Rejection Is Not Feedback
October 26, 2017 § 65 Comments
I need a sweater. So I go to the mall. (The mall is a temple of consumerism with an indoor ski slope overlooked by The Cheesecake Factory, because I live in Dubai.)
The first store specializes in argyle sweaters. Argyle is just not my thing. Do I:
A) Assume this brand is garbage and everything they will ever make is argyle.
B) Say “no thank you,” and head for another store, dismissing argyle from my mind because it’s not that big a deal, I’m shopping all day anyway and hey, someone else is going to love diamond plaids.
In the second store, I see a terrific red sweater. It’s got sleeves of exactly the right length and those cool little thumbholes so you can pull the wristbands over your hands, and it’s super soft. Then I look at the tag, and it’s 30% wool, which I am allergic to and makes me itch. Do I:
A) Laugh heartily at the incompetence and stupidity of anyone who would dare make a sweater with wool in it, exiting the store in the grip of near-hysteria?
B) Sigh, because it was otherwise just perfect, and remember the store because they will probably have something else I like another time, maybe a dress or a coat that is totally perfect instead of mostly perfect.
In the third store, I lay eyes on a gorgeous blue sweater. Sleeves, check. Thumbholes, check. No wool, check. In fact, it’s glorious!
My husband already bought me a blue sweater yesterday. I like that one too, and it came from a no-returns store (also a thing in Dubai), and today I really want a red one. Do I:
A) Think whoever made this sweater sucks, and they should never make another garment.
B) Sigh sadly because I already have a blue sweater, and resume the hunt for a red one.
You get where we’re going, right?
Rejection is not feedback.
Rejection is not feedback.
No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.
As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.
None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.
The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.
Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. We can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of sweaters we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.
Rejection is market research.
One rejection tells us one specific thing: this journal couldn’t use this piece at this time. None of those variables is a judgment on the quality of our work. Once we have ten or twenty or fifty rejections, that’s enough information to start reassessing. Is the piece really ready? Have I gotten any personal comments in my rejections? Have I gotten an outside opinion from a reader I trust? We don’t get better from nursing hurt feelings. Considering the answers to those questions helps us improve.
Rejection will always sting at least a little. For me, it hurts less when I have more submissions out, and when I remember that rejection is part of the job, that a 10% acceptance rate is excellent for a full-time professional writer and more than that is gravy.
Every “no thank you” is proof we’re doing the work, and getting our work out there. Any single “no thank you” is the equivalent of a single shopper not buying a single sweater–one failed transaction says nothing about that particular piece.
Besides, it’s Dubai. No matter how amazing it looks and feels, nobody needs a freaking sweater. Anybody got a nice cotton tunic?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
Fear of Flying: Inside the Memoir-on-Submission Wind Tunnel
September 5, 2017 § 18 Comments
“What is it Mama?” my daughter asked, her so voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “What did they say? Mama?”
My daughter is not a quiet person. When she speaks, she’s usually heard. Maybe she was afraid of my answer. Or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, the slap of my palms on the hot steering wheel, the tepid air conditioner in my ancient Honda, barely keeping out the one-hundred-degree Texas heat.
I was in a Starbucks drive-through, my 11-year-old watching slime videos on her phone in the backseat. We’d just come from iFly, an indoor skydiving place on the Interstate 10 feeder road. My agent had sent my memoir out in early July to 45 editors, and since then I’d become an expert at choosing activities–like indoor skydiving—that prevented me from obsessively checking my email. I’d taken a two-day road trip through the desert with no cell service. I’d made a vision board (ok, I made three.) It’s hard to check email with glue on your fingertips. And I discovered flying. iFly offers two minute “flights” in a 90 mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Two-minute intervals during which I couldn’t do anything but focus on keeping my body steady, my mouth closed (no one wants wind-tunnel cheeks), and chin up. What better metaphor for the process I was in.
“Mama?” my daughter asked again from the backseat.
“They said no, baby,” I replied, surprised by the catch in my voice.
When my agent first sent my memoir out, a couple of editors reacted almost immediately with good news. They were taking it to editorial boards, getting additional reads. My book, This Is My Body, is about my conversion from the Jewish agnosticism of my New York upbringing to the Southern evangelicalism of my husband’s. It’s about the romantic and political turmoil that followed (hello, Trump,) causing me to strip my beliefs to the studs and re-build from the ground up. Because it’s a book about love that also deals heavily with the evangelical subculture and what it means for women, I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Spirituality isn’t exactly the bread and butter of New York publishing. But I dared to hope.
