How Being an Ice Mermaid is a Lot Like Being a Writer
November 7, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Heidi Croot
Photojournalist Greta Rybus’s New York Times story, “Cold-Plunging With Maine’s Ice Mermaids,” tells of six women who meet on a cold January day for a frigid plunge in a Maine pond. They axe a rectangular hole in the ice and wearing bathing suits and boots, ease themselves in, smiling as they grasp the thick, broken edge with mittened hands.
After the blue-lip dip, the “ice mermaids” hightail it to the sauna, “cobbled together from a former fish house and an old stove,” to bask in the heat. Then it’s back to the water.
They repeat the cycle three times.
What is it about this bone-rattling practice that catches me?
It’s got to be more than my love of annual after-dark dives into a frigid Ontario lake at Thanksgiving. More even than the gasping pleasure of finishing every hot shower with a 30-second blast of ice-cold well water.
Ida Lennestål, an ice mermaid featured in Rybus’s article, says that whether she’s in the water or the “hot box,” it’s a way “to get out of my head and into my body.” Once submerged, her body “doesn’t worry about the future or the past, how it looks or whether it is loved. The body just is.”
And that’s when I get it.
The mermaids have found something writers want: an efficient method for shutting down distractions and ushering themselves into the zone.
In our case, the elusive writers’ zone.
As writers, we arrive on the shore of a frozen landscape and survey the vast expanse of possibility for our next project. We heed the call of inspiration pointing us to a likely point of entry—some distance out but within earshot of the raucous blue jays darting through the red pines. We hoist the axe and with strength of purpose chop a portal into a deep, black, unknown world. At once hopeful and vulnerable, we ease in.
“After the initial hurdle of getting into the water, everything slows down—the breath, the heart, the buzz of the brain,” Ida says. “The bliss when it’s all over lasts for hours.”
And with that, I picture myself alone on a frozen lake, gazing at the rectangular black outline on the white page of ice.
I imagine dropping in limb by limb, a slow-drip entry requiring far more courage than a head-first dive. I hang there, mouth an O. The urgency of ice water burns down my thoughts to bright coals. With no place to hide, my subconscious, that shy apprentice, delivers story crystals, bridge formations, solar chariots.
Ideas take shape, words follow.
But in time, the spell breaks, as it must. My body calls enough. Pain replaces pleasure, and I can no longer hear my thoughts. Forced into self-consciousness, I lift up and out of the solitude. I must seek shelter, someplace warm where I can assess the jumble ice, drifts, and piles.
I long for the community of sauna.
In my dream, I lean into the scent of hot, damp cedar and the clean sweat of warming bodies, my fellow writers and I seated on planks before the stove, my wet, fledgling story shapeshifting in the scorching steam like a mirage.
“You’ve done a fine thing here,” my gentle writer-friends whisper, “but have you considered this other thing?”
Soon, communal effort submits to a rising need to withdraw. The sauna feels limiting. I crave release from this hot, salty soup. New ideas have formed in the exhalation, and I need to be alone with them.
Consider the fundamental property of the cold plunge: its ability to detach the mind from its obsessions, allowing the supremely wise subconscious to enter the void, to breathe, to flex—its power brief as a wave that rushes in to sculpt before receding.
We know it as the zone. As being in flow. That emotional state where creativity claims us and the outside world kneels.
But what if a frozen pond isn’t readily accessible? How else might writers clear their heads to make space for stories?
If you live an interior life, an audacious prompt might be your portal. If your endorphins light up at the prospect of exercise, your way in may be a run, cycle or swim. Those with a reverence for nature might thrust their hands into the garden. If you’re in an emotional time, you might sing or weep in the shower, yell into a well or pillow, send up prayers to an ancestor. If music is your balm, you could give yourself over to an hour of Bach, Ella or Elton.
But here’s the thing. The process of cold plunging, Rybus notes, is “its own distinct experience, with its own intention and power.”
So, whichever mind-sweeping activity you choose to subdue distractions, make it as distinct and intentional as a cold plunge in a fresh-cut pond. Carve out the time and know what you’re there to do and why. Give your subconscious the space to deliver.
And keep your pen or keyboard ready.
