By Aaron Hamburger
I’m an avid tennis player, so last summer when one of my partners canceled our game at the last minute, I thought I would get some extra practice by hitting shots against the wall of a nearby handball court. Yet, after a few minutes of hitting, I became frustrated. The reason? I couldn’t tell whether my shots were any good because there was no net.
While in the middle of a heated tennis match, I don’t exactly feel warmth for the net, particularly when it snags a ball that would have been a brilliant winning shot against my opponent. In fact, in such cases, I have been known to give that net a good hard smack with my racquet.
And yet once the net was gone, I keenly felt its absence.
Writing without rejection is like playing tennis without a net—it’s just not the same game. Actually, it’s not the game at all. I’m not just saying that rejection is a helpful tool for writers. In fact, the business of rejection and the business of writing are one and the same.
This is what writers do. We invite rejection into our lives. Constantly. If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not a writer. You’re a hobbyist.
Rejection can take any number of useful forms. Consider the case of Philip Roth, perennial candidate for the imaginary title of Greatest Living American Writer. Before the beginning of the `90s, he was certainly a respected figure, but I would argue more for the work he’d done in the past, like Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint.
Then suddenly, Roth took a sudden roaring leap back to relevance with a string of books—including Sabbath’s Theater, The Human Stain, and American Pastoral, which finally won him that Pulitzer he’d kept getting rejected for—that put him squarely back in the limelight and earned him a fan base with a younger generation of readers.
Since then, there has not been a great deal of rejection in Roth’s life, and perhaps as a consequence, his books have become somewhat more pale and less vivid. After all, what editor would dare to say to the great Philip Roth, “You know, I really appreciate the quality of the prose, but there’s something missing here that makes this piece just not right for us.”
I make it my goal to get rejected 100 times a year. Otherwise, I know I’m either not sending out my work at all, or else I’m not aiming high enough, only applying for things I know I’ll get instead of challenging myself to reach higher, dare more.
Of course, hearing “no” over and over can get wearying and sometimes I backslide. Too nervous about the prospect of failure to risk success, I’ll hide my work from the world. And yet I find that when I do go for my 100 rejections, I’ll also get 6 or 7 acceptances in venues I’d have otherwise never dreamed of approaching. When I retrench into silence, I get an equal number of rejections and acceptances: zero.
So that’s the gift that rejection brings. With rejection, I’m a real writer. Without it, I’m all by myself, hitting balls meaninglessly against a concrete wall.
Aaron Hamburger is the author of The View from Stalin’s Head, winner of the Rome Prize in Literature, and Faith for Beginners. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Poets and Writers, Out, Nerve, Time Out, Details, and The Forward. Currently he teaches creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.