This year, I had only one New Year’s resolution: to receive a rejection letter from a literary agent. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to succeed. It was because rejection isn’t the opposite of success, but a necessary step on the road to accomplishment.
Rejection sucks. It’s inevitable, but still — it sucks. This problem is especially prevalent here at Princeton, where students who were their high school’s star athlete or lead actor or first chair find themselves suddenly surrounded by people who are, let’s face it, more talented than them. So often, Princeton students will go through audition after interview after application and face rejection after rejection after rejection. I’ve certainly had my fair share here, and I won’t pretend that it didn’t shatter my self-esteem a little.
Most of these auditions were for music or theater, but my true passion is writing. Through elementary school and middle school, I read every book I could get my hands on, obsessively researched the craft and the publishing industry, and wrote hundreds of pages of unfinished drafts of fantasy novels. In seventh grade, I finished my first novel. Reader, it was awful. The next one was just as awful, and while the following two were marginally better, they still weren’t quite ready to be released into the lion’s den of the querying process.
Then came novel number five. This one, co-written with my best friend, hit me in a way nothing ever had before. I love it fiercely.
After two years spent writing and editing and working in coffee shops past closing time, we finally had a novel that could be sent to literary agents in the hopes of being traditionally published. And my goal was to get rejected.
Why rejected? Why on earth would I want to be told that the novel of my heart is “not a good fit for us at the moment”? Because it would mean I tried. It would mean that at last, I was brave enough to start taking actual, concrete steps towards my dream. I harbored no fantasies that I would be the one-in-a-million writer who gets accepted on her very first query. For me, the form rejection was less of a “your work wasn’t good enough” and more of a “congratulations for putting yourself out there.”
I think we should all try to frame things that way. Rejection isn’t necessarily a failure, but a sort of victory. That email reading “I’m sorry, but we are unable to offer you a spot at this time” isn’t a badge of shame, but one of honor. Because there’s only one kind of person who’s never received a rejection letter, and it isn’t the people we think of as wildly, preternaturally successful.
You will never see a performance or read a book or attend a gallery show by someone who has never been rejected. You probably will never even work with them. The only people who have never been rejected are those who have never opened themselves up to failure and thus have never opened themselves up to success.
So audition for that music or theater or dance group. Try out for that sports team. Submit to that literary magazine. Apply to that job. No matter how long of a shot it is, no matter how the odds are stacked against you, you — at the risk of sounding like every search result for “inspirational quotes” on Pinterest — will never know until you try.
In August, we sent our query letter and sample pages to six agents. Within two days, my New Year’s resolution was achieved. Within a month, it was achieved five times over. But in the midst of the rejection letters that I wore with pride, there was one more response: “Dear Katie and Lydia, I’m certainly intrigued by your novel and would like to read more. Could you send me the full manuscript?”
It’s not an acceptance, not yet. But it was further than I’d ever thought we’d get on our first round of querying. And while we wait for that agent to get back to us, we’re going to send out another wave of letters. I look forward to receiving more rejections.
Katie Bushman is a sophomore from Northern Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.