Heidi Croot is an award-winning corporate writer and a newly inducted editor into the Brevity Blog team. Her creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity Blog, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Ontario’s Northumberland County and is gathering courage to query her memoir. You can reach her on Twitter.
Seven Reasons for Rejection
January 13, 2022 § 18 Comments
For editors, rejection is often a gut-level process: they’ve edited this journal for 5, 10, 15 years; they know instinctively if a piece doesn’t fit. For writers, rejection sucks. No matter how much we know that rejection is not feedback, we take it to heart. Question our worth. Wonder if we’ll ever write anything publishable. Rejection’s sting is the price we pay for the occasional, glorious feeling of acceptance—that we can’t predict or control.
But we can control our work. Often, a piece that’s been rejected multiple times has an identifiable problem. Take a look at your orphan essay, book or pitch. One of these issues might apply:
You’re submitting to the wrong outlet. The lowest bar to clear. Editor after editor has told me that half—half!—of what they receive is “wrong.” Not necessarily poorly written, but sent to the wrong place. A sweet personal essay sent to bitterly satirical McSweeney’s. A pitch about wolverine conservation sent to Glamour. Here at Brevity, we receive many submissions over 750 words, some of them thousands of words over. Double-check the guidelines and know the venue.
You’re submitting far above your skill level. Does our writing belong in the publication we admire? It’s hard to judge our own work, so judge theirs. Ideally, you’re already reading that press’s books, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Take a look at your own recent work. Are you actively or instinctively using those same (or similar) tools? This can be a sign you’re reaching for the right level.
The piece starts too early. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter situate the reader clearly in the story? Or is it backstory, set-up, or explanation? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph. For a book, cut the first 50 pages—then figure out what needs to be added back.
The piece ends too late. About half the essays I edit can cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper “button” to feel satisfyingly finished. Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have worked on that element of our craft.
Does your piece end with a summary, explanation, justification or excuse? Summarizing and explaining tell the reader, I’d better spell it out in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to usher the reader into a larger image, gently enfold them in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. More on endings here.
There’s too much filtering language.
I looked at James as he stomped over.
I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.
I heard him shout my name.
“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”
James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”
Removing filtering puts the reader more in the emotion of the scene. They can feel for us, instead of being told what we felt. Editing out most filtering language will immediately improve your work and increase your chances of acceptance.
Not making the abstract concrete. Often, our work deals with higher-level concepts, and it should! But are you embodying those concepts in concrete situations or action? If you grew up in poverty, are you telling how crappy that felt, how the other kids weren’t kind…or making “poverty” visible?
We bought mac and cheese from the dollar store and made it with water instead of milk.
Read your work. Can you make abstract concepts concrete?
No space for the reader. Explaining, filtering, excess set-up and wrap-up are all the same problem: we’re worried our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense? But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Make the reader a detective. Let them put clues together, notice dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guess a character’s thoughts from their gestures. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—meet them on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.
Seeing what’s wrong in our own work is hard. Be methodical in your later drafts. Identify what great writers are doing and try those techniques. Make checklists of specific elements to fix, change, and write better next time. Rejection’s hard, but it’s not forever—and the more we work to anticipate and fix problems in our writing before submission, the more likely we’ll be able to send our words into the world.
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!
Tomato Ready: Publishing, Patience and Pleasant Surprises
June 29, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Andrea A. Firth
My goal for this summer: to get published more. My husband’s summer goal: to grow heirloom tomatoes. In the writing world, we’d call that a metaphor.
We love heirloom tomatoes, the funny shapes, the rainbow of colors, the earthy smells, the taste—sweet and smoky, complex like wine. We buy them at our local farmers’ market, but my husband dreams of having his own tomato plants, ready to pick, and I’m game to help. After watching a YouTube how-to last fall, I harvested seeds from five heirloom varieties, let them dry and stored the tiny seeds in envelopes labelled red, yellow, orange, green, and cherry. In mid-May, he recycled some cardboard packing as planting pots, added soil and a sprinkle of seeds. He was tomato ready.
