The Life of a Salesman
The first clue was my handwriting on the stamped envelope. They use your own postage to deliver the bad news.
A slip of blue paper confirmed my suspicions.
Thank you for your submission. We are sorry that it does not meet our editorial needs at this time.
Rejections are hard enough to take, it's even more dispiriting to be turned down by a form letter.
I've got half a mind to send a boilerplate reply of my own:
Thank you for your rejection. I'm sorry that it does not defeat my literary dreams at this time.
Over the years, I've been a student of rejection. I even dreamed of starting a website, Rejection.com, that would offer comfort to writers by cataloguing the names of writers and books publishers had deemed unfit to print. The list is comforting: Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," George Orwell's "Animal Farm," and scores of other literary classics that didn't meet someone's editorial needs at that time. The website would celebrate the legendary resilience of Bobbie Ann Mason, who reportedly withstood 19 rejections from the New Yorker before her 20th submission opened the doors.
These days, most of my writing is self-assigned, putting me in the position of a literary beggar. "Will write on spec," the cardboard sign reads. I'm much more aware of how turndowns come with the package.
As a newspaper reporter for more than two decades, I'd gotten spoiled. Pretty much everything I wrote was published.
Wait a minute. How about all those times people refused to talk to me, didn't return my calls, closed the door in my face? And let's not forget all the leads I rewrote at a disappproving editor's bidding, the chunks of carefully-wrought prose I summarily whacked, not to mention all the story ideas dismissed with a cursory, "I don't think so."
My grandfather was a salesman, and -- by all accounts -- a good one; he managed to sell dustless street sweepers to the city of New York, no small feat, since they were not only not dustless, they didn't sweep very well either. My dad followed in his peddler's footsteps, starting out selling women's nylons and working his way up to hawking paper products, including the rolls you wipe your hands on in restrooms.
Whatever happens, I vowed, I would never be a salesman.
And I kept that promise, didn't I?
Hah! All writers -- whether they're in newsrooms, on Madison Avenue, in Hollywood, or toiling in obscurity -- are in the sales business. Every day we're selling sources, subjects, editors, readers, and, often the toughest pitch of all, ourselves.
Whatever the outlet, writing is a gift of yourself that you offer up. And you have no control over whether people will accept it.
In the face of rejection, there are only two responses: give up or try again.
I add this latest rejection slip from a literary magazine to my collection and turn back to the short story I had submitted. Hmm, I could foreshadow the story's ending better in the opening paragraph. That's it!
This time, for sure, I tell myself, as I write my name and address on yet another stamped envelope.