Idling in the drive-through, full of post-flying false confidence, I unwisely checked my email. “It was a classic editorial vs. publicity stand-off,” my agent wrote. “Publicity won… There’s a lot of consensus about your writing… but there’s a disconnect with the business brass about how to reach readers.” This was one of the few progressive religious publishers brave enough to take on books dealing with controversial, too-often ignored issues in the evangelical church. Their mission statement read like the mission statement for my life. And the editor had loved my book, loved my writing. They were—my agent thought, I thought—the perfect fit.
I felt a tide of emotions when that email came in. Shame. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. I’m a writer; I know rejections by the boatload are part of this life. I’ve had rejections by the boatload. But I’d developed—or so I thought—a way to avoid being paralyzed by them. This one hit me with the force of the iFly wind tunnel. It took my breath away.
No one knows what goes into writing our books quite like our children, our lovers, our partners. Our butts get numb and our health suffers, maybe we lose our hair, keys, minds—while glued to the computer screen. But they lose us. Or mine did, at least for a time. For six months last year while juggling three jobs and somehow managing to not tank my marriage, I’d taken a collection of fragmented essays and turned them into a book, a book I’m proud of. My daughter—in her last year of elementary school, her last year of being a kid before entering that netherworld of pre-teen—patiently withstood my divided attention. She pulled me back—to her after school activities, her latest math test, her plans for the weekend—when I got that far-off look in my eyes that meant I was solving some timeline, dialogue or structure puzzle in my mind. But she also celebrated with me. We jumped up and down in our socks, sliding on the wood floor when I found out I’d placed an essay with a dream publication. We toasted with Sprite at our favorite neighborhood restaurant when I finally finished the first draft of the book, and secured representation with a fancy New York literary agent. What took my breath away was not only the loss of this and other opportunities to see my book born into the world (35 more publishers had also passed, my agent included in the email) but that my daughter, my cheerleader, nervously sipping her black tea lemonade as we pulled into traffic, was also experiencing that loss.
It’s true that it would been nice to impress the “business brass,” those people with the power to write checks that could potentially replace the crumbling siding on my garage, or upgrade the ancient Honda. But that’s not why I started writing. I started writing because the terror of not writing was greater than the terror of writing. Because the joy of writing something new, of applying ass-to-chair and performing the mystical alchemy of revision, of seeing a project—like this essay—from start to finish, that joy is better than almost any other I’ve known.
“All is not lost, baby,” I said a few minutes later when I caught my breath between traffic lights.
“I know that,” she said, with her characteristic half eye-roll. As if nothing could be more obvious.
I choose to believe the right editor for my book is still out there. In the meantime, I’m writing. That’s what my daughter sees. And for now, that’s enough.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Brooklyn Review, The Rumpus, Ecotone, Guernica’s “The Kiss” series, The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession.
What Do You Love More?
July 18, 2017 § 118 Comments
Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”
I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.
I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.
My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”
She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”
I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.
What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.
My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”
I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)
Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?
Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.
There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.
And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”
In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:
Publication or not getting hurt feelings.
What do you love more?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
Hi! You are About to be Rejected from Our Quarterly
April 5, 2017 § 22 Comments
By Pete Candler
Last week I received a very odd email from a notable Quarterly Magazine, in which the new Executive Director pre-warned me that I would soon receive a rejection notice for a submission I made to the journal over two years ago, which submission I withdrew in December. Here is my response:
My name is XXXXX…
…and I am writing you as the new Executive Director at XXXXX Quarterly.
Hey, congratulations! So is this your first email as Executive Director? I’m sure it’s going to be great!
I know it’s been quite some time since you’ve received word from us about your Quarterly submission…
Oh, that! I was starting to wonder about you guys. I assumed you went belly-up, or maybe there was a grease fire or something. That was—what? —December 2014? Thanks for assuming I’m still alive at this point, though!
…and I want to apologize for that. Our staff is quite small and…
No, don’t sweat it! I am sure y’all have been insanely busy—
…the Quarterly was on a long (too long!) hiatus.
A long hiatus, huh? Where’d you go? Mar-a-Lago? I hear that place is kind of hard to stay away from. And with a hiatus program like that, can I come work for you? Because I really like not working with as few other people as possible.