How does this connect with my publishing goal? All journals want to publish your best work, carefully edited, polished to a shine—like those perfect tomato seeds. With the writing done, the next step is to get tomato ready:
Be Prepared—the first step is READING. You need to read literary journals. I write nonfiction, but the same applies to fiction writers and poets. You read to find a good fit. What kind of writing does the journal publish? Consider genre, style, length, content, structure, form and tone. Does the writing in the journal sound like your writing? Consider published writers who you can follow and model. Where they have been published? When you read an essay, story, or poem that you admire, look at the author’s bio for where she has published. Go read those journals. Make a list of journals that fit.
Read the submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Fifty percent of the submissions editors receive do not fit the journal or don’t follow the guidelines. These submissions are rejected outright, not because the writing isn’t good, but because it’s a bad fit. Read before you submit—be tomato ready.
Back to the seedlings. Early summer temperatures in northern California can drop into the 50’s, so we’ve been hauling the trays of tomato plants inside at night and out each day. As we moved the tomatoes once again, I asked my husband. “Do you really think this is worth it?”
He smiled and handed me a tray.
Growing tomatoes from seeds takes up to 80 days, almost the entire summer. My husband has always been patient, a quality essential to getting published.
Be Patient—submissions are a long, slow process. Journals take 2, 4, 6 months or more to respond. Most journals allow simultaneous submissions. Up your odds. Submit each piece to 3-5 outlets at a time. Keep writing. Once you have another polished piece, submit to 3-5 more journals. Keep the cycle going. Submitting is doing a writer’s work.
Four weeks in, the best of the tomato plants was only 3 inches tall. My husband called the master gardener, who suggested: change the plant containers (maybe the cardboard contained chemicals); more shade (maybe the seedlings got scorched in the recent heat wave); and give them time. My husband got off the phone and said, “Smart gardener.”
Be Smart—Rejection is part of the process. Learn from it. If you get a personalized rejection, like we are quite interested in seeing more of your writing and hope you’ll send other work—jump on it. Busy editors don’t often send personalized rejections. Submit a new piece (that fits) straight away. Note the editor’s words in your cover letter: I appreciate your positive feedback on my story “The Struggling Tomato.” If you don’t have a new piece that fits, write one. And submit your original piece to a couple new journals.
If you get several standard rejections, take a fresh look. Ask a writer friend whose instincts you trust (your master gardener), to read your piece. Consider the feedback. Make some tweaks. Send it out again.
As we hauled the seedlings inside last night, I said, “You know, we could buy some established tomato plants.”
My husband shook his head. “I’m going to stick with it.” Patient, determined—and stubborn.
Be Stubborn—My graduate-school mentor, Marilyn Abildskov, has been published in The Best American Essays and long list of elite journals. Marilyn once told me that she submitted an essay 40 times before it was published.
“I believed in the piece,” she said, “I knew it would find a good home.” Stubborn.
I’m patiently waiting until August to see how many tomatoes we will harvest this summer. I look forward to biting into that first homegrown heirloom. I think I will be pleasantly surprised.
Be Pleasantly Surprised—Recently I had an essay published, the story of my father’s protracted death braided with the story of a rangy coyote. Another metaphor. I believed this was one of my strongest essays; it was rejected seven times. After the first three rejections, I re-edited and took a closer look at the journals I was targeting. I got personalized rejections from the next four journals. Encouragement. I submitted again, and the essay found a fine home in The Coachella Review, the literary arts journal of the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. If you are trying to navigate the literary journal publishing process, there is a lot more you can learn and do. Join Andrea on Thursday, July 15th for How to Get Published in Literary Journals (and more). 5 PM PST, recording available if you can’t make it. Details and register here.
How Good Is Your Writing?
December 17, 2020 § 13 Comments
You want to be in Modern Love. The Paris Review. A Big Five publisher’s forthcoming list. Are you good enough? How can you tell if submitting would be a waste of time?
It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.
What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.
That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.
Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.
Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?
When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.
Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?
Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?
If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.
Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.
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. Join her mailing list here (that’s publishing, too).
Learning to Fish: the Under-Labor of Writing
June 25, 2019 § 15 Comments
As online writing communities proliferate, new writers flock to groups that include members of all experience levels, asking some of the same questions over and over again. Some questions are difficult to research independently—seeking a consensus of opinion or a specific sliver of information—but other questions could, and should, have been Googled first.
