“to paper my wall with rejection slips”: W.S. Merwin’s “Berryman”

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

I don’t write much about my non-blog, non-job-related writing for a variety of reasons. One is that there’s precious little time for that writing, so writing about it seems like a waste of that time. Another is that I get a great many rejections. Six in a week? Been there.Three in one day? Yep. Two rejections (from different magazines) in two minutes? Yes, it’s possible.

This is, as you might suspect, discouraging.

Plenty of articles, lists, and even whole magazines are dedicated to encouraging and advising writers, both new and seasoned, in the face of almost certain rejection. I sample these prescriptions for perseverance occasionally, but the best I have ever found is a poem (surprise? probably not).

In “Berryman,” poet W. S. Merwin (he’s prolific, but most likely you’ve encountered his translations of Neruda) describes the advice John Berryman (most famous for The Dream Songs) gave him as a young writer. I love the whole poem, but especially these lines:

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
and the closing two stanzas:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write



And there you have it.
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12 thoughts on ““to paper my wall with rejection slips”: W.S. Merwin’s “Berryman”

  1. I think every NYT bestselling author has stories about how many times they’ve been rejected. It’s just so personal. I’m sure what the editor had for lunch even affects what they feel like reading.

  2. Pingback: “Would I love it this way”: W.S. Merwin’s “The Morning” | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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