Creative Inspirational Wisdom: Six Steps for Dealing with Rejections

This week, Publications Chair Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen touches on a subject we’re all painfully familiar with — and one that inevitably comes with being a creative woman.

The worst rejection letter I ever received came from a small Colorado-based “literary” magazine that billed itself as prime literature for the doctor’s office waiting room.


I’m going to let the above line stand alone and sink in. Consider for a moment, if you will, the plight of the writer. Good writing doesn’t just happen; it takes time and effort. Querying literary magazines to get the writing published, thereby validating said expended time and effort, takes even more time and effort. The higher profile publications receive hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories each month. Competition for placement is fierce, and refusals are many.


Rejection-free indie publishing has removed some of the sting, but even these authors will admit they’d rather have someone accept and publish their work “traditionally,” which is the only reason why we continue to subject ourselves to the often soul-crushing process of querying.


This, of course, brings me back to my opening sentence. The rejecting publication was not The Paris Review. It was something people read while waiting to get their tonsils swabbed for a strep test. Moreover, it was spreading streptococcal bacteria to the next unsuspecting reader/patient, and then to the one after that.


What I’m trying to say here, gently, is that I wasn’t aiming all that high.


Even so, I’d done my homework by reading the publication and developing a feel for what the editors liked. I selected a story that fit their style. After drafting a professional query letter, I mailed out the still-warm manuscript out first class. For a few days, I basked in the pleasant possibility that another one of my stories would be published.


Less than a week later, a S.A.S.E. arrived in my mailbox. At once, I knew that a single sheet of paper was inside—never a good sign.


Sighing, I tore it open, expecting the usual: Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, we do not feel it is right for our publication. We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. These form rejection letters are unsigned and grainy from years of having been photocopied off other yellowing photocopies of the first form rejection letter ever written, no doubt penned and printed by Gutenberg himself. Like most professional writers, I’ve received more than my fair share of them.


What I found inside, however, was something altogether different. In my hands was the same query letter I’d mailed out only days earlier. Right underneath my signature, the editor had written in two-inch-tall block letters with a red Sharpie marker: NO!


It’s difficult to describe what went through my mind and in what order. I remember an initial flash of mortification, looking around to see if someone was filming my reaction for an updated Candid Camera series, and finally, righteous indignation. Would it have killed the editor to have been polite? After all, he’d solicited submissions in Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Why respond like I’d shown up selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door just as dinner was being put on the table?


Rejection sucks in general, but it especially blows when delivered by sucker-punch from a decidedly mediocre publication. My good friend, Erin, a talented poet, shared her own frustration when her work was rejected by another “literary” magazine that was—I kid you not—printed on typing paper and then crookedly stapled with such amateurish aplomb that it made me, a former print production manager for a Fortune 500 company, want to throw its editors into a cage and spray them with a fire hose until they screamed for mercy. At least they’d had the decency, however, to be polite to her.


This is where I (hopefully) impart some creative inspirational wisdom as a takeaway from this mock-horror story. Another good friend and connoisseur of ironic meditations, Tim, posted a meme on Facebook a few months ago containing a variation of the Latin phrase “Illegitimi non carborundum.” Loosely translated, it advises not letting those not-so-nice folks succeed in discouraging one’s efforts—good advice, even if stated in a somewhat mysterious and indelicate way. (Google it for the actual translation, but not in the company of those with fragile sensibilities.)


Here are some practical steps to take with your own rejection letters, based on my ample experience:

  1. Read them.
  2. If they say something useful, consider the advice. Such feedback is rare!
  3. If they don’t say something useful, shred them.
  4. Better yet, line a cage with them and allow a bird to “critique” them.
  5. Or ceremoniously burn them, if you’re into that kind of thing.
  6. Then, for the love of all that’s creative, move on! That’s what I did.


Illegitimi non carborundum, folks. Keep on creating!

Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen, M.F.A., has had work published in several literary magazines and anthologies. Her book, Publicize This! Promoting Your Group or Nonprofit on a Limited or Nonexistent Budget, was published in 2014. An NLAPW member at large, she teaches literature and writing at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island. This post is an adaptation of another published on October 1, 2014, at her author blog.


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  1. Thanks Kathleen for sharing your experience. We creatives, all know the sting of rejection. It’s part of the package and means we are serious about our work. Karma will catch up to Mr. Red Marker. And when it does we might hear him scream, “Ouch. That hurt.”

  2. Marlene Klotz says:

    Constructive criticism? The great Agatha Christie’s first novel was rejected
    11 times. Then she hit the jackpot with number #12. I bet she did not listen
    to any voice other than her very own. Thank heavens! As for handling rejection ,
    get out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat. Rejection can hurt, but what
    is more damaging comes from giving up instead of perseverance.

  3. sara etgen-baker says:

    Rejection…we all live with it in our personal, professional, and creative lives. As you said, Kathleen, experience should tell us to detach and not take any rejection too personally and move on. Strong advise. And most helpful. Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

  4. Jill Adler says:

    My writing mentor taught “dealing with rejections” in his classes. His philosophy/process is very similar to yours. He suggested crumpling in your hands for that satisfying feel, then throwing it away from you, preferably across the room. Just not in the trash. He said pick up the ones with constructive criticism, carefully flatten, then consider the information carefully as many of these could mean help or aid to get your next submission published. For those “no comment” over-copied and/or derogatory “what were they thinking?” ones – he too suggested getting very creative with discovering self-satisfying symbolic destructive methods – although a caution about ceremoniously discarding too many at a time involving household plumbing….