The R Word

By Sung J. Woo


We’re sorry to inform you…there were many strong entries…we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.

You’d think that after twenty years of writing, revising, and submitting, these responses of thankful apology, these kind-hearted notes of rejection, would be easier to take. But they hurt, every time.

Writing teachers and how-to books tell you the same thing, that you are supposed to write for yourself. That you will never truly achieve literary nirvana until you free yourself of external validations. Which is true, but it’s a truth like communism: great on paper, terrible in actual execution. Because for most writers, the endgame isn’t the completed manuscript. There’s one more hurdle to leap, and usually it’s not pretty.

In order for us to share what we’ve created with the reading public, we have to offer ourselves to the few people who are willing to read and print our work: editors of journals, magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses. With the advent of self-publishing and blogging, writers no longer have to run through this literary gauntlet, but in order to get street cred (and who doesn’t want street cred?), you have to do it the old-fashioned way.

In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing.” Easy to say for a guy who completed his first novel in just six months, and who shipped off his handwritten manuscript to a magazine for a contest without bothering to make a copy. “So it seems I didn’t much care if it wasn’t selected and vanished forever,” he says.

Murakami isn’t boasting here, he’s just telling the truth, and maybe that’s what hurts more than anything. He’s one of these lucky people born with talent, so much talent that he hardly has to try. In Paul Auster’s memoir Hand to Mouth, he refers to a mystery novel he published under a pseudonym, something he churned out even faster than Murakami’s first, in a mere three months. Or how about Stephen King, who blazed through The Running Man in a single week? In racing terms, these are the people who finish their 5Ks under 15 minutes and have so much energy left over that they run the course all over again. These are your winners.

And then there’s me. I’m what racers call a mid-packer, somebody firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack. It took eleven years to get my first novel published this past April, which you’d think would wash away the feelings of inadequacy I’ve built up over the years. How wrong I was. Was it because I received a bunch of scathing reviews, the ones where the reviewer wishes he could travel back in time to murder me as a baby so he’d never have to read my novel? No, because I didn’t receive a single bad review, but apparently you can still lose in this game, because I didn’t receive enough reviews, with only one major newspaper choosing my book. Good reviews don’t automatically sell books, but the media attention certainly doesn’t hurt. Besides, it’s an honor to have work critiqued by a professional. And as much as I hate to admit it, I feel like what I’ve written matters a little more if somebody takes his or her time to analyze it and discuss it. Simply put, it is a sign of acceptance, and for someone who has subsisted on a steady diet of rejections, it’s a blessing.

I never thought my world would change with the publication of my novel. I didn’t expect Oprah to call me up or Ang Lee to option it for a Hollywood makeover. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a tiny, insane voice embedded in the deep crevices of my shameful brain that did whisper the possibility of all of that and then some. An in-depth interview with Charlie Rose; chatting it up with Meredith Vieira on the Today Show; President Obama holding up a copy in the Rose Garden for all to see. I really despise that voice, because it is the epitome of everything a writer, an artist, isn’t supposed to be, a materialistic, fame-sucking vampire. I wish I could be a pious, Zen master of an author who only cares about his words on the page, but I can’t.

Maybe it’s because I know my own limits. Because I know I’ll never be able to write with the quicksilver beauty of Kevin Brockmeier or pump out a bestseller like The Lost Symbol because Dan Brown, too, has gifts I don’t have. And yet here I am, turning on the laptop this morning like every morning, opening up my Word file and stare at the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard.

Many days I wonder why I struggle to write this second novel, trying my best (which we all know won’t be good enough) to get that next word out so I can finish this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter, this book. Often it feels like failure: the word is wrong; the scene is misplaced; the dialogue rings false. Delete, retype, repeat. I know this makes me a writer. And for better or for worse, there’s always one more story to tell.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

22 responses to “The R Word”

  1. […] An essay I wrote on rejection, at The Nervous Breakdown. […]

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Oh Sung,

    Do you have any idea how depressing it is to hear this from an already published, already lauded, author?
    I know getting rejected is HORRIBLE. I know that.
    I know that no one wants to be “bothered” by these rejections, but we are, all of us.
    If Stephen King wrote something under a pseudonym and sent it from Albuquerque instead of Maine to a publisher, I’ll bet even HE would get rejection letters. (Of course under his real name they’d publish, unedited, on Mars!)
    I loved “Everything Asian” and I’m SURE, SURE, SURE that the person who sent you a rejection didn’t read your work. He/she was busy, pissed, depressed, lazy, tired, (pick any one,) and just sent it back.
    Deep breath.
    You’re a great writer.
    Some people are idiots.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Irene, you’re entirely too kind. And I really wish you were the editor in chief of The New Yorker.

      As much as I’d hate to admit it, it seems like the bulk of writing is failure. I suppose you could actually take that across the board to just about any endeavor worth doing. Still…rejection sucks, no matter how you dice it. Sucks sucks sucks!

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Rejection of ANY kind sucks.

  4. I don’t know… what is that we’re supposed to be, though? Is it materialism to want your hard work to be appreciated? (and if it’s appreciated by the President, so much the better…)

    Rejection. It’s always going to be a son of a bitch.