I am excited to announce that we sent our 49th issue to press…
Forty-ninth! Wow, congrats, y’all! Are you still writing each one out by hand?
…and subscribers will receive their copy in the next six weeks.
That is so great. I am so happy for them!
We’ll also reopen our submissions very, very soon!
[whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In”]
Please note that you will soon receive a rejection notice for your former submission.
Oh. Well that’s a new one. Never had a pre-rejection notice before. That’s so sweet. Most journals only let you down you one time. But you’ve given me the opportunity to experience rejection twice! You guys—always bucking convention!
To be honest, it’s been so long since I submitted the thing you’re referring to that I’m not even sure what you’re referring to. I’m not even the same person I was when I sent that to you. I have had another kid since then. But don’t worry about it—I don’t think I sent you a birth announcement.
Oh, and by the by—I withdrew the submission after two years. I’m sorry if I was a little hasty! The kid is talking now, though!
We highly encourage you to resubmit in April if you are still interested.
Why wouldn’t I be interested? I’ve waited this long, what’s a few more years of my life?
One thing, though: could I give you the contact information for my attorney, in the event that I am deceased by the time I hear back from you if I decide to resubmit? She is handling all of my posthumous publications.
Please do expect a wait time of 4-6 weeks while we get back up to speed.
4-6 weeks? Did you mean to type “weeks”? Is that lunar weeks? Or like Book of Genesis weeks?
Thank you so much for your interest in XXXX Quarterly! I hope to hear more from you soon.
You bet! But just in case you don’t, rest assured that my silence is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the journal.
Oh hey! That was fast. I was just in the middle of writing you too! Two years of absolute silence from you all and then two emails in twenty-one minutes! I’m starting to feel a special bond with you, XXXXX.
Because so many have already asked…
… please allow me to clarify: The impending rejection is merely an administrative necessity to re-open submissions and allow those still interested to submit again (or submit a newer piece) in April.
Well why didn’t you just say so? Not that I understand the term “administrative necessity,” me being an artist and all. But do continue!
It is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the piece.
Uh huh. I liked it better when you were bucking convention and pre-breaking up with me. But this line sounds familiar.
I do apologize if that was unclear. Please feel free to ask more questions. We’re deeply interested in reading your work!
How deep is your love?
Pete Candler’s scholarly and creative work has been rejected by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Modern Theology, Poetry, and The New Yorker, which once returned an unsolicited manuscript (circa 1997) submission with no note or letter but with a simple but thorough slash through the pages. Candler lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes fiction and essays. He is currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic. His twitter handle: @tweetcandler
January 13, 2017 § 13 Comments
By L. Roger Owens
John, author of the Bible’s book of Revelation—his apocalypse occurred on the island of Patmos. Mine began in a shopping plaza parking lot two days before Christmas.
I’d just dropped my wife off at the grocery store to buy the final foodstuffs for Christmas Eve dinner, along with everyone else, judging by the traffic. I decided to walk to Wine & Spirits to buy her a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, the one gift she wouldn’t expect. As I stepped out of the car I pulled out my phone so I could check my email, which I hadn’t done it in the past two hours. We’d just finished a long lunch with friends at the new Indian restaurant, during which I managed to keep the thing out of sight. But I’d checked it often the past two days, expecting confirmation that a magazine piece I’d written had been accepted. An associate editor praised the piece two days earlier and forecasted that the buck-stops-here editor would say, “Great; do a little editing.” I was weaving among the parked cars like a lab rat mazing his way toward cheese when I saw it. But I didn’t have to open the email to know its contents. I could see enough from the first two lines—an obligatory “thank you,” an ominous “but,” a definitive “not.”
I thought of my ten-year-old son. Last spring he auditioned for the middle school honors band. He was a rising six-grader, the best saxophonist in his elementary school band. He brimmed with confidence. A week after the audition a letter arrived. Daddy-spy that I am, I held it to the light before giving it to him. I saw typed on the band director’s floral-print stationary, the font inappropriately cheery, her judgment: “not this year.”
“It’s probably the letter telling me I got in,” my son said as I handed it to him.
“Well, there’s no way to know what the competition was like, or how many sixth-graders she accepts,” I warned. As he read, the confidence leeched from his face, his expression turned from hopeful to puzzled to sad, saltwater pooled in his eyelids.
