To read more lengthy responses to the prompt, check out our latest issue, which is filled with sad sack tales, essays, and poems dealing in rejection and regret.
One of the very first rejection letters I ever received was from Tin House. When I say letter, I mean unsigned, photocopied quarter-slip of paper. This totally unencouraging wisp of a thing took no more than three lines to deal its death blow:
Dear Writer, thanks for your submission, unfortunately we must pass, etc., etc., scene.
I know because I still have the letter. It’s taped into the earliest pages of my Notebook of Failure and Triumph, right alongside nearly identical slips from New England Review, Mid-American Review, and Zoetrope All-Story. All say the same “thanks, but no thanks.” The Tin House specimen is pinned down with care, as if extra-young writer me knew I’d struck out on a new hobby—not writing per se, but collecting rejections like butterflies.
I started keeping the Notebook of Failure and Triumph in my sophomore year of college in an effort to take my own work seriously. I wanted more than anything to be in the game. I had some sense that part of professionalizing was learning to be secretary to my own work. I also had the sense that I needed to, um, write something worth publishing.
In high school, I had decided that if I wanted to be a writer then I should be writing, and so I wrote a novel. I can say how certifiably not-good that book is now not because I’ve reached the vantage point of some much greater accomplishment, but simply because I’ve (thank god) gotten some distance from it, and because (thank god) I’m no longer in high school. The scene I most relished writing was about the main character dyeing her hair black in an act of willful rebellion. The runner-up was about kissing. I showed the book to a neighbor who had some tenuous connection to the New Yorker from a previous work life. I seethed as she told me what a great English teacher I could still be.
In college, the stories I was sending out were not a lot better. The one Tin House shot down was about sexual awakening at a school production of a play about the life of Sylvia Plath. New England Review rejected the one about clandestine supermarket lobster liberation and two kids who’ve apprenticed themselves to a saint. There were lots of Neil Young lyrics as titles, lots of sexual tension between couples who professed to be friends. They were all a little bit Wes Anderson, a little bit rock n’ roll. The darkest ones make me think of Francie’s stories in Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become A Writer,” with old people dying “idiot deaths” in freak electrical accidents and yogurt stand disasters.
For these college stories alone, I must have thirty pages of taxidermied rejection slips. If I was daunted, I don’t remember it. What I do know is that I feel daunted more now, eight years and an MFA and three publishing jobs later, when the rejections come in for whatever latest weird thing I’ve made. I’ve staked a bet on writing that very well could not pay off, and that carries a hell of a lot more consequences than it did for me as a sophomore English major. The Notebook of Failure and Triumph keeps growing—both parts of it. (Maybe because I keep on writing about lobsters?)
That bad book, though, remains one of the things in my life that I’m proudest of, along with my Tin House letter. I wish I could say I look at them now and feel smug about having ascended beyond them to some far-greater writing plane. What I can say is that they’re my favorite proof that I’ve played the game. I hereby add a Triumph page to the Notebook in honor just of that.
And if, in the process of that keeping on, I’ve leveled up enough to be on the business end of Submittable and draft a less snotty form letter for Tin House, that’s good news for Notebooks of Failure and Triumph everywhere.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is assistant editor at Tin House magazine. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, Web Conjunctions, The Story Collider, Hunger Mountain (and Tin House! Find an essay from her in the Rejection issue on newsstands now). Her only known natural enemy is the velociraptor.