This is the close-but-no-cigar, always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride post.
I’ve gotten really nice personal rejections from places like ZYZZYVA and I just received a tiered rejection from The New Yorker, which I was overjoyed about when one considers that they don’t even respond to something like 70-80% of their slushpile submissions. I’ve been a semi-finalist for three major contests. Slowly, my publication and accolade list is less and less resembling the wastelands outside Night Vale.
Of course, this is balanced against the dozens of nearly wordless form rejections. But nevermind those. They’re not the ones that throw me off my game.
It’s the almosts. It’s the 300+ day rejections that made it through three reads and onto the final editor’s desk. It’s those yellow envelopes and emails that come with a hint of cigar smoke and no cigar.
I know it shouldn’t matter, that those should be the ones that make me think, YES, I’ve got this, and push harder. But they’re not. They’re the ones that make me think that maybe I’m not actually good enough at all.
I think of it as smart kid syndrome. You can coast for a really long time with minimal work by just being smart. Writing is the first thing that I’ve really applied myself to long after it stopped being easy, long after I had to put in actual work to be good. And for that effort to feel wasted, to still not be good enough, that’s the hammer.
The best description of writer’s block I’ve ever heard came from Dan Harmon who said all it is is the gap between how good you are and how good you want to be and the only way to bridge that gap is to prove yourself right. You’re a shit writer and you’ll never be amazing. Prove it. Write shitty. Because writing shitty is the only way you get to where you want to be.
And I have to remind myself of that every time one of those close calls come rolling in. Because they’re the reminder of that gap, of how much more work I need to put in to build that bridge. Because no one’s wandering around handing out cigars. You have to make those fuckers by hand out in the hot sun.
I did not win the 2014 Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Nope. Lost! DID NOT WIN. But I was so excited about the results I told everyone, jumped around (figuratively), and had such a goddamn big smile on my face, that four more rejections that week did little to scuff my shine because I was a semifinalist. Which means I was in the top 25, that elite 1% of stories that made it to the final rounds. Holy hell.
Early in your writing career, the reward system of your brain gets rewired. We face so much rejection that even the tiniest wins seem monstrous achievements. We might break our legs over and over trying to ascend Everest and almost die of exposure, but you should see us dance when we actually step up a curb without falling on our asses.
We check RejectionWiki for the slightest chance that we got a higher-tier form rejection letter, something our published advisors have said is like trying to read fortunes in tea leaves. We brag to our fellow writers about that Raiders of the Lost Ark golden idol of a personal rejection—sure we lost to some pompous prick and were almost killed by Amazonians, but by golly, someone fucking noticed us.
So sure, I lost the contest and had stories rejected almost 40 times last year, but this time, this time, that Pavlovian response of dopamine is mine and I’m going to savor that son of a bitch.
Primarily my summer writing projects have been editing and submitting stories from earlier this year and last year. Most of the markets for literary fiction are closed during the summer, so my options for submission are limited until September. Which is good if I’m trying to avoid rejection letters, like yesterday’s Paris Review form letter. I send out to these long shots, knowing it’s unlikely I’ll get picked out of the slush pile, but it still hurts a little when the rejection comes through. I’m also making the decision to only submit to venues that pay. For some reason, literary fiction writers are expected to publish for free, for exposure, for the publishing credit, rather than get paid early in their career. Having spent enough time in the graphic design/art world, where this is also a prevalent expectation, I can assure you it’s also some bullshit.
Have you played BANG!? It’s a great game. Get it, play it.
The point of this post isn’t to advertise BANG! In the game, there’s a Dynamite card. When you play it, it circles from player to player until it explodes and yes, there is the possibility that it will explode on you. There is a danger in playing the card. It’s gambling.
And as I sent out five submissions last week, I realized sending out a submission is like playing the Dynamite card. If it explodes on another player, you win. Your submission gets accepted. But there’s a chance it will explode on you, and that’s the rejection. Submissions are like little bombs you send yourself. We’re very very likely, especially early in our careers to blow ourselves up. We’re shitty bombmakers.
TRANSLATION: I just had another major rejection. I was told I did a great job of avoiding clichés in what could be a clichéd situation, but it just wasn’t for them, a little too heavy on backstory, too light on present action. But the editors would like to see other work from me, so there’s the silver lining.
So, I spent the afternoon submitting the story to the next four venues on my list. Anywhere from five weeks to ninety days before I hear back from them.
A story was rejected yesterday. I’ve had three or four rejections in the last few weeks. I haven’t been submitting long, and I know this is par for the course, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
A bunch of my cohort had dinner with the well-known writer who came for the writer’s series of readings. He gave us a lot of advice about starting out and advised that we shouldn’t even worry about submitting right now, that we’re not ready, that we should be first and foremost honing our craft. He even suggested that we take some time after we finish our MFA before we really get serious, to let those lessons settle in and find your center as a writer. I don’t think that advice is for me. And after one semester, there’s a tiny part of me that’s worrying that this MFA isn’t going to teach me much I don’t already know.
At the end of last spring, I was riding pretty high. I had been accepted into half of the MFA programs I applied to, my senior thesis, a short story collection, won two $1000 awards—the department’s fiction thesis prize and an excellence award. I finished off the semester with two of the strongest stories I’d ever written and things looked good.
But now, it’s almost the end of my first semester of grad school, I’ve had nothing but rejections (though one story was a semi-finalist in a contest) and the last story I wrote is probably the weakest story I’ve ever written, and I’m fearing that I won’t get much out of the MFA. I’m feeling pretty low at the moment and could really use a win. You listening, Universe?
On the other hand, I know that the quality of work tends to dip at the start of an MFA because of the soul-shifting that results from a new place, new people, new methods, new influences, and new pressures. I know that eight bazillion publishers rejected J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss and everyone who’s crazy famous now. I know all these things, but those things are no bandage on the little wound of they-don’t-like-me-I-suck festering on my heart.