Wednesday is Bad Advice Day: Rejection as Biofuel, or, Showing the Bastards

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Why do we choose to do this writing thing?  Let’s start there.

I had a critical father, a man who, as I described recently in a post called Kid of the Year, would reply when I got a 98 on a test with: “What happened to the other two points?”  I developed a self-deprecating sense of humor in large part as a defense against his sarcastic attacks.  I hated nothing more than criticism and rejection.

So of course I dedicated myself to a career that would guarantee a lifetime of criticism and rejection.

Leaving Dr. Freud aside, I think it was a great decision.  It has toughened me up enough so that I can occasionally laugh outright—ha!—at rejection.  Occasionally.  Of course it still stings, but I know that that sting is part of my writing life, my overall writing ecosystem. I was at a writing conference a few years ago when a young writer said he didn’t want to go to a particular party because it would be full of people from a journal that had rejected him. An older, well-respected writer overheard this and said: “If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone at the whole conference.”

So, for most of us, rejection—and frequent rejection—is the reality.  But what do we do with this fact?  This past spring term I taught a class called “The Writing Life” and many of the established writers who came to speak to the class spoke of their relationship with rejection.  Clyde Edgerton described papering his wall with the hundreds of rejections he got while starting out in his thirties.  In contrast, I remember working on a novel for four years during my twenties, sending it out to five big publishing houses, and sinking into depression when I got the inevitable rejections. To my credit I didn’t quit writing, but I did quit sending stuff out for a long while.  It took the example of a writer friend in Colorado, Mark Spitzer, to open my eyes to a new way of seeing.  Mark’s attack on the literary world was high speed and somewhat wacky: at the time I watched him in action he was living in the basement of the mountain house where I was staying and he was constantly writing novels and stories and poems.  Just as constantly, it seemed, he sent out his work. With an orange felt tip pen he would crank out letters to literary journals and publishers as fast as he could, scrawling self-addressed envelopes in the same orange, and sending out his stories and poems in the same sort of creative torrent in which he wrote.  I was awed.  His room–which featured a fishing pole with a line that reached from his bed to the light switch so that he could turn it off from his moldy mattress–filled up with rejections but also, joyously, with the occasional acceptance. He was my opposite and though I would never quite embrace his all-out style and would never buy an orange felt tip pen, he made me see that my own inaction was a kind of cowardice.  He showed me the value, above all else, of taking action.

The key, of course, is to battle one’s own perfectionism, and knowing that perfectionism always borders close to (self) protectionism.  Just as we develop our own writing voices, we develop our own styles of dealing with the publishing world.  It doesn’t matter if these styles are perfect or proper, as long as they, like my friend Mark’s, are effective and have the end result of getting your work out of your room and into the world.

Though I am not particularly proud of it, one way that I respond to being told my work is unwanted is by getting angry, rejecting my rejections. A student in the class I mentioned above has a sign that says “Fuck ‘Em” over her desk and as far as I’m concerned that gets it about right, though I prefer the less pithy “I’ll show the bastards.” Anger, your therapist will tell you, is not healthy.  Well maybe not, if I just sits there welling up or festering inside you.  But one wonderful quality of anger is that it creates energy and energy is the whole game.  What if, instead of curling into a fetal position after getting a hurtful rejection, you waved your fist and sent another story out?  And while you’re doing that feel free to get melodramatic about it.  Remember Beethoven had a note on his desk that said “I will take fate by the throat.”

So what do we do with this energy, angry or not?  One thing we can do it write.  Better, sharper stories than before.  We look rejection coldly in the eye and say, “No, that’s not true,” or sometimes “Yes, maybe that’s a little true….I’ve got to get better at that.”  We write regularly, daily, with a calm fury.  We show the bastards.  And we send our stuff–better now and stronger and cleaner and more polished–back out in the world, knowing that we will get knocked down again and again but also that, while the rejectors still may be able to shake our confidence, they do not have the power to destroy us.  And why is that?  Because the bastards always forget one small thing:

We can not be stopped.