Now frozen in that parking lot, flurries whirling around me, I became a ten-year-old boy again—deflated and confused. Until an impatient SUV driver honked to hasten me along.
By the time I made it to Wine & Spirits disappointment had turned to anger, the kind that keeps you from thinking straight, which explains why I was looking for the Bailey’s in the domestic whites aisle. Why did that first editor have to give me false hope? I thought, as I wandered the store aimlessly. I needed someone to blame.
Apocalypse: in the popular imagination, a cataclysm. But really it’s a revelation, an unveiling. An apocalypse doesn’t destroy reality. It discloses reality by destroying illusion. John’s revealed a cosmic battle between good and evil. But they don’t have to be cosmic in scope. A rejection email can occasion one on a blustery day in a strip mall parking lot.
I began to see that in the past two days I’d invested that article with a significance embarrassingly beyond its due. I imagined the future: my academic dean passing around the magazine at a faculty meeting, as she does with faculty publications, and my wine-sipping colleagues admiring my article. They nod their approval, finally seeing the value in my dabbling in creative writing. The essay would certainly secure my receipt of tenure.
I imagined the senior editor of the magazine loving it so much he invites me to become a contributing editor. Roger, you simply have to write for us every month!
I imagined the acquisitions editor of a major press asking me to turn it into a book—the book destined to secure my promotion to full professor.
“Dreams of fame and fortune die hard,” Frederick Buechner once wrote, “if they ever die at all.” It took a rejection email to kill these dreams, to reveal them for what they were: sad delusions. This little crow-bar of an apocalypse began to pry apart the joints of the imaginary mansion I’d been living in until all that was left was a pile of rubbish. And watching the demolition hurts.
Until it doesn’t anymore. Because seeing clearly will always—eventually—feel better than living in the mist of make-believe.
Many have written about writing as a spiritual practice, usually referring to the act of writing itself: facing the terror of the blank page, keeping the hand moving, relinquishing perfectionism, not fearing what shows us, not so much you won’t put it on the page—all of this, the spirituality of writing.
But it also includes the disillusionment caused by rejection. Because before we can see what’s there, what’s real, we have to break off our love affair with illusion. Let the dreams of fame and fortune die. Submit to apocalypse. We can choose not to—we can keep spinning the narratives in our minds, keep blaming the editors or writing-group members or anyone else whose reaction to our work doesn’t fit into our imaginary world.
Or we can let the revelation do its work.
Now that my essay doesn’t bear the weight of winning me tenure or wowing book editors, I can begin to see it for what it is: a decently crafted piece that—as the senior editor said—would fail to capture a reader not already familiar with its subject. I can begin to remodel it, improve it. I can explore other publications, even less prestigious ones, that might make a better home for it. And I can see that making this essay do what it can do—all that it can, but not more than it can—is no one’s responsibility but my own.
Roger Owens teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He’s written for numerous publications including The Christian Century, Weavings, and Faith & Leadership. He is the author of, among other books, Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction.
Lessons in Community, Rejection, and Doggedness: What I’m Actually Learning in an MFA Writing Program Now That I’ve Finally Gotten Around to It
March 16, 2015 § 19 Comments
A guest post from Samantha Claire Updegrave:
I’ve been chewing on Ryan Boudinot’s essay “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” that ran in my (Seattle’s) local weekly, The Stranger, at the end of last month. Perhaps especially so, since I wonder (worry?) he’s trashing people like me: a late-blooming writer in her late thirties who struggles with imposter syndrome and is pursuing a low-residency MFA anyway, works an extracting full-time office day job, and is raising a five-year-old who requires health insurance, time and attention, and regular feedings.
But I’m in a split camp.
Boudinot’s piece is funny, in the way satire is funny; I get the tongue-in-cheek humor. There are points where I agree – talent is a real thing, you must actually write, writers need to be readers, it doesn’t matter if people think you are smart, and you must, absolutely, woodshed. But satire is barbed.
* * *
As an undergraduate, I studied urban planning. There’s a video of me at a governance meeting: I’m standing between my chair and the table spewing a ruthless litany against a fellow student’s proposal. I’m shredding it, and in that wake, I discredit any merit, thought, intention, or work that went into its creation. Afterward, people slapped me on the shoulder, thanked me for saying what they couldn’t (wouldn’t) say. There were a lot of high fives.
