We’re Not Going to Talk About It

August 11, 2021 § 36 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Shame is visceral.

An essay about a pivotal moment from my childhood had been declined. In the rejection letter, the editor wrote:

Thanks for sending us more of your writing. Regretfully, we won’t be able to publish your work this time. As you know, only a fraction of what we receive is selected for publication, so even very good writing must sometimes be left out.

We’re grateful you chose to share your creativity with ________ again. Effective simile: ‘You both pump and fly through the air, back and forth, like the metronome on Grandma’s piano.’ Muscular description: ‘you descended, the poles pounded to earth, and you dragged your feet across the ground…’ Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.’

That last comment, “Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her,’” was difficult to hear. Outside our zone? The submission guidelines hadn’t listed any such prohibition.  

“Punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.” My words accurately described my father beating my mother. I could’ve said he pushed her around or he roughed her up a bit. But I couldn’t because he didn’t push her around or rough her up—he punched her, knocked her down, and kicked her.

I cringed. Why had I written the essay? How could I have been so callous? Why did I send it?

Shame kneecaps.

One morning the boy next door said to me, “Your parents really went at it last night.” I was in ninth grade and crazy about that boy. I said nothing.

Shame silences.

Many times, my mother has said, “Maybe it was partly my fault. Maybe if I’d kept my mouth shut.”

“No,” I have said, just as many times. “No one gets to beat you because they don’t like what you say.”

Shame eats autonomy.

Then I got angry. Then irate. Then pissed off. About the rejection letter.

Why had I written the essay? It’s my flashbulb memory. It changed me. I still think about it. Writers are told to pay attention to stories that play in their heads, to write about them. They may become inspiring essays. And, not writing about domestic violence won’t make it go away. It’s still going to happen.

How could I have been so callous? I wasn’t. The editor was. Perhaps there was a better way for the editor to reject my essay. But I can’t think of one. The standard spiel “not a good fit” would’ve sufficed. Sort of like, We don’t have any record of your room reservation. Or, We don’t have any tables at this time. Not publishing an essay about domestic violence won’t keep it from happening. It just remains a dirty little secret.

Why did I send it? Because it’s a good essay. Because sharing lets others know they’re not alone. And because I don’t like to share my story. It took me twenty years to share it with a good friend. She told me her daughter kicked out an abusive partner. He was sorry and wanted to return. The daughter was wavering. I listened but didn’t share.

Shame isolates.

The guilt of complicity gnawed at me. The next day I called my friend and told my story. My friend asked, “Can I tell my daughter about your childhood?”

“Yes, that’s why I told it to you,” I said. “Tell your daughter it will get worse. It will become harder to leave. The children will suffer.” The daughter didn’t let her partner return. Did my story influence her daughter? I don’t know. But my friend told me how much my story meant to her. That’s the power of story.

I’ve been a lover of story all my life: fiction, memoir, nonfiction. Story exposed me to the ugliness of racism, sexism, genocide, war, violence, abuse, poverty, prejudice, intolerance—experiences I didn’t have in my white, middle-class sphere (except for domestic violence, which travels everywhere). Story makes me walk in other people’s shoes, enter their worlds, feel their humanity.

I remembered my mother’s words about blame and applied them to myself. Maybe it was my fault for submitting it. Maybe if I’d have kept my essay shut up in its file. No, I told myself. No one gets to sweep your story under the rug.

The ideal rejection from the editor would’ve read, “Thank you for your submission, but we have to pass at this time as we’ve recently published a thought-provoking essay on domestic violence. Please submit in the future.”

__

Victoria Lynn Smith lives in Wisconsin near Lake Superior, where she recently started paddle boarding. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles. Her work has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television’s Moving Lives Website, Brevity Blog, Better Than Starbucks, and in several regional publications. Her flash essay, “Cloud Like a Lamb,” which is the subject of this essay, recently won third place in the Jade Ring Contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Writers Association Her dream is to one day visit the Shetland Islands. For more visit https://writingnearthelake.org/.

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§ 36 Responses to We’re Not Going to Talk About It

  • Lisa says:

    Thanks for not shutting up. And congrats on your award.

  • kperrymn says:

    Thanks for this, Victoria, especially for your eloquence in describing the violence in your house and for your persistence in telling your story. And, as someone who grew up in Milwaukee (same state, different Great Lake) hearing the weather reports saying “lower near the lake,” I appreciate the name of your website! 🙂

  • An article described how white rats only learn from experience, while smarter animals can learn by observing the experiences of others. I do not know if that is true, but I used to tell stories of my own to my high schooljuniors, times when I made mistakes that I hoped they would never make. Don’t be like a rat,” I’d say. “You are smart enough to look at the mistakes others make and not make those same errors yourself.”

