Literary Hub

What Collecting 100 Rejections Taught Me About Creative Failure

rejected red square stamp

My official New Year’s resolution, this year, was to drink more water. My unofficial (i.e., secret and therefore unenforceable) New Year’s resolution was to lose some weight before my wedding this summer. My super-unofficial-very-secret-and-even-embarrassing New Year’s resolution was to become more accepting of rejection and creative failure in my writing. This last one feels borderline hypocritical, since I’m most known in the literary world for an essay called “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” When the piece was published at this website, and went viral in 2016, I became an accidental rejection expert.

Being an accidental rejection expert means that the internet knows me best as someone who’s been rejected a lot. It’s my platform, my area of expertise. The vast majority of my mentions on Twitter, Facebook, in newspaper articles, or in blog posts refer to my collection of rejections. I was invited to guest lecture at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in a class on “Failure” (a dubious honor), and now I teach classes in submitting freelance work and collecting rejections as a means of getting published at Catapult, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute. Yet the reason for my expertise is laughably simple: I have been rejected a lot, and I’m not afraid to talk about it.

Rejection is trendy these days; as a culture, we have finally latched onto rejection as one means of getting to success. It probably began long before 2016, but after my essay was published, I became part of the burgeoning movement fueling attempts to “fail better” in the startup, tech, and literary worlds (Beckett would probably shudder at becoming a meme, but maybe he would just laugh). So here were are today: artists and professionals embracing rejection. There’s the “100 Rejections Challenge” (#100rejections), Jia Jiang’s TED Talk about 100 days of rejections, and a Binders group called “Binders Full of Rejections.” As 2018 drew to a close, Emily Winter published an opinion piece in The New York Times called “I Got Rejected 101 Times.” Across the digital literary landscape over the last month, numerous writers posted their 2018 rejection counts and 2019 rejection goals.

I’ve been privately counting my rejections and shooting for 100 rejections for six years now (I’ve never successfully made it to 100, though it remains my goal). None of this was new to me. Yet for some reason, this year, I felt left out of the counting frenzy, and instead of being proud of my modest numbers (40 submissions, 28 rejections, 1 publication, 6 teaching offers, 6 nice rejections, and some submissions still pending), I didn’t join in on the public proclamations of rejection. Instead, I was embarrassed about how ashamed I felt of this year’s rejections, having so publicly endorsed the belief that collecting rejections can help us be more effective writers. I still believe this—that the single best way to be a writer in this world is to actively collect rejections. However, as my writing career has evolved and as I’ve started teaching others about the joys and pitfalls of collecting rejections, I’ve also realized that sometimes it’s more complicated than that.

Rejection still hurts. My skin is not as thick as I thought it was, and becoming accustomed to something is not the same thing as enjoying it. Also, not all rejections are created equally. Tallying every rejection as 1 out of 100 doesn’t account for the fact that some rejections barely even register, while others feel like the sky is collapsing. So what happened in 2018 that made me feel so vulnerable about rejection?

Sometimes a tiny, dangerous, hopeful thought creeps in: maybe now my writing is finally good enough to be accepted.

First of all, I got rejected a lot—relative to my acceptance rate. Last year, my only publication appeared in The Millions in January, so I had an 11-month dry spell. While I still submitted some shorter work, I spent the greater part of the year working on a novel revision instead of focusing strongly on other publications.

Also, rejections didn’t always pave the way to an acceptance. The sad truth is that sometimes rejections are warranted. Sometimes they are indications of creative failure, or a sign that the piece needs another draft. One short piece whose rejections I spent more than a year dutifully collecting might just be fatally flawed. I developed a nagging feeling that I might just be too sentimentally attached to it. Sometimes a piece just isn’t working, and needs to be re-envisioned.

The other problem with finding small semblances of success is the curse of high expectations. Sure, we’re collecting rejections, but sometimes a tiny, dangerous, hopeful thought creeps in: maybe now my writing is finally good enough to be accepted. Could it be possible that I have become a skillful enough writer, so this time I’ll find a shortcut to acceptance?

