Reframing rejection

The other day I was updating my spreadsheet of proposals and queries. It’s kind of a depressing process, because it means checking my emails again for dates of rejections, but it also reminds me of what I’ve sent out, what’s been decided, and what’s still hanging. As far as guessing when I’ll hear back, well, that’s another question for another time, but it got me thinking about rejections.

The thing is, there’s no secret language in a rejection that actually means “You suck.” Even those form rejections – they don’t actually mean your work is terrible or that you’ve somehow failed as a person. It’s not the greatest feeling in the world to receive them, no, but “I’m sorry, this isn’t a fit” honestly, truly doesn’t mean your ideas are worthless or your writing is garbage.

Imagine you’re decorating a wall. Maybe you’ve just moved, or rearranged the furniture, or put up new wallpaper. You’ve got this space, and you have a lot of lovely artwork. Of course it’s lovely – you’ve bought it all, and you’ve got a good eye. But you’re working with a few limitations.

The first is simply space. If you have more art than you have wall space, something has to be cut. As hard as you try, you just can’t squeeze it all in there.

So next you look at composition: what goes with what? Can you make a nice arrangement of these five pieces, but the other three don’t really fit? Maybe they don’t work with the color scheme or the overall theme. The other three might go together, but they aren’t going to work here. If you tried to cram one in, it would just stand out and throw everything off.

And when you do get the five arranged, does the light hit them properly? Are they too crowded, after all? Do you need to switch something around, or buy a new frame, or even wait until an order arrives so you have enough hardware to hang things?

You’re not passing on something because it isn’t good. It just doesn’t fit here, among all the other pieces. Pieces, of course, that you personally can see, but the artists can’t. Van Gough wasn’t pondering how he might paint something that would look good between this Monet and that Picasso. He was just … painting. Producing his best work. Not sure which pieces would become popular enough to be dorm room posters and which would become obscure.

When you’re the writer submitting your work, you don’t really get to see the wall or the other pieces. You’re offering your idea up and hoping that it makes the final cut – that it looks good in the space and fits with the other authors around you.

And that’s something you have no control over. When you get the “Thank you for sharing, but this doesn’t fit” email, that’s all it means: I’ve got a wall and a wide selection of artwork, and yours didn’t end up fitting the overall tableau.

There are certainly ways to get an idea of the wall – reading multiple issues of a journal before you submit to it, for example – but unless you’re an editor selecting articles for your own collection, there’s no guarantee of getting in. Which means a list of rejections, and the need to be resilient and seek out the next possible wall on which to display it.

How long is your list of rejections?