Here’s a rejection I got once: “Not for us, but cool stamp.”
I used the Animal stamp from The Muppets collection, which, I agree, is pretty cool. The story was picked up elsewhere, nominated for a Pushcart, and later reprinted in a second magazine. Submitting stories is like that. It’s all about one person’s (or one small group of persons’) opinions. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of rejections I received that had some hard truths in them – stories that weren’t ready, stories that were never going to be ready, and stories I should feel grateful are not out there, representing my body of work.
Rejection letters are part of the life and character of any writer brave enough to put her work out there in search of a larger audience. These letters also prepare a writer for what’s to come when her book is published: single-star Amazon reviews, Kirkus, and other body blows.
Like this week’s guest, Jessica Keener, I’ve been on both sides of the rejection slip. I know some of you who read my blog have rejection slips signed by me, and I know that even when an editor tries to be gentle and even when a writer tries to have a thick skin, these little notes can hurt. They can chip away at your confidence. They can make those around you question why you stick with it.
When I was reading 25, 50, 100 stories a week, the main thing that struck me was how few stories got me where it counted – wowed me with every sentence; took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go; made me forget I was working; made me forget my phone, my email, the other stories waiting in the stack; left me utterly buzzed, emotional or changed. I never wanted to settle for an excellently-crafted story; I needed to be brought to my knees. (Think William Maxwell, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien, Nicole Krauss, Cornelius Eady, Virgil.) To be a great editor, you have to toughen up and say no to anything that falls short of that standard, knowing all the while that your standard is completely subjective.
What I hope I never did, however, was crush the spirit of a writer. Even a bad writer. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of giving false encouragement, but it does mean that I’m in favor of remembering the impact of words, particularly to people who are feeling vulnerable. I talked about this extensively with Wayne Yang over here.
With experience, we all get better at judging when our stories are ready to send out, knowing what markets to target, and building those relationships with editors. But mostly, I think writing and becoming published is a game of endurance. If you think you have “it,” then you have to be bold. You have to write and write and write, revise and revise and revise, send and send and send. Some of us can only make our skin so thick, but you have to get your work out there because, unless you’re writing purely for therapeutic reasons, it’s not really a story until it has a reader.
I like this NPR piece about some of the famous writers who were rejected by Knopf. It puts these little slips you hate to get in perspective. And I think I’ll end on that note.
I am behind on mail and on comments here. I’ll catch up, but be patient with me. I’m staying focused on my book edits these days and have to make them my priority.
Thank you to my guest this week, Jessica Keener, and to all of you who left comments.