April 10th, 2018. It had been exactly two weeks since I initially received word of my position as a semi-finalist in my first ever writing contest. Needless to say, I was ecstatic—I’d abandoned all hope of keeping my expectations low at the first sign of a congratulatory statement. My friends were quick to praise me, and my teachers were even prouder. April 10th was the day I would be informed of my spot as a finalist, should I make it in. In my infinite naïvety as a new writer on the scene, I was confident that I would get it. If they liked it enough to make me a semi-finalist, and if everyone who read the piece had showered me in compliments, why shouldn’t I be a finalist?
At 4:36 PM, though, my dreams were crushed. I couldn’t even read the email in full. I didn’t want to receive the half-hearted condolences offered to me by a copy-and-pasted rejection.
It was my first time having my writing turned down, and I was devastated. I had put my writing out there—I’d been vulnerable—and having it rejected was something I had almost thought to be impossible after my initial success. This message, which didn’t even address me by name, made me question everything. Why wasn’t my writing good enough? What were the judges seeing and hating that my friends and teachers weren’t? Was it even worth it to keep putting my work out there, all to get denied with no explanation? Was I a bad writer?
Telling my teachers and friends was the worst part. No one was upset at me, of course, but their pity was somehow worse than anger. Being turned away after making it to the next level felt more like losing than the half-win that it was, and so I decided that I wasn’t ready to keep submitting my work anywhere. So I didn’t. I spent the next few months writing pieces that could be submitted but I was ultimately too scared to hit send. I would reread and revise and pick a piece clean until I thought it was perfect, but would that effort really matter in the eyes of a judge or editor? I was always searching for more places to which I could send my work, and I remember bookmarking them all on my laptop, always labeled as a future goal for myself. I don’t think I could ever say exactly what compelled me to submit my first piece after the writing drought. I’d like to think that, subconsciously, I knew that the sooner I began submitting again, the sooner I would establish myself as a writer, but I think the reality of the situation is that the pain from my initial rejection had worn off. I had forgotten how badly it hurt to be turned away and I was armed with an arsenal of pieces I could submit. What did I have to lose, especially if no one had to know?
I kept my dream under wraps until that September, when my first piece was published. Finally being able to tell my teachers and friends about my success somehow negated all the shame I’d been feeling. That’s not to say my fear of rejection disappeared completely—in fact, I still opted to keep my submissions private from my family for months. I was afraid of the implications of rejection, the fact that my writing wasn’t good enough for one site or another, that I felt it safer to keep it all to myself. To me, rejection felt like it had no purpose. It was a vessel to prove how little skill I had; it suggested that I wasn’t good enough for the readers of one website or another. Furthermore, rejection made me think that if I couldn’t even make it as a writer on teen magazines or prizeless contests, could I really make it as a writer or journalist in the real world? I didn’t want to keep facing the shame of not getting published or not winning a contest because of how negatively I looked at the process of being denied. Because I viewed rejection as something that was only worth the pain of not feeling like I was good enough, every time I was turned down, it felt personal. I hated sending work in because I felt like every piece I wrote would be scrutinized over, any out of place detail would automatically send my work to the chopping block. I felt like being turned down by some faceless editor was an attack on me and my skill, and I didn’t learn that to be false until nonacceptance became second nature.
Since getting published in September, my writing has been rejected more times than I can count. Sometimes, the emails have addressed me by name; other times, I’ve received profoundly generic automated replies. But for every rejection, there has been acceptance. I’ve made bigger strides with my writing than I could have ever imagined, and it’s all because I’ve come to abandon my fear of being turned away. Joining Lithium, being published in print, and seeing my work on a variety of websites has allowed me to see the flipside of rejection. I now know that no rejection is ever personal—just because one magazine doesn’t want to publish my work doesn’t mean another one will do the same thing. I am not a bad writer for getting rejected, either. I have the ability to learn from my faults and continue to improve the way I write. Rejection is valuable—it is the only tool a writer will always have to reflect on.
Obviously, I’m still learning how to get better at my craft. There’s no magical way to avoid rejection, and there’s also no magical way to become a great writer automatically. The thing that I’ve kept in mind over the past few months is a piece of advice my dad gave me. Over dinner, he said that the best thing I can do in life is take a risk and try and be someone. I don’t ever want to miss out on a writing opportunity because I was afraid of being rejected. I could get a million emails that begin with “we regret to inform you” and be okay with it because I could still say I put myself out there. It would be okay that my writing wasn’t what they were looking for. Maybe these million publications aren’t looking for a writer like me, but the next million could be. Being able to say I sent in my art and had it considered, even by one person, is what gives me purpose as an artist; I’ll always get to live with the idea that scattered across the internet are pieces of myself, to be read and pondered over by readers for far beyond the physical existence of myself, all because I had the heart to take a chance.
By Sophia Moore
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz for Vice