September 23, 2016 § 14 Comments
By Kristine Langley Mahler
I recently hit a milestone in my literary career: 100 rejections. 100 times my inbox buzzed on my phone and I saw those brackets around a journal’s name in the subject line and I excitedly opened my email, happy to get that response AT LAST, and stared at some iteration of “Not today, sucker!”
(Most were more polite than that; most were also those low-tier, generic-rejection-text messages, but NOT ALL)
I’ve been submitting my work to literary journals since April 2012, which, coincidentally, was immediately after I finished writing my first essay in almost a decade. I wasn’t enrolled in a writing program—hadn’t been for nine years—but I was working my way back towards the memoir-ish essays I loved to write and had abandoned in the post-undergrad years.
Without anyone to give me feedback on my writing other than my long-suffering husband, I figured: let the populace decide! Send those puppies out to lit journals!
I hadn’t had any formal training in publishing, but I remembered one rule imparted from my undergrad writing instructors, which was AIM HIGH. So (gulp) I aimed high, submitting that first essay to AGNI and Crazyhorse and the Cincinnati Review. Rejected. But I kept writing and revising, and I kept submitting. Some rejections hurt more than others; some made me wrinkle my eyebrows. What’s that, The Dying Goose, you don’t like my piece? YOU’RE NOT AROUND ANYMORE SO WHO WINS NOW? Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, did you literally reject my piece within 24 hours? (Yes they did and that is what they do)
I submitted to high-profile journals and I submitted to fledglings. I didn’t discriminate, because I trusted in the old adage that what one rejects, another may accept. And by the end of 2012, I had my first publication under my belt! Yes!
I spent the next two years continuing to write, getting feedback from a small handful of (non-writer) friends, revising, and submitting the pieces to journals. 2013 netted one more publication. 2014: three (!) By 2015, I had decided it was time to return to school so I could get feedback from people who were also studying/perfecting their craft, so I began a graduate program. I had one piece accepted for publication in 2015, but in 2016, I’ve had five pieces accepted (so far). That’s eleven pieces getting the THUMBS UP while a hundred times I was told NO THANKS.
Being a left-brained woman working in a right-brained field, I crunched some numbers, because analytics help me understand. I had an 8% acceptance rate before grad school; it’s jumped to 11.5% since. I submitted more times than ever in 2016 (35), and had more pieces accepted (5). Funny how that works.
Eleven out of 111. With four of those eleven acceptances, I hit the nose on the head, matching content and form to journal preferences/editor preferences, and the pieces never saw a single rejection. On the other hand, I’ve got one piece that’s been rejected sixteen times and I keep hauling it back out because GOSH DARNIT I BELIEVE IN IT. I’ve sent out twenty-three separate essays and had eleven of them accepted everywhere from basically-just-a-blog journals to (pardon me while I clear my throat) being awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction by Crab Orchard Review. Now there are some odds I can work with: 48% of my submitted work has been published. Almost half!
Of those twenty-three essays, I’ve dropped seven from my submissions roster because, well, they’re not publishable. It’s embarrassing to think I ever sent them out. (Y’all feel me?) Twenty-three pieces, eleven published, seven self-rejected. So that means I’ve only got five old pieces battered by rejection but still raising their heads in the ring. No TKOs.
Like most writers/artists/creative-types, I have a sensitive ego. Brashness does not befit me. I’ll talk trash on the screen but in person, I’m just another wallflower waiting for someone to approach me. I don’t try out for things where I haven’t pre-calculated the risk assessment and decided that the odds are more likely I will succeed than not. I cannot explain why I have accepted the life of rejection that partners with the life of a writer other than that I finally accept myself as a writer. This is what it takes? I will bear my yellowing bruises with pride.
I’ve got three new essays I’ve added to the roster, and I’ve been sending them out, awaiting their first rejection, or acceptance. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. I hope it doesn’t take 10,000 rejections, but if it does, I’m proud of the effort it took to stand back up 9,999 times.