Not At This Time: Rejection Letters to Famous Writers

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Why is dad so sad?  Probably because he just checked his mail and found his self-addressed stamped envelope in his box, his manuscript inside, and the dreaded form letter saying, “We are sorry, but your manuscript does not currently meet our specific needs.”  The first dozen or so times, Dad wanted to believe the closing line promising to review his work in the future but…

Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) knew the feeling.  His now-classic children’s book  And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected a whopping twenty-seven times before it was finally accepted by Vanguard Press.  This may be your fate as well.

Putting your work out in the world is scary. Rejection sucks. It can make you afraid to do it again.  But you have to try.  Because the twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth time might just be the one.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Treesoffers this advice to writers feeling wounded:  “This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”

To give you hope, here are ten rejections of famous writers as well as a some of their reactions and advice about coping with rejection:

1.  The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula Le Guin

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2.  Saul Bellow 

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“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’“  (Source)

3.  Tim Burton 

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A ripe, 18-year-old Burton, still in high school, submitted his illustrated children’s book to Walt Disney Productions for consideration. That was 1976, and T. Jeanette Kroger, author of his rejection letter, didn’t see inThe Giant Zlig what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, BAFTA, Cannes, and, it’s fair to say, the majority of humanity saw in him in later years. Kroger thanked Burton for his mail and made no mention of the possibility of publication but did give the artist some tips.  (Source)

4.  Anita Shreve

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“To ward off a feeling of failure, she joked that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejection slips, which she chose not to see as messages to stop, but rather as tickets to the game.”  (Source)

5.  Sylvia Plath

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Plath’s novel The Bell Jar was also rejected:

“The Knopf editor “jbj” knows all too well what difference a name drop can make; Plath originally submitted her novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, whose work received the original, terse in-house review printed below. When it was revealed that Victoria Lucas was in fact Sylvia Plath, an embarrassed jbj took a greater interest in the work, although he ultimately still rejected it. Plath’s only novel eventually became an American classic and staple of every high school curriculum, but before that, the rest of the Knopf staff seem to have agreed with jbj — unpublishable.”  (Source)

6.   Chuck Wendig

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“Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better. This is a powerful revelation, like the burning UFO wheel seen by the prophet Ezekiel, or like the McRib sandwich shaped like the Virgin Mary seen by the prophet Steve Jenkins. Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?”  (Source)

7.  Hunter S. Thompson Expresses His Displeasure to His Biographer, William McKeen

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8.  Neil Gaiman

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“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”  (Source)

9.  Kurt Vonnegut 

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“A decade and a half later, a writing sample by Vonnegut would have been accepted without a look beyond the author name, but in 1949, Kurt Vonnegut was a nobody, and the editors at The Atlantic Monthly had no big plans to lift him out of anonymity. After mailing the magazine three samples of his work, he received the above letter of rejection from editor Edward Weeks, which now hangs, framed, in Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. The following decades of Vonnegut’s career were characterized by a prolific output of award-winning novels, including Cat’s Cradle and Slaughter-House Five, the latter of which is rumored to have developed out of one of the rejected samples.” (Source)

10.  On the Road by Jack Kerouac

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“Now heralded as the beat bible, Jack Kerouac’s magnum opus On the Road was finally published by Viking Press in 1957, six years after it was written. But in 1951, given its provocative content and untraditional style, publishing houses wouldn’t touch it. Knopf was just one of many whose editors reviewed the manuscript harshly and reported it as untouchable to their editors.”  (Source)


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