll let them.

First of all, you can internalise that editor in his chair (or the midnight editor in his nightgown). You’re not going to bite his fingers off, but rather master the throw he has used on you, so you can turn it back on him. Not, of course, if he is endlessly resisting your pebble shots at his windows. There has to be restraint and common sense. How frequently do you want your friends to visit? In the meantime you can become a little tougher on your work. Disagreeable as it is initially, you can start becoming an editor yourself and editing yourself. He doesn’t really care for much more than the few first lines and has probably delegated those to a group of literature students at the university the magazine is published by. If you can get past those sophomores squatting on the floor in their Seventeen clothes… .

Don’t you feel tougher already? And just a trifle more sympathetic. How much poetry does the world need? Heaps, you say, heaps. But it better be good.

You take a break from sending to this editor. Once a year will be enough for him and you. You want to be respected, not a pest. You want to show in your abbreviated cover letter you are mature and learning. He probably quite likes that. It’s unfair to take it out on him. What sort of morning is he having? Has one of the sophomores brought him the wrong coffee? Perhaps he has a headache, heartburn? Tighter and tighter you wind the poems you are thinking of submitting. You’ll never send too many, you’ll never think of making a special case for yourself. Special pleading would be anathema. You wouldn’t accept a date from someone who came on to you with a sob story. Tougher and tougher you are growing.

Soon, thanks to the long ago, almost-consigned rejection slip, you are going out in the world again. The world of online submissions, RTF or Word, the adequate-sized envelope with its self-addressed envelope inside (modesty prevents you from sending a smaller envelope for returns), the international reply coupons (erring on the side of generosity), the short polite covering letter in which you introduce yourself to a stranger you are hoping to like. You might like, as I do, to send something off each month. I call it SSS: Send Something Somewhere. Doing ambition’s work. Not letting ambition get out of hand ever. Mark the ones that are accepted with ticks, the others with crosses.

I once sent too many international reply coupons to Les Murray. “Ha!” he wrote back in his distinctive bold hand. “You sent too many coupons. You’re not getting them back and I’m taking five poems.” Now I always send extra coupons in the spirit of NZ-Australia relations.

Writers are soft and hard creatures. Soft when it comes to imagining a character or a situation. Soft when they are being beguiled by words. When they don’t want to scare away the Muse. But a real true writer can be toughened on rejections. Think of them as wrist-strengthening exercises so you can play the cello like Casals in his 80s, or cross Niagara Falls on a high wire with just a baton for balance. Let them be the wind beneath your words.


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