WRITING requires perseverance. The path, even of great writers, is often strewn with rejection slips. In his short story ``My Jubilee,'' Chekhov portrays a character who whimsically offers to celebrate the termination of his writing career on having just received his second thousandth rejection.
Chekhov had his own share of turn-downs. They came, not by mail, but in the ``Letter Box,'' the magazine section where editors commented on submissions. Ernest J. Simmons, in ``Chekhov, a Biography,'' writes how ``With cold, trembling fingers he turned the pages to the fine print of their `Letter Box' sections and ran his eye expectantly over comments to would-be authors.''
Many of the comments directed to Chekhov were not encouraging. ``A few witty words cannot obliterate such woefully insipid verbiage.'' ``Very long and colorless, like the white paper streamer a Chinaman pulls out of his mouth.'' ``We cannot publish `The Portrait.' It is not for us. You obviously wrote it for another magazine.'' ``You have ceased to flower; you are withering. A pity. But no one can write without maintaining a critical attitude to his work.''
These bruising remarks make the editors I deal with seem gentle. Harrison Salisbury, who edited the Op-Ed page at the New York Times, sent charming rejection notes. In response to a labored piece of mine on Hans Sachs, hero of Wagner's ``Die Meistersinger,'' Salisbury wrote: ``Sorry - it's no sale on Sachs!'' He published my first contribution and rejected the second. When turning down the third, he wrote: ``Well, gosh - I guess the old average takes a beating - down to .333. But keep trying.''
Other rejection notes stung, although in retrospect they seem faintly amusing. ``We found your essay to take an interesting point of view; that point is not quite proven by the manuscript.''
``Really, there's no over-arching theme. What did you have in mind?'' ``A self-addressed, stamped envelope should accompany all submissions.''
Chekhov did not become one of the greatest short story writers by receiving only rejection slips. Hundreds of his stories were published. The ``Letter Box'' comment he may have appreciated most is the following, which appeared in the St. Petersburg humor weekly, Dragonfly, while he was still a medical student at Moscow University: ``Not at all bad. Will print what was sent. Our blessings on your further efforts.''
Rejections make the joy of acceptance all the greater. How many times have I stood on wind-blown street corners late at night waiting for the first edition of the next morning's newspaper to arrive, and then with excitement and pride turned the pages to find my piece.
In this respect, Dickens and I are comrades. Edgar Johnson writes in ``Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph'': ``On a December evening, just before closing time, Dickens stepped into a bookshop on the Strand and asked for the new number of the Monthly Magazine. Would his piece be there? A little birdlike shopman gave him a copy from the counter; Dickens turned aside to glance hastily and nervously through the pages. There it was! ... `in all the glory of print.' So agitated that he wished only to be alone, he turned out of the crowded Strand and strode down the pavement of Whitehall to take refuge in Westminster Hall from the eyes of pedestrians. There for half an hour he paced the stone floor `[his] eyes so dimmed with pride and joy that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen.'''
Alas, few writers are in the class of Chekhov or Dickens. For those of us who are not, perseverance is all the more necessary. ``Through good report and through ill report, ... through sunshine and through moonshine,'' in Poe's words, we continue to toil. Nothing hurts our curiosity or our hope.