How to Write in the Face of Rejection

My book, Wedlocked, is a memoir about a rough patch (imagine Grand Canyon) in my marriage. It considers what it looks and feels like to be a lonely human inside a marriage, what it looks and feels like to push away the one who loves you, what it looks and feels like to fail as a husband, to say, You are not what I want. This book came to life out of two failures the failure of my marriage being the first and the second being the failure of my early writings.

For many years, I received more rejections than I was willing to count. Rejections from literary magazines. Rejections from small presses. Rejections from fellowship-granting organizations. I shelved a book. I shelved short stories. I worked at the power company as an administrative assistant. I felt very few people would ever read my work, that any additional work I made was for nobody but me.

(Writer’s Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

 

 

wedlocked-book-ponteri        jay-ponteri-writer-author

Guest column by Jay Ponteri, who directs the undergraduate creative
writing program at Marylhurst University and Show: Tell, The Workshop
for Teen Writers & Artists. He is the founding editor of both the online
literary magazine M Review and HABIT Books. His work has appeared
in Tin House, Puerto Del Sol and Seattle Review. Jay lives in Portland
with his wife and son. His 2013 memoir is WEDLOCKED (Hawthorne,
March 2013), the true story about his marriage, a human institution that
can so often fail, leaving its inhabitants lonely and adrift. Find Jay on Twitter.

 

I also realized I couldn’t be alive and not write, which unbeknownst to me at the time meant my apprenticeship was done. So if I was writing prose only for me, then why not get rid of all the aspects I didn’t enjoy, that felt like labor, that felt antithetical to revelation. I let go, for the most part, of the fiction writer’s tool kit, e.g., the dramatic scene, made-up speech, naming characters, writing about cities in which I didn’t live. It felt like a formula I was failing to follow. The fallow fields in frost. I began working in more meditative and lyrical modes, working with less conceit. The material that arose from the necessity of my being, the wonder of speaking into the unspoken, of conversing with me and with the OTHER, all of this guided decisions around technique.

I wrote Unparagraphs, I aimed for imbalance, I stayed in the moment indefinitely, I realized my maximal self on the page. Most importantly, I wrote myself on to the page. And I learned, as all writers must, how to write in the face of rejection. I received a rejection from an editor I admired, and the next day I wrote.

(Definitions of unusual literary terms & jargon you need to know.)

My reverence for writers who have come before me, who will come long after I die heightened. I am not entitled to anything. You will not hear me use the phrase “my editor” or “my agent,” for I do not possess anybody but myself, and barely that. Success is an illusion, an overused thus emptied word. Our own personal and cultural histories imbue that word with distorted, contradictory meaning that matters very little to the Present Moment of Composition. What matters the most to me about my writing is the Present Moment of Composition. Now. Now. Writing the next word. John Cage: As we go along, (who knows?) an i-dea may occur in this talk. I have no idea whether one will or not. If one does, let it. Regard it as something seen momentarily, as though from a window while traveling.

My memoir Wedlocked is no longer mine, it is yours. I hope you read it and I hope it makes you feel less lonely. I hope that you speak with me into the frost of silence. If you are a writer, I wish for you not to receive any rejections, and I wish for you to achieve success in ways you come to define, but when you do receive that next rejection—via email, in an envelope you have addressed to yourself—take a close look at it, lick it or hold it to your heart, embrace the fact that an editor either read and / or touched with their bare hands your manuscript with your words, said editors are not rejecting you personally, are not at all saying something about the Big Picture of your writing, are not saying you cannot reach them with something other you make in the future, and that moment passes, is dead, so begin your new writing session that reveals, in that next present moment in time, your contradictory heart and mind.

 

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3 thoughts on “How to Write in the Face of Rejection

  1. Stephanie Noel

    Thank you for your words. I’m very curious about your book because I share a similar experience; I was alone in my marriage. I think we don’t handle rejection very well when it comes to our art (any art) because we feel it is a part of us and that by failing to appreciate this part, the rejector condemns us entirely. Of course that is a ridiculous as saying a house is not good because one of the windows is broken.

  2. Winfilda

    Thanks for such inspiring words, I do agree with you in the sense that if you have reached a level where you are confident enough to send any type of material to an editor – rejected or accepted – you have succeded. To me, it will mean some sort of success because i still need to prove to myself that i can do this and should i reach that level were i can send any material to anyone – truly, i have succeeded. “Success is an illusion, an overused thus emptied word.” Well said.

  3. vrundell

    Hi Jay,
    Thanks for sharing. The book sounds like a fascinating read–and an experience many have probably have in common. Best of luck.
    Veronica

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