Embracing failure when creative work is rejected

One of my favorite sessions to present at conferences is about writing pitches as a freelance writer, journalist, podcaster, poet, or creator of any type. I have an opportunity to share what I’ve learned over 25 years of freelancing, and my slideshow yells “FUCK NO” at the audience.

Let me explain!

After I discuss crafting and sending a pitch, I share what often comes next: rejection. The next slide has a single screenshot of a rejection I received:

Andy – 

Thanks for pitching – I am going to say no.

And then nine more examples pop up, with increasing speed, including:

It’s great to hear from you! I am going to say no to this one. I can’t quite hear it in my head as a really compelling radio piece.

Thanks for the pitch. Unfortunately, it’s not quite right for us and we’re going to pass. Best of luck finding another home for your story. 

At the end, a massive NO appears on the screen, turns red, and then gets appended: FUCK NO

That’s what rejection feels like: a big red FUCK NO.

As anyone who’s ever received a rejection will recognize, the rejections I excerpted above are incredibly kind: they include reasons, they wish me good luck.

Even more importantly: they’re actual rejections. Someone took the time to send me something, even a form letter. I’ve kept all of those, filed away. (I’m an e-mail hoarder.)

The demands on editors, shrinking staffs, lower freelance budgets, and other structural issues in publishing have meant an increasing number of rejections come in the form of silence. Some pitching guidelines make that explicit: If you don’t hear from us in x weeks, it’s a no.

For me, a lack of a response is even more challenging to deal with than a rejection that contains constructive feedback.

My dad died earlier this summer, and while cleaning out a well-organized filing cabinet, we found a binder labeled with a line drawing of his self-portrait.

I knew him as a math guy, the CFO-type, not as an artist, though he did sometimes draw faces on birthday cards, especially his own.

In the binder were pages of sketches, drafts, and ideas from the 1970s, maybe early 1980s. Some were the same cartoon drawn multiple times. One shows a person on a bulldozer riding across a concrete landscape, aiming for a single flower that’s sprung up in the crack. I’d seen a few of those before.

In a plastic sleeve were these two handwritten notes that I don’t recall seeing:

Two handwritten letters, both on Mad magazine letterhead. The first says: "Dave, We have plenty of you're really (such-and-such)! We can't use help in any of the standard formats we do regularly. Mad-ly, Jerry DeFuccio" The second says: "We're not a gag magazine unless it's a common theme. Can't use random cartoons. Jerry DeFuccio"
Two rejections Mad magazine’s associate editor sent to my dad, Dave Dehnart, probably in the 1980s, maybe 1970s, after he submitted unsolicited cartoons.

They’re signed by Jerry DeFuccio, associate editor at Mad whose name is on Mad Magazine #4.

In my freelancing career, I’ve never received a handwritten rejection, so I find these to be remarkable artifacts. The words, though, are more familiar: “We have plenty,” “We can’t use,” et cetera.

In my conference presentations, I encourage people to embrace failure. Sure, a rejection can come because we didn’t follow the pitch guidelines, or pitched to the wrong place.

But even the perfectly researched, crafted, and targeted pitch will sometimes be rejected. That can be true whether we’re seeking publication or just posting something on Instagram or TikTok.

The part we can control as writers, freelancers, and artists is doing the best work we can, and offering it into the world with care.

In the best moments, failure—whatever form it takes—can help us learn and grow, and sometimes even leads us down different paths. Getting fired from a freelancing gig led me to start reality blurred, for example.

This is not easy! I’ve had a lot of practice failing—including getting many, many pitches rejected. It never gets easier.

I don’t know how many cartoons my dad sent to Mad or other publications. I don’t know why he started submitting, nor why he stopped. Today, I only know that he kept them, and that as creative people seeking publication, we shared the sting of rejection. But we also both held on to those rejections, because they’re one form of proof that we tried.

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