Starting to write is overwhelming, I know. Annie Proulx I am not, and yet even I have been asked “how do I know where to submit my stories?” more often than I can count. Just because I’ve done it before. I suspect that new writers are often so worried about starting that they want to talk to another human being about it, even if that human being isn’t particularly impressive. In grad school, I was asked so many times where and how to submit short stories, I wrote a series of blog posts about the question and related ones. In online groups, I refer curious new writers to this series of posts at least monthly.
I’m hardly the only person to write helpful blog posts aimed at beginning writers. Any online search reveals a boatload—a yachtload—of opinions about market and submissions. Maybe this is part of the problem; maybe there’s simply too much out there, so overwhelmed young writers post “How do I know where to submit?” instead of sorting through Google results, knowing that a human will offer a narrower, less intimidating place to begin.
That troubles me. Online communities are poor substitutes for the kind of genuine mentorship that can give a young writer the aesthetic foundation and emotional stability to persist in a difficult career. Plus, dashing off a post with a broad question betrays a desire for the easiest way. It shifts the labor of research onto the answerers, rather than the questioner. It’s akin to skipping a seminar, then asking at the next class, “What’d we do last week?” It’s the student’s job to find out and make up what she missed, and—crucially—not to waste the time of the other students, who are ready to get on with that week’s class.
This is the labor underneath writing: research, trial and error, reading. Hours of browsing online content to see if your work is a good fit. Honing queries, word by word; mourning lost opportunities (and determining to do better next time) due to not reading the submission guidelines down to the last comma; poring over prize-winning collections and pieces to figure out what makes their work different from yours. Pitching and following up. Writing interview questions. Crappy spreadsheets.
It’s hard, annoying labor, but it’s not possible to outsource. You have to learn how to do it. Most of learning how to do it happens on your own.
Asking other people to do or explain the under-labor of writing will make you more helpless and, ultimately, less successful; it will mean always buying fish from the grocery instead of catching your own.
If you have no idea how to fish, then of course you need to learn from the ground up. But would you go directly to Kevin VanDam, the greatest living bass fisherman, to learn to cast a line for the first time? No, you would not. You’d probably start with YouTube tutorials, or a library book, or someone’s dad. When your skill level grows beyond what you can figure out on your own, then you seek help.
A writer asking general questions of a community of experts when he hasn’t put in enough effort to learn the answer on his own demonstrates that he doesn’t work independently very well. That’s a real problem for a mostly solo profession. It also shows that the writer has minimal understanding of the time and work publishing takes, how much research writing involves, how frequently it requires sorting through overwhelming noise for the harmonies that make the work sing. Writing is a profession like any other, and learning a profession takes time and effort. Enough lazy, broad questions online and expert writers will stop answering. Then all of us lose out on the value they add to such communities.
(Incidentally, a writer who is discouraged from asking more directed or complex questions by this message of “figure out the basics before you seek help” is missing the grit and perseverance necessary to be a writer. Feeling rejected, overwhelmed, and lost is a daily condition. Get past it.)
The early stages of being a writer are full of such uncertainty, so many questions, and it seems impossible to know what you’re doing. But no one guidebook will tell you what you need to know. No number of answered questions will prepare you for being inside the profession. At some point you have to get a rod and reel and go, learn in the moment what it feels like to have a fish on your line. That experience will only bring up a whole new set of questions, some of which might not appear to have answers you can Google as easily as your early ones. Voila, the community will be there to help.
Ask your questions, by all means.
But do your research first.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, NPR, LARB, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming in 2020 from Kernpunkt Press. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.
Bouncing Submission Blues: My Rubber-Band Story
September 28, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Ashley P. Taylor
Holding a box of stationery shut in my desk drawer is a giant rubber band. The box was never in any danger of falling open, so I don’t know why I rubber banded it, unless the purpose was simply to do something with the rather large bag of giant rubber bands that I ordered from Amazon two years ago.
I was querying an agent who asked for hard-copy submissions, and I’d heard that one of two ways to collate one’s score of sample pages was to use a rubber band (the other way being binder clips).
Of all the rookie writing questions one could ask a novelist, “What size rubber bands did you use?” has got to be one of the worst. To ask it is to be little better than the small children who, after John Updike read a kid’s book aloud, persistently questioned the author about the mechanics of using a typewriter: “Do you ever make mistakes, typing?” Updike repeated the question. “Do I ever make mistakes . . . typing?”
