So I have a problem with rejection. I don’t even like to get the turndown service at hotels. And most of the time it’s not a problem, but, being a writer, rejection is part of the job. I knew it back when I was a college English majors and all my aspiring writer friends and I assured each other that part of the process was we’d be able to wallpaper our rooms with rejection slips before we ever saw an acceptance. We heard it from established writers too—even professionals sometimes get turned down. Accepting something like that intellectually is very different from accepting it emotionally, though, which is why for a long time I was reluctant to submit work anywhere unless I’d worked and reworked it, sometimes until the original spirit of inspiration that prompted it in the first place had completely dried up, leaving something that, even if it were technically good, was lifeless—like a photocopy of a reproduction of a picture of a dried flower.
The rejections that inevitably followed would send me down an emotional whirlpool, and I’d think, that’s it, I should just quit, it’s not like anyone’s asking me to write anyway, but then that’s the trouble. I didn’t start writing, and I don’t keep doing it, because I’m being asked to. It’s a compulsion. And when I’d seriously think about quitting I’d suddenly be flooded with ideas that I felt compelled to get down because that’s what happens when you taunt the Muse. In fact the most powerful Muse of all was and still is Ironia, who was expelled from the pantheon for using a sheep’s bladder to invent the first whoopee cushion, and who, upon departing, placed a curse on the other Muses that they would never get the joke.
In the final, fading days of 2019, I made a resolution that I’d get over my dislike of rejection, or at least mitigate it, by sending work out and getting it rejected. Intellectually I’ve known I needed to do this for a long time. I’m in a local writing group and when we’re doing introductions I’ll sometimes say, “I haven’t published much but I do have a nice stack of rejections,” which was, for a long time, only partly true. I did have some rejections but not enough to qualify as a “stack”, even if I printed them—one thing that’s changed since my college days is submissions and their responses, whether affirmative or negative, are sent electronically so I can’t wallpaper a room with them, which is probably just as well because electrons don’t go with the rest of the house’s décor.
So my plan for 2020, even before any of us knew what kind of year it was going to be, was to submit at least one new piece once a month, to get over, or at least mitigate, my dislike of rejection, to build up a tolerance for it. And I’ve managed to do a bit better and ended up with about fifteen, including an offer to teach a class on flash fiction, which I count as the only acceptance so far, although some things are still pending. There’s a big difference between accepting that the waiting is the hardest part emotionally and knowing intellectually that it’s not just a Tom Petty song, but that’s another story. And doing all this submitting has been an educational experience.
While rejections still aren’t fun I’ve realized I really like submitting. It helps give my writing focus and even purpose. Before I could and would tinker with a story or even a poem for years, sometimes cutting, more often adding, and sometimes would end up with an unwieldy epic. Admittedly, I’m not in bad company there; no one can forget the time Pope Julius II said to Michelangelo, “When I asked you to paint the ceiling I meant blue.” Any deadlines may be arbitrary and self-imposed but they force me to get to a stopping point and accept that, for some things at least, I’ve gotten to a point where they’re as good as they’re going to be and anything else is gilding the lily or, if I kept at it, encasing the lily in a solid block.
I’ve also learned that, for me, rejections are easier to take if they’re quick. A local weekly used to have an annual writing contest and I’d always enter and always lose but I’d go to the awards ceremony and three years in a row I’d start talking to one of the editors. He’d recognize my name and tell me how much he liked my work and I’d thank him politely while seething inside, thinking, if you liked it so much you should have put a ring on it, or at least published a list of runners-up. I’ve gotten some rejections that went into great detail about what they found wrong with my work, and while I appreciate the time and effort put into telling me the plot didn’t work, the characters were shallow, there was a typo seven-eighths of the way down page three, I need to trim my nose hair, that dress looks like I pulled it off a thrift store discount rack, and that I should put down the milkshakes and spend some time on a treadmill I’m capable of seeing the warts in my own work. I don’t want to tell editors how to do their job—if I did I’d tell them “Publish my work and give me some money!”–a simple “Thanks but no thanks” holds at least a flicker of hope. It allows me to imagine that the subtext may be, “We’d say yes but we’re full up. Try the place across the street!”
And submitting a lot does make the waiting easier. Instead of sweating and fretting over one thing as I wait for a response I get to sweat and fret over half a dozen things as I wait for a response, which is somehow easier and makes me wish Tom Petty were still around so I could tell him to try it. It also gives me some things I can put on my curriculum vitae, or will if I get any acceptances. It’s also prompted me to stick my neck, or at least my work, out more—I’m even sharing more with the local writing group I’m a part of, which may be why a couple of other members contacted me earlier this month. They’re starting a literary magazine and they wondered if I had a story they could use. Oh, hey, someone’s actually asked me to write for them, and they gave me a deadline that wasn’t arbitrary or self-imposed and I got back to them a few days early. Now I’m still waiting for a response but I hope they’ll say yes. If they don’t, well, maybe they know a place across the street.