Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
On Rejection: Part I

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Although I make my living as a writer and an editor, I hate getting rejected. So I've given myself the same New Year's resolution for two years in a row: to get more rejections.

Remember Psych 101 in college when we learned about situational versus dispositional thinking? The idea is that healthy, grounded people take credit for the good things that come their way (they think dispositionally about their achievements) and chalk the bad stuff up to the situational: bad luck, someone else's indigestion, or some other factor outside of their control.

Somehow I never learned to think this way. In college when I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, I decided it was because my teachers liked me, not because of my own hard work. In graduate school when I was awarded a highly competitive fellowship, I asked my father if he thought the selection committee had made a mistake.

If I belittled my own successes, I also took every rejection as an indication of my worthlessness. If a guy I had a crush on didn't like me, it was because I was too ugly. If I didn't get a job, it was because I hadn't prepared my application carefully enough.

So why at this point in my life (I'm 36) would I possibly seek out rejection, the very thing that makes me feel so _____(ADD PEJORATIVE ADJECTIVE HERE)?

Because in order to be a successful writer I know I have to learn not to take rejection personally, and to see every rejection as a new opportunity. What better way to change my thinking and my life view than to actively seek out what makes me cringe the most?

It works. I pile up rejections. In fact, I receive enough rejections to wallpaper my entire office; but since that is my goal, I feel oddly successful. I am sticking to my New Year's resolution. But as a byproduct of trying to get rejected, I have also been accepted, which is what I'm really after, of course. I've published in markets I'd been afraid to try. I broke into the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor and Parenting. I've also doubled my consulting fees and applied for grants that fear of rejection kept me away from in the past.

During my first rejection-seeking year, I also became the Creative Nonfiction Editor of Literary Mama, a position that requires me to sit on the other side of the desk and write rejection letters to other writers.

Writing rejection letters is the worst part of my job. The last thing I want to do is close the door on women writers and tell them they can't come in. I hate being rejected so much that I'd rather have the flu than hurt someone else's feelings in that way. But I do it. I get more than a dozen submissions a week, and I reject probably 98% of them. And the stories that do make it past my desk don't necessarily make it into our magazine, since it's the senior editors who ultimately have the final say.

As much as I dislike rejecting others, being an editor has made me understand that as often as not rejection really is situational, not dispositional. Literary Mama has unique needs. Despite the cliché, I often receive pieces that really "aren't right for our magazine." Maybe we've run a similar story recently or have one in inventory. Maybe the voice isn't lyrical or original enough, or maybe the submission is too much of an essay or opinion piece when we strive to find creative nonfiction that tells a story with vibrant characters, interesting dialogue, and plot. None of this has anything to do with the merit of the writing per se; rather, it has to do with what Literary Mama is looking for. Having a piece rejected by us has nothing to do with you as a person, no matter how personally you take it.

If you've read this far, you're probably wondering what the secret is to cracking Creative Nonfiction. I'm on a strict word count so I'll have to tell you -- and I will -- in the next Mama Sez column.

In the meantime, remember Christmas in July? Why not celebrate New Year's in May? Make a resolution now to get more rejections. You may be surprised at the positive results. Even better, you may actually give yourself credit for them.


Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D. (“Poker Face”) is a freelance writer, consultant, and parent educator. She is the editor and co-author of Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love (Seal Press), which won the Independent Publishers Book Association Award. Her writing has been published in Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008), Ms. Magazine; Pregnancy; Newsday; Mothering Magazine; Brain, Child; World Pulse; and dozens of other national and local magazines and newspapers. She has eaten fried crickets in Niger, appeared live on prime-time TV in France, and performed the can-can in America. She lives in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband and three small children. Find out more about her at: www.JenniferMargulis.net.


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Great column about rejections, Jennifer. You should know why they are tough from both sides of the desk! Thanks!
Some rejections help, others just sit there and confuse the heck out of me. But I've had more acceptence than rejection lately, which is enough to keep the wheels greased for another round. You're right, of course, it's not personal. But creative nonfiction is, by its nature, so personal I think it's tougher to take rejection than on fiction.
The rejection I received from Literary Mamas was the most personal and detailed rejection I have ever received. I even forwarded it on to other writers who were equally impressed with the personal rejection and startled by the specific mention of why the piece was not right for Literary Mama. It did make me realize that I should have known better than to send a humor essay to a site that is literary in nature and made me think hard about appropriate venues for submission, but at the same time, I want to get my work out into world and read, even if the result is rejection. So, I sent the same story to another writer friend for suggestions as to where to submit, she sent back the Literary Mama site with a note that said "How about here?"
Jennifer, Thanks for taking the time and initiative to write such thoughtful and insightful words. Sharing your real life feelings, educational learning, and constructive feedback was very helpful for me. You gave the writer in me more confidence to keep trying!
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