Celebration Bonfires, Putting Rejection and Other Writerly Frustrations in Perspective


American Novelist and Short Story Writer, Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987)

“I would go home in the evening and write short stories and mail them to magazine editors in New York. The stories, no matter how many times I rewrote them, were always returned, usually without comment, with unfailing promptness. I received so many rejection slips, and such an interesting variety, that I passed them neatly into a stamp collector’s album.  The only consolation I ever got out of them for many years was in visualizing how big a celebration bonfire I could make with them when I had my first short story accepted and published in a magazine.” Erskine Caldwell, “Call it Experience,” in The Creative Writer


Many many years ago – circa 1964 – I read The Creative Writer (quoted above), which is out of print now. You can find old copies, not that you necessarily need to. Much is outdated. At the time, I found it helpful and inspirational. The book, a collection of instructional and inspirational essays, was published by Writer’s Digest, the publishers of the magazine by that name.  This was my go-to place to hob-nob with writers and publishers, a publication I read through high school and even into my son’s grammar school years. He told me not too long ago that as a child he found it rather magical that it showed up no matter where we moved.

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My other go-to magazine was The Writer. These magazines didn’t so much teach me how to write as offer me some knowledge of the business of writing, which has changed much since then. A story perhaps for another day. The articles I read  instilled a sense of perspective, rational expectations (do NOT read lowered expectations), and a stronger determination. I discovered that sending my writing out into the world is like applying for a job. I do my homework and refine my technique and that improves the odds. Nonetheless, it’s still a numbers game and I may never know why I get a rejection slip. I don’t always know why I get an acceptance letter (or email) either.

Reading what others had to say about the business of studying markets, writing query letters and submitting work helped me to understand that I had to keep on keeping on. This was a good thing. My first poem was published when I was seventeen and that created some rather unrealistic expectations. I thought I was such a hot-shot that my seventeenth year was also the year I submitted a short story to Mademoiselle magazine (closed 2001) for its annual fiction contest. The contest was for college students. I was still in high school. I lied and put Brooklyn College on the entry form. Joyce Carol Oats won.

All this is to say I am reminded of my history because now and again I get emails from discouraged writers and I’m finally – FINALLY – getting around to reading Victor Villaseñor’s Macho!  Apropos this post, I found his dedication interesting:

“To my parents …. after ten years of writing and 260 rejections – my first one! …” [My emphasis.]

Also interesting is his author’s note to the 1997 paperback edition:

Mexican-American Writer, Victor Villaseñor (b. 1940)

“In re-reading Macho! I found out that I am not the same person who wrote that book twenty years ago. I thought of rewriting parts of it – feeling almost ashamed of some sections. But then I got to thinking, hell, the 60s were the 60s and that’s who I was then, so I’m not going to change it. It’s rough and sometimes it sings as badly off-key as Bob Dylan – he was no Joan Baez, believe me – but what it says is still important.”

In my small way, I know what he means by the roughness and dissonance. I’ve been shredding years of my newspaper column clips. After reading a couple, I couldn’t stand it. Not only did I dislike much of the writing but I disagreed with the opinions I’d expressed. One problem with writing is that floundering is so visible. I shudder to think who among family, friends and colleagues might have read that material. It does take a certain amount of chutzpah to be a writer, not as much as public speaking but almost.

Yes! I know what you think. Writing is an art. It’s also a job. Every job has its downside. With writing it’s rejection slips, growing personally and artistically in public, and that aspect which requires some sales savvy, something most of us would rather not pursue. These, however, are part of the package.  

After some 360 rejections, Erskine Caldwell went on to critical acclaim and controversy for Tobacco Road (1931) and God’s Little Acre (1933), both made into movies. Twenty-five of his novels, 150 of his short stories, twelve nonfiction collections, two autobiographies and two YA books were published. He edited American Folkways, a series of books about various regions in the U.S. Apparently, he got over rejection slips, chalked them up to “experience” and moved on.

My celebration bonfire: Not a bonfire at all, just shredding and shedding of old clips I’d rather not see anymore and feeling grateful for the lessons learned, the opportunities enjoyed, the writing life and my fellow poets and writers who enrich my time on earth with their own art and insights.

© 2017, Jamie Dedes; photocredits, Erskine Caldwell (1975), public domain and Victor Villaseñor courtesy of Jeffrey Beall under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

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