So instead of asking around, I went on Amazon and ordered a one-pound box of 40 Alliance-brand rubber bands, seven inches around and five-eighths of an inch wide. It’s easy, now, to look and see what I bought, but the choice of rubber band was not easy. So many things could go wrong. With a rubber band too big, the pages are loose; one too small and one’s precious leaves get crumpled or bent; one too thin and the band snaps and flies into the agent’s eyes, blinding her to your manuscript, nay, to all manuscripts, to everything!
The rubber bands I chose were way too thick. Luckily, there was an alternative: I headed to Staples. There I did indeed find a rainbow assortment of long skinny rubber bands that looked capable of restraining a manuscript, but I wasn’t tempted. Binder clip it was, and with a little help from the guy at the mailing counter, I even put the metal flaps down so that my manuscript could fit into a Priority Mail envelope.
All this to say that I’m seeking alternative uses—beyond stationery security overkill—for heavy-duty rubber bands. Slingshot component? Aid for drawing—or dyeing—smooth lines around dinosaur eggs? Giant-asparagus fastener? I throw the bag of them at the floor, and it bounces a little, so the rubber bands could make a giant rubber-band ball, although its core would have to be quite large. If I crumpled up all the pages of my manuscript . . .
I wonder what the rubber-band manufacturer imagines they will be used for. The Alliance Rubber press kit, “Holding Your World Together,” lists novel applications not necessarily for giant rubber bands but for rubber bands in general: jar opener, cutting-board securer, box-flap holder-downer, wallet altogether replacer, and, my favorite, waist extender. “Whether you’ve got one on the way or just want to breathe easy while you sit,” Alliance instructs, “simply pull a rubber band through the buttonhole on your pants. Then, put that loop around the button. It’s that simple!” A picture of unzipped black jeans, their waist flexibly expanded by a thin brown loop, accompanies this suggestion.
When I post to Facebook this bit about rubber-band-cum-waist-extender, hoping to make people laugh, a friend comments that she did the same thing with a hair elastic when she was expecting. Perhaps I am the ignorant one. Maybe if ever become pregnant, I’ll understand. But a hair elastic is one thing; a small thing, specifically. I really hope I won’t ever need to expand my waistband with a seven-inch rubber band capable of stretching to seven times its original circumference.
Alliance also says that the rubber bands they produce in a year could encircle the globe 23 times. I wonder how close my rubber bands would come to doing that. Each can theoretically stretch to 49 inches. I’m not sure what Alliance envisions, but I imagine hooking the bands together to form something like chain-link rubber. In that case, each rubber band covers 25 inches, max. Earth is 1,577,727,360 inches around, according to Google. At 40 bands per box, each box covers 1,000 inches, and I’d need a million and a half boxes, which is, oh, about a million and a half times beyond the scope of my project.
Maybe I’ll put the rubber bands in a drawer and return to the novel.
But would the world bounce? I sort of want to know.
Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy Magazine, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.
I Wish I Wanted That Carpet
August 7, 2018 § 10 Comments
I got sucked into a carpet shop last night. Wandering the old medina in the center of Tunis, my husband and I came across the clerk who’d checked us into the hotel, now on his day off. He’d love to show us a handicraft exhibit! Right here in the souk! Only one day! Closing in an hour!
We let him shepherd us down alleys and through hallways lined with shops closed for prayer time. It’s a little sketchy, but he’s from our hotel, and there’s two of us. He takes us to a souvenir store built into a former palace, and the shop owner escorts us through shelves of turquoise jewelry and caftans and mini-mosaics. We go up more stairs, and outside there’s a reasonable view of the roofs of Tunis and a terrace covered in fantastically painted tiles. The colors and patterns are some of the most beautiful decorative work I’ve ever seen. Absolutely worth getting dragged to the back of the souk. Going back downstairs, we turn left instead of right, into a room full of rugs. The “exhibit” is a carpet showroom.
Tea is brought. The merchandise turns out to be lovely, authentic, government-certified to be exportable, and reasonably priced. Still quite expensive, but $750 for a large handmade Berber, beautifully designed in 100% wool, is not bad if you’re a person who buys really nice home decor (I’m not).
