I miss rejection slips.
Not that I enjoyed receiving those ignominious pre-printed slips of paper, but at least when my SASE came back, I was pretty sure an editor, or an assistant editor, or an assistant’s assistant, had put it in the envelope. There was a flesh-and-blood person at the other end of the line. And there was always the chance I might see a single handwritten sentence on the bottom, signed by the editor, indicating the piece almost made it or, joy of joys, she would like to see more of my work. When an editor at McCall’s wrote, “I’m afraid I have to say no on this particular piece, but try me again on another, would you?,” it was almost as exciting to me as if she had said, “We’ll buy it.”
My history with rejection slips goes way back. I was 14 when I got my first. At that time, I was a huge fan of Ogden Nash, whose humorous verse appeared in The New Yorker almost every week. Some of his poems were short:
The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.
But it was the long ones with their unmetered, unusual rhymes that set my imitative juices stirring. I can write like that, I thought, and I did. Unfortunately, the editors at The New Yorker preferred to stick with the original, and my SASE came back to me with a standard nothing-doing slip enclosed.
Of course, I railed against the editor’s decision and continued to write unsaleable verse all the way through high school. It wasn’t until after college that I developed my own style and sold my first poem to Collier’s magazine:
Betrayal at Plymouth
Greasy gizzards, flying feathers,
Oh, the difference it would make,
If the Pilgrims had decided
To give thanks with sirloin steak.
Acceptance came by way of a handwritten, nine-word note from then-Collier’s humor editor Gurney Williams: “Miss Blake: Glad to report we’re keeping ‘Betrayal at Plymouth.’ Thanks.”
Like they say, you always remember your first.
With the advent of email submissions, SASEs have become obsolete and, unfortunately, in many instances, so have rejection slips. Even Harper’s Magazine, a longtime holdout for submissions by mail, does not mention enclosing an SASE in its guidelines. Most editors today don’t seem to feel obligated to acknowledge they have received, read, or considered your poem/essay/article, even with so much as “thank-you-very-much for sending us your essay/poem/article.” Writers are forewarned: Because XYZ publication receives so many submissions each day, we do not have time to respond individually. So, if the writer has not heard back in a certain amount of time – and this varies, anywhere from one to six months(!) – he/she can assume they are not interested. Compare this with a note I received from Maggie Cousins, managing editor of Good Housekeeping, to whom I had sent four or five poems to be considered for “Light Housekeeping,” a popular monthly feature of the magazine. (Note: The “Mr. Mayes” she mentions is Herbert Mayes, who was editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping until 1958, when he and Ms. Cousins moved to McCall’s.)
Dear Lyla Blake Ward,
Mr. Mayes asked me to tell you he has selected two of your poems for publication in Good Housekeeping. We receive hundreds of submissions each week, so you are indeed to be congratulated.
If editors had been as aloof as some are now when I first started sending my work out, I’m not sure I would have stayed in the game long enough to get my first acceptance. Waiting for my SASE to appear in my mailbox and holding it up to the light to see if I could tell if an ordinary rejection slip was in it – or, perhaps, a letter and a check – kept my spirits up even when the rejections far outnumbered the acceptances.
Many of the writers who became legends of 20th-century literature have written about the part rejection slips played in their ultimate success. Sylvia Plath said, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” Stephen King wrote that when a nail he had hammered into the wall became so laden with rejection slips that it caved under the weight, he replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.
For me, there are three stages of rejection slip grief. The first is despondency brought on by finding a flat “no” in black and white on a characterless piece of paper, then followed by anger (how could they turn down a piece that is obviously so much better than most of the stuff they print), and, finally, resurrection: I will live to submit another day.
Learning to accept rejection seems like part of growing up as a writer – and maybe that’s why I miss rejection slips. Despite the many personal letters of acceptance I have received from newspapers and magazines in various parts of the country, my folder of “Noteworthy Rejection Slips” is far fatter than my folder of “Noteworthy Acceptances,” which indicates to me the incontrovertible fact: I still have some growing up to do.
—Lyla Blake Ward’s humorous op-eds, poems, and articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country for more than 70 years. She is the author of two books, How to Succeed at Aging Without Really Dying and Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye: Growing Up Slightly Jewish On the Upper West Side, and she is contemplating a third.