What Makes a Writer

A few weeks ago, I started taking a class with several other professionals from the nonprofit sector. During our first break, the student sitting ahead of me, a man in his thirties who worked in a community college's finance area, asked me what I did for a living.

I explained where I work. It often spurs one of two reactions: complete lack of interest or piqued curiosity. This man fell into the second category. "Are you a writer?" he asked. I admitted it. The next question sort of startled me: "What do you think is the most important quality a writer needs to possess?"

"Perseverance," i said quickly, not thinking. But the moment it was out of my mouth, I knew it was true.

The man was surprised, assuming, probably naturally, that the most needed quality would be something like a big vocabulary or the general term "talent," the meaning of which is of course completely esoteric.

Today I recalled the conversation as I tore open what felt like my 3,000th rejection letter. My manuscript was compelling, the letter consoled, but there was simply too much competition this year. There were too many manuscripts more deserving.

My name was spelled wrong.

It shouldn't sting like it does, not anymore, and for the most part, many of them don't. But there are days when I can't stomach the thought of tearing open yet another quiet rejection, a stoic thank you for my submission. Submission: such an interesting word. To submit means both to send in for judgment and also to yield to the control of another. Are we all masochists, we perverse writers? Will you take the pain I will give to you? Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode asked in "Strangelove." But that doesn't really matter. What he wants to know is: Will you reteurn it? Like good masochists, we only send things out for the response, not for the act of sending them out.

I'm to the point now where every time I receive a response letter, I repeatedly whisper to myself, It's a rejection, it's a rejection. Not in recognition, but in hope: like Patty Hearst suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, I have seemingly come to love, to depend on the rejection of the literary establishment. Like Patty, I, too, have spent many years locked in the closet of failure, of "we liked your work but we can't use it now. I pray for rejection because I simply wouldn't know how to respond to anything else.

When Jim Elledge called me to tell me I'd won the Frank O'Hara award, I said things like Oh my God. Wow. Oh my God. Mostly without emotion. I was, at some level, waiting for him to say he was just kidding, that he appreciated my submission (read: my yielding to his control) but that my work really didn't suit his needs right now.

Rejection is more comfortable than acceptance because it indicates you still have work to do. It means, surely, there is something you can still repair, or improve—something you can point to and say, This. This is wrong. But with acceptance there is nothing like that. People can praise you until they go blue in the face, but these comments are generally so less specific than the critical—what we would probably consider "constructive." People might say they love your poems, or that they were moved by them, but the comments aren't as clear as the person who says, "Your poem lacks the kind of depth or precision we generally publish. We prefer work that uses images. Are you familiar with imagery?"

Earlier today I was talking with a coworker who told me she'd received her very first rejection recently. I said, with sincerity, that rejection was the first step toward publication. I described to her my file folder of rejections, now too big to take any more half-slips, quarter slips, scribbed notes—it could simply hold no more. A described the Jack Sprat-like comparison of my acceptance file, how anorexic it looked sitting in the same filing bin as the reject file, fat and gluttonous and disgusting, like a small child who has worked his way through a tub of frosting and now, mouth smeared with fudge, teeth blacked out, has turned his attention toward the jelly jars in the pantry. There is no sating the rejection file.

And so, I remembered the conversation from class. Perseverance? the man was asking me. He wasn't sure what I meant. I said, Writing's the easy part. I took a sip of my drink for effect. It's what you do with it that matters.


  1. Charles:

    I feel much the same way you do. In fact, since receiving word my chapbook was being published, I have received 5 rejections through the mail, and another two via e-mail. Of the 21 pages in the chapbook, only three of the poems have been published. The prospects for any more being accepted elsewhere are of course next to none.

    I have never kept any of my rejection letters or acceptance letters and I go in phases as to the reactions I have for both. I mirror your internal monologue every time I see a 5x9 envelope because I want to be surprised. Unfortunately, I have not received an acceptance letter from a journal since November-December of 2005, and that was for a blog. Before that, I think May or June 2005 was my last real acceptance---and it could have been earlier than that. I tend to minimize my losing streaks in order to save my ego.

    I also rarely believe good news. When I received my chapbook acceptance, I sat in mute astonishment. What’s more, I immediately believed not a single poem from that manuscript was worth publication. I was half-way through the checklist of items the editor wanted before I started to believe my chapbook was going to see the light of day. I still don’t think I have allowed myself to enjoy it, and probably won’t even after I get my copies.

  2. You should get this published. (no pun intended) It's an excellent essay. xo

  3. Sadly, acceptances now challenge me more than rejections because, as you point out, it says little. I am challenged both to really look at what I am doing and challenged to grow. All in all, rejections seem just another part of this thing.

  4. Charles - a great post and very true. Thank you!

  5. God I feel like such a loser now. Thanks, buddy.

  6. Great quote at the end. But I wish you would have said, "having a penis is the easy part. It's what you do with it that matters."

  7. Thanks for this post...you're really on a roll. And thanks for helping inform the latest rant at my blog. :)

  8. Great post.

    I assume I've gotten thousands of rejection letters over the years, starting in 1974 when I began sending out stories to literary magazines. But I can't imagine how I could have gotten so many stories published (around 230) if I hadn't gotten all those rejections.

    I'm sure every published writer has experienced this, and I don't have anything profound to say. I mean, I could talk about the story that was rejected 28 times and then accepted by a publication more prestigious (whatever that means) than the ones that rejected it. It doesn't really mean anything.

    At this point, I get a higher percentage of acceptances than I used to, but that's probably because I am more selective about where I send things (I stopped trying The New Yorker in 1979 and have never tried to get in a lot of places I assume are above my station).

    I got an acceptance for an anthology yesterday. It made me feel good momentarily, but just as I disregard rejections after submitting stuff for over 30 years, I don't get very excited about acceptances, either.

  9. excellent essay- I received a rejection yesterday.

    I'm sure I'll read the work in the next issue (it's not primarily a 'poetry zine') and wonder what in the world made them choose those poems over mine.

    During the month of september, there is a glorious interpretation of one of my poems in a local gallery. It doesn't photograph well and if I'm lucky 500-600 people will see it, perhaps some one will purchase it. That's almost as good as being published, I think.

  10. I believe you're correct. I call it perverse desire but it's the same thing. To keep going forward. Most don't. Most poets (and violinists) tend to give up around the age of 16, when it starts getting hard.

    Thank god.