What Does My Rejection Letter Actually Mean?

Edan Lepucki of The Millions asked us to contribute to our “Ask the Writer” column with a few words on rejection. Along with editors Loren Stein (Paris Review), Roxane Gay (PANK), Aaron Burch (Hobart), Michelle Meyering (The Rattling Wall), M.R. Branwen (Slush Pile Magazine), and Jordan Bass (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), I chimed in with a few details about TMR‘s process. Not realizing exactly what length Edan’s piece was, I wrote way too much, most of which could be edited down to a sentence or two, so I read like a blowhard. Anyway, you should read the whole thing right here.

I’m a big believer in literary magazines embracing transparency, and I don’t mind explaining how our reading and submission system works. But I’m often struck by a simple feeling about rejection: no means no. That’s it. There are all sorts of other things we can tell you, and we can provides lots of explanation in a personalized rejection. In the end, however, all a rejection letter really tells you about your work is that we won’t be publishing it.

The frustration for a writer is two-fold: the impersonalization of the rejection of the work, and the mysterious nature of the editorial process. Edan’s piece sheds light on the latter, which emphasizes that editors receive far more work–far more good work–than we can possibly publish, and that these rejections are not a personal attack on the writer.

The impersonal nature of rejection, however, is another thing. I’ve never taken rejections personally. When I was a graduate student, and first started sending out my stories, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew that the Paris Review was “good” so I sent them everything first. I’d send out stories in batches of twenty at a time, and then keep all the information in an Excel file so I knew exactly when work was mailed out and could obsessively check how long my story has been under consideration. When it was rejected, I didn’t really know why my work was being turned down; I thought the work was pretty good (hey, I was biased: I knew the author). I was still at the stage, and sometimes think I still am, where I don’t see my work with the dispassionate, critical eye of an editor.

But it was never, to me, personal.  How could it be when I was firing off so many copies each time? I didn’t know why I wanted to publish, or why I wanted to publish in a particular magazine, or why anyone else would want to read my stories. Big picture stuff wasn’t crossing my mind. Maybe that was a weakness in my writing back then (and perhaps it still is): a lack of urgency that someone must, absolutely, read this story right now.

I go back and forth on that.

The other thing that strikes me about taking rejection personally comes from how we learn to write. Most of us learn in a classroom. Workshop environments tend to be supportive; many of compared workshops to self-help, to therapy. I think there is a lot of truth to that assessment. Post-school, or without it, we often rely on writing groups for support. There are also the writers who shun academia and writing groups and write into the void from a place of solitude. Often, we’re surrounded by people who encourage us, tell us our writing is good, and/or coming from an urgent need to write our stories … only to be dismissed with a slim, indifferent piece of paper saying No.

I still believe it’s a meritocracy. That might be foolish. But the best work, I believe, always finds a home. And I’m always going to write another story, and it’s going to be better than the last one that I wrote. I don’t say this like a chant, like a Zen koan. I say this by getting up before dawn every morning and writing. There’s no magic to it. You know, other than coffee. I’ll just repeat what Edan said here: “So get off the internet and write one, why don’t you?”

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Three Ways To Improve the Editor-Writer Relationship

A few weeks ago, I was invited to Georgia State University to give a talk about the relationship between literary magazine editors and writers. I’m terrible at coming up with titles, but I ended up calling it “War & Peace” because 1. You can’t go wrong ripping off Tolstoy and 2. the dynamic between editors and writers, the people who provide the content for the magazine, is often combative. With a mixture of anecdotes and some half-baked ideas, I spent forty-five minutes talking with Georgia State undergraduates, graduates, and faculty (who all come together to produce the terrific magazine, New South)  about how a lack of transparency and poor communication makes how what should be a fairly cooperative dynamic is often, instead, quite contentious. I did not use a flamethrower or my Al Pacino voice.

I stressed two things. The first is to simply acknowledge the writers and editors. With this magical site called Google, it’s very easy to look up any author or any editor. When you read a story, poem, or essay that really hit a chord, drop the author an email. Nothing fancy. Just a “thanks” or a “wow” or “you’re an idiot” (okay, maybe not this one …) lets the author know that someone has read the work, that it matters, that it has found an audience. It sounds like such a small thing, and it is, and yet those small things mean so much to a writer. Remember, we spend all our time writing our stories in silence, alone, isolated. To discover that all that toiling away has made an impact with an audience, strangers who really understood what we were trying to communicate, is a really wonderful thing.

Editors too, by the way, love knowing that we delivered you a great issue.

Second, I discussed the use of social media to reach, remind, and expand our audience. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the ubiquity of Facebook, but by using it—and this blog, and Twitter, and Tumblr—magazines are able to make the readership feel like a part of us because, well, they are. Good social media keeps us in touch with our readers, highlighting great pieces, fresh audio content, events here in Columbia, gives us (and you!) a chance to rave about books we love and films we hate (Did you see this stinker?) and makes our community feel complete.

But I forgot a third way of improving the editor/writer relationship: start your own magazine.

Which is exactly what writer Justin Allen did with The Cresote Journal. In this terrific blog post, Allen discusses how creating his own magazine has shaped the way he views literary magazines, particularly when it comes to submissions. The process:

has been much slower and more difficult than I expected. I haven’t given up, but I have been humbled by the project and delayed over and over. My collaborators and I are still, almost 2 years in, “starting” rather than “running” the journal, and still figuring out what it is and what it’s going to be.