When my friend played me the tape, what I saw was mortifying, and it filled me with shame.
I was an asshole.
And I knew it then, as sure as I know it now, I never wanted to be that person in that video ever again.
* * *
The idea of the real deal, that some (a few) people are and therefore some (most) people are not, has plagued just about every endeavor that’s caught my interest. This creates a complicated relationship between talent and work/study/practice of the thing. It goes like this: if you were worth anything, you would’ve known by age 5, and you’d already be great.
When I was younger, this often had the power to stop me from working hard and learning. My fear of failure was tied to the possibility of discovering the real problem was that I had no talent. It was a possibility I wasn’t willing to face, and so a rejection of study and rules, was a way to save face, at least with myself. It made me shy about my voice and value. A strange envy of people who were doing the work grew into a monsterish comparison game where one person’s success only highlighted my inabilities. I can’t even call them failure, because to fail one needs to risk trying, and somewhere along the way I stopped.
COMMUNITIES are the places we live, work, and play. The MFA writing program creates spaces where writers learn and grow, push at their edges, engage with others.
Life can have a way of catapulting us great distances only to bring us back home, bedraggled and, hopefully humbled and ready to be our true selves. After life as an adult led me through a stint in the Air Force, college, marriage, having a baby, divorce, losing my job and house in the economic collapse – I finally got clear. Writing was more than a hobby and I couldn’t, or no longer wanted to, ignore its pull. But I still wasn’t comfortable calling myself a writer. I only knew that I was a better person when I was writing than when I wasn’t writing and so I committed to get down to the work of it and focus on craft and signed up for a continuing education program. I was a terrible student. My assignments were always late and incomplete, served with an essay about why my essay was incomplete and terrible. My teacher held the faith I couldn’t. And in that time, I broke free, took risks, failed, succeeded, failed again, kept going. That’s when I decided to attend a low residency MFA. Within a month of my acceptance, I was rehired at my old job, with a promotion, and decided to continue to pursue my MFA, but at a slower pace.
I’m 37 year old and 3rd year in: I still have another sixteen months to go, and at least another 25,000 to finish my thesis, which I have come to call “my book.”
Because real deal or not, I am writing a book. Something I didn’t ever think I could do, despite being an early and a big reader. (Maybe I figured I couldn’t do it because I truly hated The Great Gatsby. To this day, I haven’t been able to finish it, but don’t tell my HS English teacher – I’m pretty sure I wrote a paper on it as if I had read it when really I took stellar notes during class).
Community makes that possible: it provides the framework and structure, support, and makes the impossible seem possible, within reach.
The alumni reading I went to my first semester made my skin break into goose bumps. They were so good! The old me would have leapt into discouragement; this truer version of myself I was discovering smiled. Damn. I’m going to write that well some day.
I was home. This was the community where I could open to learning, playing, to risk and failure. To be a part of other writers’ processes, to see their fledgling ideas turn and dive and surface in new places, is a thrill. I don’t like every piece I encounter, but I understand more about the subject and author and human expression because of them. Nor is every piece I present received favorably. In my first workshop one student threw up her hands and flat out said she didn’t get it. And that honesty was welcomed. I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture, but it does seem to me that not everyone is there to be the real deal. Many of us there because we love learning. We love to study and know and try. And to have a place to do so is important.
REJECTION is plentiful in the writing life.
The daily grind is tough. I choose a low residency MFA so I could continue to work and support my kiddo, stay within proximity to the family and friends who are pillars of the support structures needed to raise up a small person. I work full-time in urban planning, and do all the morning stuff – make breakfast, pack lunches, take my son to school on the METRO bus, walk downtown to work, then reverse it at night. (Luckily my partner cooks dinner, or we’d all starve.) I’ve started to teach one night a week, and try to make it out for a couple of times a month for readings, big or small.
Six days a week, I wake up at 4:45 am, and write for an hour and half before my son gets up. Most of what I write no one will ever see, and these are the best of me because they are me at work, figuring and crafting and discovering the words. When I do send my work out into the world – I pitch big and small. I pitch to email addresses garnered through contacts and through Submittable and apply for residencies. It’s grueling and solitary.
In the month of January, I received 13 rejections.
I’m learning the rejection is literal and not personal. It’s still hard to weather, and I’m grateful for my community where we celebrate each other’s success and rejections.
