You capture a fleeting moment of clarity in your notebook, then explode it into a longer-than-fleeting brush with something maybe close to genius (you hope) that belongs on printed pages somewhere, in ink that did not come from a pen held by your own poor-writer hand. So you send it out to a handful of the magazines you like to read. The online ones, the print ones, the ones you browse to kill time at your office job, the ones you see named on the acknowledgements page of you favorite author’s new collection, the ones you know will never take you because they have a slush pile the size of the tallest building in your city, every place you can think of. You know that somebody, anybody, might see the small spark of something worthy in your words, so you send them out and cross your fingers.
With crossed fingers, you check your email compulsively for months, which is logistically difficult to do with crossed fingers and a standard keyboard, but not impossible. You check Submittable to see if you submission is listed as “In Progress” even thoguh you know that some journals never list anything as “In Progress” even if they’ve already read what you sent them. You check the journal statistics on Duotrope. Standard acceptance time, standard rejection time. Related journals, and how long their response times. The response times of the fastest markets, and the slowest markets. The paying markets. The for-free markets. Even the markets listed, ominously, as DEAD. You read all of the spreadsheet nonsense you can stomach. ALL the statistics, so many lines of percentages that your eyes glaze over. You even read that page where they list recent responses by date of response, the one that no one checks, because no one is quite so obsessed as your are. You curse the jerk who checked off the brag box in their profile, because now you have a name for the person whose work has been accepted ahead of your submission. Screw you, person with a more “writerly” name than mine, you say.
You decide you’re being mean and rueful, so you watch a bunch of internet television and make all your favorite snacks and waste an afternoon you could’ve spent editing consoling yourself with the image of editors everywhere passing your work around their editorial office (do people even have these anymore?) with all the good parts circled and hilighted, except that the whole piece is circled and hilighted. Your entire poem or story or article is a bright, shining, neon yellow ord of awesome that they are so over-joyed to have seen that they’ve simply forgotten to email you back to tell you they’re building an entire issue around you.
All of this seems very, very reasonable until you check your email one more time before going to bed that night, only to find a curt, ugly, form rejection letter staring back at you. How do you feel now? Crushed? Sure. Defeated? Absolutely.
But should you? I’ve been struggling with this question myself. Where do you go from a rejection letter?
I know writers who obsessed over form letters, insisting they can imply differing levels of interest. One sentence in response to your work means who cares; several sentences clsoing with a “please submit again” sentiment means almost, but not right now; and then there’s the ambiguous wording that trips all of us, regardless of philosophy. I try not to buy into the close-reading reaction to rejection letters. I try not to buy into rejection letters at all. And here’s why: if you are writing for someone else’s approval, you are doing it for the wrong reason.
Maybe that seems a bit harsh, seeing as we’ve all just been slapped in the face with a terse “no, thank you” message, but I mean it. There is no perfect journal or magazine that will make you feel like you have arrived as a writer. The real reason we panic when a rejection letter turns up is because it calls our own judgement into question. Suddenly, a piece I thought was ready to be read by those without direct access to my external harddrive has bounced back into my arms, unapproved. The fact that it has returned un-lauded not only calls the quality of my writing into question, but my judgement. The editor seems to be telling me, this isn’t done yet or, there’s no space for your thoughts here, or, worst of all, did you really think we would print this crap?
Speaking from an editorial point of view, rejecting worthy work is one of the hardest parts of my job. I rarely have to overhaul a piece I choose to publish, so my real work is weeding through submissions and putting together a poetry component of the magazine that I feel best represents what the quality and candor that Side B is all about. Never once have I read a submission and thought, why the hell did this person think this was worthy of my time? I am lucky in that. But beyond luck, I like to think that my position as an editor is not unique. Publishing is in a place where there is a vast imbalance in resources: magazines receive thousands of submissions when they can accomodate less than fifty pieces of writing per issue. Not everyone can make the cut even on the best of days. And on the worst of days, magazines are soliciting submissions from poets they’d like to publish in addition to taking unsolcited submissions, which narrows the field even further.
So how do prop ourselves up in the face of rejection? Read. Read more poems and stories and articles. Seek out your favorite writers, wherever they may be, and read who gets published next to them. Discover new favorite writers. Read interview on craft, read fluff pieces on the weekend box office offerings, read the stack of books next to your bed that you’ve been dancing around. Ask your friends what the best sentence they’ve ever read is, and seek out that sentence. Go to readings and listen to the way words sound out loud. Go to concerts and listen the way words sound when sung. Fill your eyes until they’re nearly spilling. And then get back to your desk, and give your full eyes to your own work. It will look different when revisited. Write a new draft. And another after that. Show it to a friend. Revise. Resend. Do not give up. This “getting published” thing is not possible if you can’t take a step back, thicken your skin, and dive back into the fray again and again and again.
Emily O’Neill is a proud Jersey girl who toasts to every rejection letter. She edits poetry for Side B Magazine.