I’m a sore loser.
I’ll admit it. The act of losing gracefully has always been lost on me. I’m notoriously bad at processing rejection; I’m talking despondent, over-aggravated, no-longer-invited-to-family-game-night levels of sore loserdom. I’m not, thankfully, the type of sore loser who resents the winners, nor am I particularly loud about my dissatisfaction about losing, but for whatever reason, rejection puddles my emotions. The word “lose” always felt appropriate as a contrast of “win”, because to not win always inspired grief, like there was an opportunity cradled in my arms and I fumbled and lost it. I just can’t help but take it personally.
The art of publishing is at least 85 percent processing rejection. Writers draft and redraft and redraft and send pieces out to prestigious literary magazines and three months later the “declined” message bores into our eyes like a missile. Especially teen writers, who have their own pressure-cookers, internship applications and YoungArts portfolios and college resumes, that all but promise eventual rejection. Writing is about learning to lose well. Which is hard. We send pieces into the universe because we adore them, and often, the universe delivers them back with a form email reading “we’re thankful for your work, however, we regret to inform you…”
Jen Karetnick wrote an expose on teen writing competitions for The Atlantic, in which she explored the incentive for writers to outwit the literature, staking their emotional lives on the results of a select few writing competitions. She found thousands of children who loved writing until writing stopped being an escape and became the thing to escape from. Assigning hierarchy and competition to writing is, of course, a natural extension of scarcity culture. There are never enough resources, never enough space for everyone to exist fruitfully. The result is predictable, as studied as the writing it produces: when we apply a capitalistic mindset to writing, the art feels like a job. When writing is something that can be “lost,” we work overtime to ensure we never lose.
We still lose relentlessly.
The art of publishing is at least 85 percent processing rejection. Writers draft and redraft and redraft and send pieces out to prestigious literary magazines and three months later the “declined” message bores into our eyes like a missile.
Again, writing is about learning to lose well. There is value in redrafts and restructurings. In an interview with The Rumpus, Maggie Nelson coined the wonderful term “drawer time,” the act of giving oneself space away from their work, a form of purgatory. The most charitable thing that we can do for our work is acknowledge that it can be better, that soon we will be better writers capable of writing pieces that we can’t write today. The rewrite isn’t an admission of failure, rather an exploration of possibility. It acknowledges that we are ever-evolving artists. The publishing world dulls this phenomenon; it requires work to be Done with a capital D. You can’t re-edit a work that’s already in a submission queue. And once results are out. Your work either was good enough or it wasn’t. You win or you lose. All the joy of loss, its generativeness, is lost behind the swell of grief our culture has associated with it.
So what authority do I have on processing rejection? I’m openly terrible at it. Like, comically terrible at it. I “lose well” in other ways; I redraft and re-edit and don’t allow the sting of rejection to stop me from creating more. But still, when faced with loss I crumble. We’ve heard the advice before: Ignore prestige. Submit to magazines. More magazines. Not too many. Accept rejection. Collect rejections. Expect rejection. Expect rejection. Expect rejection. This is great advice. We have to steel ourselves to loss. Again, writing is about learning to lose well. But there’s an implied mandate here to truck along with rejection after rejection as if that isn’t outrageously exhausting.
It would be amazing if we could divorce ourselves from the context of our word, if there were unlimited spaces for publication and unlimited jobs for writers and nobody ever had to lose. But we don’t. Writing is about learning to lose well because the world demands that of us. Loss can be useful; it’s functionally necessary. But loss hurts. It’s a grief, after all. And often, we demand nonchalance from ourselves. We dedicate our frenzy and passion to work and then expect ourselves to release ourselves from the final project. It’s emotionally unsustainable. I wrote this column for everyone who feels guilty every time they cry over a rejection letter, as if it is unproductive or unnecessary. I wrote this column for every sore loser, so full of emotion they burst.
Writing is about learning to lose well, and I think that part of “losing with grace” is giving ourselves grace when loss devastates us.
Christian Butterfield is an 18-year-old poet/essayist/totebag-enthusiast from Bowling Green, Kentucky. In 2019, he served as the National Student Poet of the Southeast, and his work has since been published/recognized by Best Teen Writing, the YoungArts Foundation and The Adroit Journal. He reads for EX/POST Magazine and was a 2020 Adroit Mentee in Creative Nonfiction.