    I’ll talk to Ang for you. Let him know what’s what.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      We all want recognition for our work, but it’s a tough subject, you know? Because who knows why you’re not getting it — is it because you haven’t worked hard enough? Is it because you’re just not talented enough? Doubts invariably creep in, and that doubt can be paralyzing.

      I just wish I could put my nose to the grindstone and block out the world. Easier said than done.

  5. Marni Grossman says:

    I’m not trying to sell a novel. I’m not even trying to sell a short story. I sold three pieces this year. And while it says on my taxes that I’m a freelance writer, I made only $350 writing.

    What I’m really trying to do is get a job. If I had a nickel for every writing/editing job I’ve applied for in the past year and a half…

    The worst part is when you start to get rejected for things you don’t even want. Cashier jobs. Receptionist positions. I was turned down for a job by someone who spelled our home state “Deleware.”

    It’s bleak out there for a writer, Sung. And you should be awfully proud of yourself.

  6. I’m a visual artist (fine art), so know only too well what you’re talking about. The trouble with the view that ‘you make art, write, etc for no-one but yourself’ is the fact that it misses the point that making art is a means of communication – and who wants to talk to themselves all the time? And yes, it IS gut-wrenching when no-one wants to hear what you’re saying; at the moment of rejection you just have to believe that you still haven’t found the right person to have a conversation with. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there. You have to hang in there with gritted teeth, which never easy 😉

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      My guess is that you saw Me and You and Everyone We Know before I did, but just in case you didn’t, I thought I’d bring it up.

      I like your metaphor quite a bit — rejection is not having found the right person to converse with. So we just have to keep trying, again and again. It is a struggle, no doubt.

  7. We all have downer-days Sung, how about a different perspective… You ploughed hard work into your first novel and it took eleven years to get it published so just use that as a benchmark for now, assume that process will steadily shorten and keep going! If it took eleven years to get published, it may take another few for those reviews to start coming in so make sure you’re ready with the next few manuscripts!

    In two years time, you’ll have written three more novels (two will be published and one will be in the editing process) and the reviewers will have found your First; they’ll have found your First and go looking for your Second; they’ll have found your Second and stumbled upon your Third and then the reviews will be “Who is this guy, and how did we miss him?” and “His Fourth is out in April – go read the first three before then!” Meanwhile, Obama’s speech-writers will be quoting you.

    Wow. How cool are you. I’m jealous now!

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      George, I’m jealous of this super-successful future version of me now, too. I wonder if he’ll start wearing sunglasses at night and have your people talk to his people…

  8. Thomas Wood says:

    Only a brief, contemptibly superficial comment first. This piece, “The R. Word” has my initials (Thomas R. Wood). The result is that every time my eyes pass it, I think it’s something about me. Aren’t I a little shit?

  9. Thomas Wood says:

    I am eager to join this camp. I’ve committed to my first-ever New Year’s Resolution this year to take one of my stories and get it published. Perhaps that was naive (by perhaps, I mean, “Dear Lord, I hope not too…”). Perhaps I should have resolved to submit, and take the rejection – if that’s to be my fate – with a bit of class. Thanks for the notice.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      That’s an awesome resolution, and I heartily commend you! Now you, too, can partake in the joys of rejection. My first one goes way back — I’m fairly certain I sent in a poem to the New Yorker when I was in high school. To my surprise, they didn’t want my schlocky masterpiece…

  10. Erika Rae says:

    11 years. Respect. I am currently at 12 years and counting. I haven’t given up – I still have hope – but I kinda hoped that the feeling of inadequacy would lessen at least, well, A LITTLE! Ha!

    Congrats to you on how far you have come.

    I like your honesty.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Thanks, Erika. There’s no reason to give up, ever. Actually, there’s one reason — if you’re dead. But then it’s sort of out of your hands.

      The problem is that there are entirely too many talented writers, and there always will be. Which is good, because I always have people to look up to — and bad, because my neck hurts.

  11. Ducky Wilson says:

    Perhaps you need more rejection. I’m not being cute, I’m just pointing out that with an an abundance of rejection, you do finally get to a place where you don’t care. It’s like violence on television – you become desensitized. In some way, I am grateful for all my rejections. They forged a better writer out of me.

    And better not to listen to those “stories” about other writers. They’re half truths at best anyway and comparisons always fail. Don’t be fooled. King has been writing for a very long time, receiving his first rejection when he was like 13 or something. He discusses his stacks and stacks of rejection letters in “On Writing” (one of the best books written about writing.) Perhaps someone writes something in a week, but how long did it take that person to edit it into something readable? That’s the more relevant question to ask, though I’ve never understood the question about time to begin with. A story takes as long as it needs.

    Everyone has a different path. Enjoy the journey, despite those rejections.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      King’s On Writing is one hell of a book, isn’t it? I’m not sure which part I enjoyed more, the bio first half or the writing-heavy second.

      Robert B. Parker was known for writing his books once — no subsequent edits. He edited as he went along. I remember reading somewhere Kevin Brockmeier does the same thing.

      I also edit as I go along. Except when I’m done, I edit it again! And again. And again…

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