And, really, what better way to learn about literary publishing than from the beginning? After all, The Missouri Review started somewhere (1977), and when we did, there was already Ploughshares (started in 1971) and Kenyon Review (1939) and Southern Review (1935) and so many others to numerous to name. And since we began, there have been a slew of new wonderful magazines—One Story, Tin House, Hobart, PANK, A Public Space, to name but a few.

Allen’s post focuses on rejection, and when it comes down to it, many of us are interested in literary magazines (both reading ’em and starting ’em) because we want to write work that gets published and, consequently, gets read. Simply publishing isn’t enough. You might as well call it “printing” if just seeing your name on a masthead is all you want. We recently discussed what happens to your manuscript when it arrives in our offices, and we feel (like every editor) that reading our magazine gives you the best sense of what it is we publish. And once we do, we use every medium we can to let the world know about your work.

None of these three suggestions are, of course, perfect. But it’s a start, and a good reminder to all of us—publishers and writers alike—that what we all do is meant to communicate, engage, and entertain. Recognizing that we’re all on the same side of the battle is something that is easy to forget. Here’s one small reminder that we’re all in this together.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

On Writing Despite Rejection

*Today’s guest post comes via LaTanya McQueen, a first-year PhD student at the University of Missouri. Her most recent publications include stories in NimrodFourteen HillsThe North American ReviewPotomac Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts.*

Rejection Sucks

In one of the earliest workshops I ever took, one of the students asked our professor for advice on finding the inspiration to keep writing despite life’s difficulties. My professor’s response was to tell her as well as the rest of the class to do something else. He advised us all to stop writing. “If you can find anything else to pursue in life, do that instead. You’ll be much happier. However, if after all of that, you still find yourself coming back to writing, then maybe you should consider it as a path.”

I understood why he told us that. We are often told how hard it is to write—the rejections we’ll face,the problems we’ll encounter. However, it’s one thing to hear the words but it becomes something completely different when you experience it. Getting a rejection can be a devastating experience, especially when you’ve feel that you’ve done the work, whether that involves completing a MFA program or finishing a book, poem, or short story. Better to just avoid the whole ordeal altogether, my professor advised. Find your happiness elsewhere, if you can.

Some time later I came across the 2008 issue of Poets and Writers. In it, there’s an interview with the author Andrew Porter where he talked about a burglary that happened shortly after finishing his story collection. His computer was stolen and all of his work was lost. All of his stories completely gone. It took him ten years to start over, culminating in his debut story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize.

I was in my MFA program when I read this story. I ripped it out of the magazine, folded it up, and have kept it with me ever since.

I’ve never collected rejections. Common writing advice I’ve come across suggests that I should. The example of papering one’s wall with rejections is often given. The impulse to keep them makes sense. The positive remarks can be helpful and encouraging. Rejections can also be a rewarding reminder of the process it sometimes takes to write and publish a piece.

Instead of rejections though, I collect stories like the one with Andrew Porter. They are what I read in my moments of anguish. t keeps me going to know that someone else has been there. We may believe we struggle alone, but the truth is we’re all out there—each of us combating similar problems, harboring the same fears, however much most days we try to suppress it.

I am fascinated by those writers who continue writing despite the constant rejection. I think of Myfanwy Collins who wrote three novels before finally publishing Echolocation this past year with Engine Books. I think of Jac Jemc, who for years blogged about her rejections on her website. The writer Jacob Appel is another example. Chances are, if you’ve ever worked for a journal or even been published in a journal, you’ve come across his name. He’s published hundreds of stories and it’s only until recently that he finally had some success with publishing a book. His story collection, Scouting for the Reaper won the Black Lawrence Press contest and is forthcoming. 

I wrote to Appel once asking about his publishing experiences and he wrote back and told me he had accumulated more than ten thousand various submissions. Try to consider that for a moment—not even a hundred or a thousand, but ten thousand. Think of all the folded pieces of paper. Think of the span of time it would take. Think of the amount of revisions. Think of all those new beginnings.

Yet, despite the constant no’s and the months trickling to years, somehow still believing in what you’re doing enough to keep going, to look at the story once more and try to make it better. To submit one more time in the hope that maybe this time you did it right.

I am fascinated by the struggle. I’m intrigued by those who make the decision to quit their jobs and pursue writing. Ben Fountain is one. It took him eighteen years after quitting his job as a lawyer to write and publish Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, a collection that ended up winning the PEN/Hemingway Award. As an aside, here’s a pretty remarkable interview he did with Ecotone that’s in their Spring 2010 issue.)

If you look for them, you can find these stories everywhere. Stories of writers who wrote despite whatever obstacles, who believed in what they were doing enough to keep going. There is something incredibly reassuring in hearing each one.

 

Happy Writer

My same professor has a poem taped to the front of his door from W. S. Merwin. To my knowledge, it’s still there. The ending of it goes:

 

“I had hardly begun to read

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

 

you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write”

 

This is a question I’ve thought about over the years. It is, I think, something we all struggle with, whether we’re writers with published books or have only the fledgeling desire to begin putting words on the page. These are things I think about as I sit in an empty room staring at a story I’ve worked on for months or years. These are things I think about each day when I again recommit myself to writing, of saying to myself that yes this important, yes this is worth the time, and the sacrifice, and the patience.

Do I have it in me to continue?

Is what I’m doing worth it?

Am I or will I ever be good enough?

The truth is I’ll never know, not definitely, not for sure, but I am full of hope.