We’ve considered a carpet before. It would be a nice souvenir of our years in the Middle East, something we’d own forever, something hard to get somewhere else, something not touristy and awful. So we consider the carpets here.
After half an hour, we are genuinely interested. But after another half hour, the blue ones we like are too large for the room in our house that would suit a blue carpet. The green ones are too small for the room that could host a green carpet. I don’t want a white one—one juice spill and we’re screwed. That pattern is great but not that color. That color is great but those embroidered lozenges are a little busy. But the shopkeeper and his three assistants have worked so hard to sell us these carpets, and they are truly beautiful. I’m pretty sure that with a starting price of $750 (“Includes shipping! If you take it with you, we give already 20% off!”) I could walk out of here with a $400 rug.
The mint tea is strong and sweet, and my husband and I discuss our budget in rapid-fire undertones. Everyone in Tunis has a minimum of three languages, but speaking very quickly gives a little privacy. We are now firmly in the market for a gorgeous rug.
Just not one of these.
I am truly sad to walk away from the beauty of this traditional craft. I am impressed and moved by the care and effort that have gone into 20,000 hand-tied knots per square meter. The price and time are right, but I do not have a suitable space in my home for any of these particular carpets. We thank the shopkeeper profusely. We elude the guy from our hotel (who wants to take us to a perfume shop next) by saying we’re late for dinner, and lunge randomly into a dark passageway because we are so embarrassed and sad we had to say no, even though saying ‘no’ was the right choice. Let the carpet find a home where it will sparkle with beauty instead of clashing with my walls. With someone who loves that exact pattern and color, who also appreciates the workmanship and investment of the craftswomen who made them.
When we finally reach a well-lit and charming area of the market, I turn to my husband and say, “Those rugs were so lovely and I wish we had the right place to really show one off. Let’s keep an eye out for another one?”
He says, “I really hoped we’d want one of them.”
“Me too,” I say. “You know how yesterday I was trying to explain what it’s like rejecting essays, how there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not the perfect match? That’s exactly what it feels like. I wish writers knew that.”
He says, “Tell them about the carpets.”
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!
Things I Did After Each of 32 Rejections
March 20, 2018 § 31 Comments
- Marked the rejection on my list and reassured myself that it was only one
- Thought: two isn’t bad. Imagined the soaring joy of acceptance that would come with the next notification.
- Reread essay and decided I still liked it.
- Repeated to self: “Rejection is just another step on the way to success.”
- Read too much into the “In Progress” notification on Submittable.
- Ate chocolate.
- Reread the essay. Found words, phrases and whole sentences that could be cut. Clawed in anguish at the proverbial bosom. Cut the damn words.
- Sent the essay to another batch of journals. Checked Submittable in a non-obsessive way.
- Was able to quote from memory all of the variations: “We’re sorry, read with interest but, not for us, not the right fit, pass this time, good luck.”
- Ate more chocolate.
- Made another list of journals and sent the essay to a dozen of them. Nothing grim about it. Nothing at all.
- Castigated myself for ever imagining the soaring joy of acceptance.
- Watched Netflix during designated writing time.
- Reread the essay and decided it was awful. Got a friend to read it. Didn’t know if they were just being nice by saying they loved it.
- Sent out another batch.
- Considered whether “Received” or “In Progress” held more possibility. Decided both were inscrutable and, possibly, sinister.
- Went to Costco to stock up on chocolate.
- Marked off the rejection on my list and wondered if it would have been better if I had chosen another color besides red for my color-coding system.
- Determined that two Costco-sized bags of chocolate-covered blueberries were, in fact, inadequate for my needs.
- Resorted to sports analogies: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
- Made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t check Submittable any more.
- Checked Submittable.
- Reread the essay, decided it really wasn’t so bad.
- Got a pair of trusted eyes on the essay. Sank into the depths of frustration and despair when told, “It needs something.”
- Repeated to myself my first writing teacher’s encouraging words: “We’ll throw a party for the first person to get 50 rejections!” Half-way there!
- Realized that my only success might be in failure.
- Sent the essay out again because I was like those zombies I watched but shouldn’t have. Nothing could stop me but a blow to the head.