DOGGEDNESS, I’ve been told, is essential to survive and thrive.
In the month of January, I had one acceptance and one piece published. February, another two acceptances and two pieces published. Two more pieces are slated to run in April. I’m waiting to hear back on 10 pitches and submissions. Their chances are slim. Yet, I pick up my pen every day and write on.
I am learning to be dogged. How to do the work and keep doing it. I could have given up on the spot when I first came back to writing; I was raw and afraid and had only a few tablespoons of faith left in myself. I was met with a willing guide. In the MFA, I have a community that recharges my reserves and opens me to the different ways we are all in and of the world. It gives me people to show up for; we keep each other going.
* * *
Ultimately, I’m left with plain old disappointment. Uninspired. Even Christopher Frizzelle’s follow up “An Interview with Ryan Boudinot About His MFA Piece That Blew Up the Internet” serves up more of the same: Boudinot irritated “legions of lazy aspiring writers” and that the people who are glad he’s no longer teaching represent “certain corners of the Internet who struggle with reading comprehension.”
Both pieces read like satire, but Boudinot’s words (and to a lesser extent Frizzelle’s) are salt in tender and well-cultivated wounds. And they’re not some water cooler steam venting session; these are published. It makes me wonder: do I want entry into this clubhouse?
I don’t begrudge Boudinot, or think his tasteless joke about “suffering” in the context of sexual abuse are grounds for dethroning him from the Seattle City of Literature work. And shaming him just seems more of the same old same old that’s become commonplace in Internet culture. But I’m reminded of that video. I’ve worked hard to transform myself from the asshole in that video to the person I wanted to be and knew I was. I’ve learned that it’s important to stand up and voice a different view, to counter the barrage of discouragement and shame that articles like Boudinot’s put out into the world.
* * *
With so much on my plate, I’m stalled. I thought all the morning writing was building the scaffolding I needed to jump back in after taking a couple of months off from my book to adjust to a new work schedule and job, start teaching, and deal with health issues. Turns out, it isn’t as sound as I’d imagined. So I emailed my mentor about the two chapters I was supposed to turn in that day.
“I didn’t get far this weekend in restarting…. I wasn’t worried before, but now I am a little worried. I couldn’t find my way back in. Any suggestions or tips?”
It wasn’t until after I hit send that I remembered Boudinot’s essay; I paused. Momentarily worried about how my 21st Century work and parenting and teaching life got in the way and how I was stuck mid-chapter 7. Then I remembered the man on the receiving end, how kind and encouraging he is, and his voracious curiosity. He responded within the hour.
“What’s the episode or narrative point at which you’re trying to restart? Tell me about it.”
Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative nonfiction, profiles, book reviews, and poetry. Her work has been rejected by notable places such as The New York Times, Jezebel, Ploughshares, and Brevity. But you can still find her work in The Rumpus, High Country News, Bitch, Crosscut, Literary Mama, and Hip Mama. She teaches prose writing at the Hugo House and is a nonfiction editor at Soundings Review. By day, she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner, young son, and (sadly just one) cat. You can connect with her on Twitter @scupdegrave.
Rejecting The Unread: Necessary Timesaver or Poor Literary Citizenship?
July 11, 2014 § 8 Comments
From Oct. 15 to July 15, TQ welcomes submissions of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, short drama, video essays and hybrid work from established as well as emerging writers. – from the TriQuarterly submission guidelines.
Managing a literary magazine is an exercise in self-denial. There are always—always—at least twice as many submissions that are perfect—perfect!—for the magazine as there are slots in which to publish them. At least five times as many are inappropriate, unqualified, unready, or just not a good fit. If an issue holds twenty pieces, there were twenty more equally good, and another two hundred to be swum through before reaching literary land.
Journals handle this onslaught in different ways. Brevity closes for the summer. The Sun takes only mailed submissions. Five Dials doesn’t take unsolicited manuscripts. The Believer asks for clips and a publication history.
Narrative charges $22 per submission, which probably weeds out some of the unprepared.
TriQuarterly—a journal known for intelligent content and high standards—did this.
The editors at TriQuarterly recently sent you a notice that your submission was not accepted for publication. I want to clarify that, due to very high volume and limited publication space, our staff was unable to review your submission. Our intent was to give you the opportunity to publish elsewhere, though I realize that our original email was not as clear as I had hoped. I apologize if this has caused any confusion.
