Dispatches | November 18, 2013

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