  1. Eva Murray writes:

    Then, you’ve got to love rejections after-the-fact, like (ahem, theoretically) when a very well-known publication for which you have been (purely by way of example) writing regularly asks you to give them twice as many essays for the same money, and strings you along hinting that terms would soon be re-negotiated, and then when –after working double-time for 12 months– you (in this purely hypothetical situation) write them a nice letter more or less insisting on the raise, you are relieved of your duties for your trouble because, heck, any idiot can blog…

    • Bill writes:

      I think we have proved your last proposition pretty amply here at Bill and Dave’s…. The rest is so fucking familiar… My condolences, concurrent with congratulations upon your emancipation!

    • Dave writes:

      Yikes, Eva. I am torn between sympathy–that really sucks–and curiousity–which publication (I guess I could just google you guys). It seems there are very few publications, on-line or off, who play fair these days. I am lucky enough to be regularly involved with two. But all it takes is a change of editors and–poof!

  2. Jason Newport writes:

    Charles Schulz loved the “I’ll show the bastards” approach so much he made it a Snoopy punch line twice.

    “Dear Contributor,” the rejection letters read, “We are returning your worthless story. It is the dumbest story we have ever read. Please don’t send us any more. Please, please, please!” To which Snoopy responds, with a grin, “I love to hear an editor beg…”

    (That and the revised version are here:

    Not as pithy as “You suck,” but that was also before the floodgates opened to every hack with a copy of MS Word and access to Submishmash. I agree with Anne Barnhill—writers must be fearless, but so must every editor, agent, and journal staff reader wading into the rising tides of slush, searching for good writing to support. As with so many other endeavors today, the competition for attention continues to increase both in quality and in overwhelming quantity. That’s why it’s incumbent upon us to do the very best work we can and not give up against the odds. I absolutely believe that the world needs more good writers. And that good writing can still win an audience. But more than ever, getting there means making or having enough luck to connect with the right first reader or venue for a work. And as Philip points out, in our market-driven world, finding that niche can be impossibly frustrating. It becomes an act of faith in one’s ability to be a good writer.

    Like the beagle says, “I love to hear them beg…”

  3. Lisa Romeo writes:

    On point, as always.

    Since most things aren’t accepted their first (or 12th) time out, I just figure every rejection is one step closer to an acceptance. And as you say, it’s part of the overall writing life – if you can’t deal with rejection, then you may as well get out early and choose something else to do.

  4. Yep, anger’s one of the best motivators around. I’ve always preferred the “I’ll show the bastards” technique and have used it in all parts of my life since I was a little girl. By doing this with my writing, I not only get over the paralyzing sting (okay, so I mope for a short time), I actually use the perpetrator’s message to pole vault over the obstruction and get on with my business. In the end I don’t write because I want to be published. I write because I have to. Damn it.

    • Dave writes:


      I like both your message and the determined energy in it. It makes me realize something esle about that sort of reaction too. In a good energized mindset you not only show the bastrards but you are also ultimately more open to the constructive things (if any) the bastards are saying. Thanks, Dave

  5. Bill writes:

    One of my college professors told me I’d never be a writer, and that’s pretty much why I am.

    • Nina writes:

      Oh my god. How wrong could a person be? I hope you send that professor every single one of your brilliant books. That is very humbling and instructive.

      • Bill writes:

        We’re actually friends now–he invited me back to do a reading and everything… And didn’t remember ever saying such a thing…

  6. Jennifer Whitten writes:

    p.s. I always told my students about Mark, too!

  7. Jennifer Whitten writes:

    This is a great article to share with my old students. The nuts & bolts, brass tacks, and any other hardware you can think of….

  8. Anne Barnhill writes:

    Great piece! I have been stopped cold by rejection for long periods of time–a ridiculous and hurtful response. Then, I discovered the fuel of anger–whew, that changed things. Writers must be fearless in so many ways–onward.

  9. Philip Gerard writes:

    My worst rejection: Early in my career, I sent a novel to a publisher whom i’d met at a conference. After he read it, he called me up and said, “This is exactly the kind of book I wish someone would buy me for Christmas, and it’s the kind of book I’d buy for all my freinds and relatives for Christmas!” Great, I said. Glad you’re going to publish it . “Oh, no,” he said.”I’m afraid I’ll have to pass– we don’t think we can market it effectively enough to sell.” Sometimes there is simply no sane response to rejection.

    • Dave writes:

      I’ve has some doozies, too. Once revised a ms. on an editor’s recommendation for two years and got a form letter back!

  10. Mark still uses an orange felt-tip pen.