An anonymous submitter received this “rejection” and wrote An Open Letter to Triquarterly at The Sundress Blog. She asks,
Should your letter be read as a poorly phrased euphemism for Just so you’re aware, we saw your name on your cover letter, didn’t recognize it, and decided to reject outright? If so, why even allow unsolicited submissions?
We’ve contacted the excellent folks currently editing TriQuarterly to see if there’s a simple explanation: rogue intern, unfortunate error?
In some ways, though, it is not that surprising. In a 2012 interview with The Review Review,TQ Former Managing Editor Lydia Pudzianowski said, “In 2011 we received 4,307 submissions; in 2010 it was 3,599. We’ve already surpassed the latter number [in 2012].”
Regardless of the number of readers (TQ’s masthead lists 19 principal roles and 35 additional staff), there has to be a way to sort. If I applied for a programming job, I’d be pretty sure my resume would be fed into software that spits out anyone who doesn’t have C++ (hint: I don’t). If a literary journal announced, “We will discard any submissions with 10 or more spelling errors” I suspect many of us would cheer, either from schadenfreude, our own slush reading experiences, or the hope of a clearer field for our own proofread (of course!) work.
But transparency is key.
We only take submissions from 8PM-9PM on alternate Wednesdays.
We’ll be deleting unread anything from an author sharing my ex-boyfriend’s first name.
As long as it’s announced, fair game. Writer can spend their time and energy on more welcoming slush piles, or hit ‘send’ on a piece that feels right enough to jump some hurdles.
But claiming to have open submissions, claiming to welcome emerging writers and not actually doing that is at best disingenuous, and I would argue, bad literary citizenship.
Authors submit their best work—we hope—over which they have labored—we hope. Our compact is to read, at minimum, the first couple of sentences. Theatre directors say they know in the first 5 seconds of a mass audition if an actor gets a callback to the next round. As a slush reader, it’s easy—scary easy—to see right away if a piece goes into “form reject” or “read this again, more thoroughly.” (Whether your work should be judged on the opening is irrelevant. It will be. Work on the beginning).
Maybe it’s undergrads reading the slush pile. Maybe it’s the editor-in-chief on her Kindle on the subway. The reader’s biases or qualifications don’t actually matter. Writers can’t control who will be caught by our work, and a degree is no guarantee of taste. But not reading at all—and then phrasing it so terribly—breaks faith.
As a writer, we almost never find out who read our submission or how carefully. But we don’t have to write off publishing as an “in crowd.” Our literary citizenship is interacting with other writers, reading literary journals and the associated content (blogs, twitter, etc.) they produce, engaging with the community we want to be part of. We build our reputations by publication in smaller markets and working our way up. Eventually, our names won’t be unknown, and our work won’t be an unsolicited submission.
I have an essay in TriQuarterly’s slushpile. Perhaps it’s a good thing I haven’t heard back. But their misstep reminds me, being a writer is not just about sending out submissions. It’s about having faith in my work, knowing the market, and building relationships with my fellow literary citizens.
TriQuarterly’s Managing Editor, Adrienne Gunn responded via Twitter:
The email that was sent was a sincere attempt on the magazine’s part to rectify a bad decision. I understand why people are upset. I’m a writer and have spent years submitting to magazines and it’s a tough process. With recent staff changes we realized how far we had fallen behind in submissions, and didn’t want to prevent authors from publishing their work elsewhere. I would also say that I think the email indicates TQ’s commitment to treating their contributors ethically and respectfully, and we are committed to improving our review process and communication moving forward.
When asked about speculation that the editorial board’s hand had been tipped by a staff member acting alone, Ms. Gunn replied:
All I can say is that when the issue was identified, the decision was made to be transparent about it. And that we are sorry it happened and we are committed to improving processes and handling submissions with care.