    I had several experiences as a girl/young woman that caused to rethink how I responded to others. [Bigotry on a bus, casual racism from another in conversation, etc.] I was too confused and scared to do what I eventually realized was “the right thing” the first time. But rethinking, telling the story to myself, I decided I would change the ending next time. And I did. I reported the abusive man and he was expelled from the bus. I went back into my dentist’s office and told him I believed he was wrong. I did the right thing. (And chose another dentist.)

  • camilla sanderson says:

    Congratulations for the courage required to share your story no matter what magazines/journals reject or publish your words! ✨🌟💖🙏

  • kjboldon says:

    A good essay about a good essay. Thanks for sharing the experience of rejection, and about the essay, which is a story that needs to be told. The idea the journal has, to not publish pieces about violence towards women, defeats its purpose if it silences stories that show WHY stories that glorify or leverage it are so damaging. L

  • Bravo! You give others the confidence and courage to tell their stories regardless how raw and painful. Wonder if you ever thought of yourself as a life-saver? Thanks for sharing!

  • Tom Stewart says:

    Good on you Victoria. Once each of us finds our voice we need to use it. Proud of you. And your writing.

  • Victoria, I identify with your rage at having what you know is an important and good essay rejected by a literary magazine. The same thing happens to me– all the time..But you are taking the rejection entirely too personally. I read for a literary journal and about twenty readers are now trying to process close to three thousand submissions. It’s an elaborate process with definite criteria and the vast majority are read twice, unless the first reader gives a very low score. Then a large pile goes to the editors who will select very few. it could be that your essay freaked out the first reader for reasons unknown.it could be that the magazine, which might be priveleging poetry or fiction, is publishing only a very few essays, or it could be that the journal, like many , is seeking contributions by marginalized writers and you may not qualify as one, or that it is focusing on a different kind of style or subject matter. Finally, although you are sure your significant story is unique, it may not be as rare as you think in a pool of hundreds or even thousands, if that was the case. I agree that literary magazines should respond more personally, especially when a writer has paid $20 or more to enter a contest, but then you might wait years for the same rejection. Keep going. Find magazines that are directed toward women, but they, too, don’t necessarily want stories about rape , physical or sexual abuse because they receive so many.. Also, I personally think that literary journals should be much more specific about what kind of work and subjects they want and don’t want . And thanks for telling your story here.

  • sonyaewan says:

    Victoria – you’re a badass for persisting. Love this. And glad you’re paddle boarding! What a magnificent way to be on water (this is my first season, too). Lastly, if you haven’t, you might enjoy watching the show Shetland until you can visit.

  • abigail Thomas says:

    fantastic essay. wow. just fucking WOW.

  • Thank you for having the courage to share both these essays.

    • Vickie says:

      Thank you. It was harder to write the second one that’s on this blog. And after I wrote it, I thought, Okay, I’m over it. But then I wasn’t. I felt compelled to share.

  • I’m sorry you had that troubling rejection. But I hope you’ll keep telling your truth. I can see from this blog that you’re a good writer.

  • Fscott says:

    Keep submitting! Your story will save lives.

  • Barb Knowles says:

    This is wonderful… writing, eliciting emotions, and a million other things. And IMPORTANT! Thank you!

    Barb

  • bryantallam says:

    Thank you so much for your essay and your post concerning your emotions about the rejection. Violence, be that physical, verbal or emotional, in the home is such a prevalent and silent cancer in our world. Domestic violence continues under the shroud of secrecy. So thank you for the courage to speak up and add your voice and continue to shine a light onto this important issue. I know you have probably heard it a million times and can understand it in your head but it is hard to reach your heart. What happened to you and your mom is not your shame at all. It is the shame directly on your father and indirectly on the people in your life that knew about it and said nothing. Likewise, you had the courage and strength to speak up on this issue when many can’t or won’t. There is no shame on you for writing your essay or feeling down that it wasn’t published. So chin up and realize you have a voice and you have incredible courage to be using it. Your voice is also being heard so keep up the great work.

  • cmarcotte58 says:

    I’m so proud of you for moving forward with this. From our very first discussion I knew it was meant to be shared and I’m so glad Brevity agreed! You are my friend, my confident, my louder voice!! Keeping Writing Near the Lake!

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