- Read articles claiming that sugar is the cause of all ills. Read articles stating that chocolate has 4 grams of protein per half cup.
- Decided that I couldn’t please everyone else and maybe couldn’t please anyone else but myself. Pretended that this made me powerful instead of lonely.
- Gave myself a stern lecture about doing the work for the work’s sake. Very nearly believed it.
- Decided that the essay did need something. It needed me to not give up on it.
- Checked Submittable.
A knitter, gardener and avid dog-snuggler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch and Hippocampus, and she is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.
Aiming For Rejection(s)
February 27, 2018 § 16 Comments
A guest post from Amy Braziller:
Who aims for rejections? It’s a crazy notion. Not for the fainthearted. And definitely not for those prone to negativity. But since the beginning of 2017, I’ve been aiming for rejections. This intention spurred writing, encouraged finishing, and helped me put more pieces out into the world than previous years. An original idea? Nope. In late 2016, I read a piece on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections A Year. Sold.
Years ago, such a risk would have stopped my writing. I’d spent dollars on therapy to deal with my writing demons. I wrote pieces about quitting writing. I swore that I didn’t stand a chance in the world wide of publication. Fear. Yes.
But after years of writing workshops, sending out random pieces here and there, and on rare occasions getting an acceptance, I felt ready to commit. Ready to say I have work worthy of reading. Ready to risk rejection.
I created a writing intentions calendar, noting pieces that needed revision, listing pieces I wanted to create, placing deadlines for submissions of particular pieces complete with lists of potential homes. Each month, I crossed through what was done, and when things weren’t touched, I re-evaluated, deciding whether to move them to another month or simply remove that intention.
I began submitting. Aiming for rejections. And I received them.
Eighty-two times in one year.
In the past, I’d received rejections without much grace. Often, I’d utter nastiness at the publication, holding a fuck-you finger to the computer screen. Other times, I’d run to my faithful partner and ask her if I was wasting my time (I still occasionally do this after too many rejections in a row). But starting last year, I handled it like a business. I persevered, refusing to let external readers determine my writing life. I’d note the rejection in a list, add the number to a tally for that month, and evaluate whether the piece should be sent to other journals or put back into the revision pile.
When my rejections passed 50, I got a bit excited.
I hadn’t crumbled.
I hadn’t stopped writing.
I hadn’t submitted to fear.
There were moments I wondered if I could truly withstand 100 rejections. For years, I had worked and reworked an essay about the onset of my father’s Parkinson’s disease. Writing pals declared it ready—it would find a home. I sent it off to my dream publication, checking the box that said I wasn’t simultaneously submitting. I waited. It took only six weeks to receive a friendly, impersonal rejection wishing me “the best in placing [my] writing elsewhere.”
I submitted the essay to what I thought would be a sure shot. I’d read their issues. Read their mission. This fit. Again, it took only six weeks for the rejecter to wish me “the best finding a home for it.”
Fortunately, encouragement occasionally showed up in my rejection pile. Several pieces garnered “…we hope you will consider sending us more in the future.” Then there was the rejection that I celebrated as much as an acceptance. A hybrid piece of polyvocality, part Twitter/part narrative, had made it up to the editor’s table at another dream publication. The rejection came directly from the editor. She told me how interested they were, that it was a close call, even though my essay didn’t make the final cut. She gave me hope for a piece that was having difficulty finding a home.
My new mission of aiming for 100 rejections helped me finish pieces. After years of generating lots of starts and little finishes, I knew that in order to have enough material to aim for 100 rejections, I had to actually produce and finish work. A specific number gave me accountability.
At the end of last year’s experiment, I had four pieces published and one forthcoming. I had enough polished work that when someone solicited me for a potential submission, I actually had several pieces I cared about to send in (and one was selected for publication). It’s too early to predict this year’s outcome, but I’m into 2018’s writing intentions with a busy calendar filled with promise—and rejection.
Amy Braziller is a former punk rocker, sometimes banjo twanging foodie, and current Professor of English at Red Rocks Community College. Publications include Front Porch, Entropy, Split Rock Review, and Hippocampus. Amy is working on a hybrid memoir related to her punk rock days in NYC. She writes about food, film, music, GLBT issues, and social media distractions at amybraziller.com.