TriQuarterly has also issued an apology on Twitter.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
May 16, 2014 § 6 Comments
Sandra Gail Lambert, author of the recent Brevity essay “Poster Children,” talks about the long process of wooing Brevity‘s fickle editors:
It all began with a piece called “Horror in the Okefenokee” which I thought was irresistibly funny what with that part about my butt looking like a bad comb over. Brevity didn’t laugh, and in 2006 our relationship began with a straight out rejection. I was undeterred and in 2007 submitted again – this time with an essay immersed in loneliness and exhaustion. My angst was rejected. What the heck did these people want? It wasn’t until 2010, after dallying with other journals and taking a few writing classes, that I wooed Brevity again. And this time my essay “made the final rounds.” I imagined a future for us. I saw our names printed together in Helvetica, sometimes in Trebuchet. 2011 – another “made the final rounds” rejection just made me impatient. When was Brevity going accept our shared destiny? Then in 2012 I received the best rejection ever. It had editorial advice. It said I could resubmit. No one getting dressed for a first date dithered more than I did on that essay. I pulled out sentences and left them spread out at the bottom of the page. I rearranged paragraphs. I put sentences back in but with the phrases reversed. And in 2013, after seven years of pursuit, the e-mail said “yes I said yes I will Yes.” (Okay, maybe that was just in my mind, but it did have “yes” in there somewhere.)
The Form Rejection Letter Decoder Thingy
February 10, 2014 § 55 Comments
A helpful blog entry from Brevity’s managing editor Sarah Einstein. Sarah will be talking about rejection, acceptance, and writing as part of the panel “Getting Short-Form Nonfiction to Readers: A Publication Panel” on the Friday morning of AWP Seattle:
Every couple of weeks, a writer-friend sends me an email or a Facebook message with the text of a rejection letter in it, asking me to help them decode it. Most often, they want me to help them figure out how close they got to being published, which is an impossible task. I couldn’t even tell you that if it was a submission to Brevity… ultimately, either we took the piece or we didn’t. We do have tiered rejection letters. If you got our “close but not cigar” rejection, you should probably turn around and submit that piece to five other places right away because we thought pretty hard about taking it. But if you get our standard rejection, that doesn’t mean you weren’t close. It might mean that we really liked it, but that we had recently published one that seemed too similar for us to be ready for another in the same vein. It might mean that we really liked it, but we could already tell from other choices we had made that it wasn’t going to fit well into this issue. It might mean that it is perfect for PANK / Diagram / Quarter After Eight but just not perfect for Brevity. The list of things it might mean is infinite. And the truth is, there is no way for you–the author–to know. We don’t have time to write to each author and explain why we didn’t take a piece. I wish we did. I really do. I face the same issues with my own work.
And, really, we all know that you can’t actually get any real information out of a form rejection letter. We know that the fact that it took four months to hear back from a journal might mean they spent a long time considering the work and it got pretty close, but it also might mean someone at the journal got sick/married/arrested and just fell behind. That journals don’t have secret codes embedded into the form emails that explain how to become the next Jill Talbot or Anna March. But that doesn’t stop us from looking for clues that aren’t there.
So, writer-friends, I’m giving you this little present. It’s a Form Rejection Letter Decoder Thingy (PDF link here). Surely you remember these from elementary school, when you probably called them “Cootie Catchers.” Just pick a color, pick a number, and the FRLDT will give you a perfectly possible reason that your piece was not selected for publication. Sure, the reasons it will offer you are all on the sunny side of things. It won’t ever tell you, for instance, that the editors thought your narrative was great but prose was stiff. Or the other way ’round. But since all you got was a form rejection, let’s just assume that–as is far more often the case than writers believe–the reason your piece was rejected does have everything to do with the needs of the journal and nothing to do with your work.
That said, it’s probably not a bad idea to take a second pass at revision before you send it out again. Because you always want your work to be your best.
The Maybe Dialogue
October 20, 2009 § 3 Comments
The folks at the Potomac Review have come up with an innovative and intriguing use for their blog, offering discussions of pieces that the magazine did not decide to print but considered closely, including a dialogue with the writer. Termed the “Maybe Dialogue,” the feature begins with a discussion of Mary Aker’s story “House of Refuge,” plucked from the Potomac Review slush pile. The editors weigh in with some thoughts on what does and doesn’t work in the submission, and ultimately Mary adds:
I realize there’s no question to answer here, but I just wanted to interject and say that as an author, I find it very comforting to know editors and readers watch and recognize writing over time even if they may not comment when sending rejections. I believe other writers would take comfort in this, too, so it’s a point worth stressing for all those still toiling in the trenches: just because we aren’t getting personal rejections, doesn’t mean our work isn’t being followed by an editor waiting and hoping for the perfect story to generate a yes.
We’ll be keeping an eye on this one. Should we do it for Brevity, too?