Ironically, it was my 100 rejections essay that catapulted me to the most success I’ve had yet as a writer. Finally, it felt like people were reading my words and talking about my work—albeit as a Rejection Expert, not as America’s Next Great Literary Talent. (But hey, I thought, I could always make a creative pivot!) After that publication, I signed with a pair of literary agents, I published other short essays, and received an acceptance to spend a month at Jentel, my first fully funded writing residency. With my agents’ editorial feedback, I revised my novel manuscript for nearly two years, inching towards submission to major publishers. I joined an incredibly generous and insightful writing group, and I made friends with writers who trafficked in literary circles where I hoped to someday belong. I felt like it was just a matter of time before I would break through my chrysalis of “emerging writer” wrappings and burst onto the literary scene as a fully formed “Writer writer.” Yet with my hopes, so too grew my expectations, steadily churning towards that ever-dangerous ambition of success.

Rejection is not always triumphant or empowering. Growing a tough skin isn’t always fun.

Spoiler alert: I was heading for a giant belly flop. Last year, I got rejected from every single residency I applied to. While I thought that I was finally “good enough” to get accepted to fully funded residencies, this particular year it was not to be.

In addition to getting rejected a lot, I discovered that my agents hated my novel. When I finished it, I was convinced it was the best thing I had ever written. It might still be. And yet they didn’t like it. Like, really didn’t like it. There were apparently giant problems that I had not managed to resolve through my sweeping revisions of plot, character, structure, and voice—or maybe each creative choice that I made to solve one problem just created another one. The novel might be dead. It might be on life support. I didn’t agree with the agents, per se, but I also felt like they weren’t wrong.

Sometimes the worst rejections are the moments when a gentle observer draws your attention to difficult truths that you just couldn’t see in your own work.

For weeks, I was convinced that I’d never write fiction again. Now I wonder if the novel might have some life left in it after all. Maybe it just needs a rest, and some time to simmer.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg tells us that if you fully commit to something, then it will become clear when it’s time to move on. She says: “Doubt is torture. If we give ourselves fully to something, it will be clearer when it might be appropriate to quit. It is a constant test of perseverance.” I see this as both encouragement to stick with a project during tough times and also permission to let something go after you have given yourself fully to it.

*

In 2019, I will finally tackle the next revision of another book: my long-simmering family memoir of the Taiwanese Independence Movement. Years ago, after I finished the last draft that was a zillion pages too long, I was afraid to revise it. The manuscript tackled both my family’s entanglement with a harrowing time in Taiwanese history and the journey to Taiwan that turned me into a writer. But I didn’t know how to make the manuscript entertaining for the reader. Five years later, I’m not afraid anymore. I’m ready to return.

With the family memoir, I was afraid that if it were rejected—if it failed as a book—that I wouldn’t recover as a writer. Now, I’m facing that fear head-on: a book that I have now spent years writing and revising doesn’t work, and it’s lucky, I suppose, that it’s not the memoir. So I’m going to take those lessons—to let go of choices that don’t serve the story—to make the next book better.

Rejection is not always triumphant or empowering. Growing a tough skin isn’t always fun. There’s a reason why scar tissue exists—it forms to protect our body as a wound heals, but it also indicates traumatic changes to cellular tissue. Rejections are a bit like scars, and they tell stories of creative growth in their own way.

Maybe simply counting rejections and shooting for 100 isn’t enough. Maybe we need to somehow metabolize our rejections too—digest them, understand them, and let them go. In 2019, I resolve to continue collecting rejections and invite others to join me. But let’s not just blindly collect the rejections; let’s also let rejection be our teacher and our creative compass to check pride and high expectations. None of us “deserves” to be published. Publication is a gift.

This year, may we acknowledge that rejection stings, even when it is necessary for creative growth. May we collect rejections bravely and defiantly, while giving ourselves permission to hide under the covers from time to time. May we also remember that when we succeed, our writing is ultimately a gift we give to our audience—a surrender of our deepest selves onto the page to offer up a small sliver of glowing truth.

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