Thank You For Submitting Your Work To Us – Taking Rejection In Stride

You know, I check my email on my phone. Not a good idea when the workplace is already fraught with upset and conflicts unmediated. A year ago, I’d slowly walk, bumping into cursing cyclists and turning away from police officers as I properly waited to cross the street. It wasn’t until November last year when I cried for the first time in over three years (not because of the emails), but I took these rejections so personally. Hobart. The New Yorker. The New York Times (Modern Love, specifically). Tin House. I submitted to Tin House every chance I got, and I also applied for their summer workshop. And I was not accepted. I could write my way to scholarships to mitigate loans, and a personal statement, plus other things in 2013 got me into professional school I’m still conflicted about attending (the doctor says I’m still not well, and need more time to recover. July 27th brings several appointments). And these schools, to say the least, were spoken of like these white whales mottled with typeface.

Getting accepted by a literary magazine is hard. Peer-reviewed journals are a challenge too, especially when you have just a Bachelor’s degree. But with blind submissions, there awaits a niche should you assemble something cogent that warrants further research. The difference is subjectivity. Ambiguity. A kind of neon secrecy emanating from the hookah coals illuminating the cool kids at your favorite Saturday hangout spot. “Like me, like me,” you scratchily moan, waving your journal splattered with lilies. All of them smile, crookedly, as if they were eating Grandma’s cheesecake made with stale graham crackers.

“We appreciate hearing from you again, and we appreciated the opportunity to read your work. However, this isn’t for us.”

“While the subject matter is temporally relevant and indeed a societal malady, it was hard to feel for any of the characters. We felt there were too many characters.”

“This read is very interesting, but I’m not exactly sure how our subscribers will take it.”

“It runs a bit long. Cut out the bits inessential to the story, and bring the message home.”

“We have given your story careful consideration. And we have decided to pass.”

“Though I hope this doesn’t discourage you from submitting to us in the future, your story will not be published in our journal.”

I frequently read through the stories featured in these pages of style and prestige. Some pieces are delightful, and others leave me indifferent. But without an MFA, am I qualified to say such things? Am I in a position to say that from literary magazine to literary magazine, there’s so many differences and similarities that it’s just to time-consuming to conform your piece to the speculated feel of each publication you submit to? There is such a thing as constructive criticism, and it ought to be heeded. But sacrificing one’s voice, the emotional truth of sensitive topics, is a shameful concession to make when striving for that perfect portfolio.

Some time ago, I mentioned writing a short story that I thought was my best piece of prose. It approaches 1,600 words. Nothing long, but sentimentally, it meant a lot to me. In tenth grade, I took a course in creative writing. Of course, we wrote quite a lot. Flash assignments due daily, two poetry books each semester that we treated as self-published chapbooks, and a piece of short fiction every two weeks. The teacher read it all. The teacher was also brutally honest.

After submitting to over thirty different literary journals, my story found a home at In-Flight Literary Magazine. I’ve read each issue from the beginning. The writers are passionate, the pieces diverse, and I would say the quality yields elegance in its honest minimalism. The first draft of “Relent” was finished when I was fifteen. I wanted to write a story based on my on-and-off issues with self-loathing and a boy whose admirations I didn’t reciprocate. Over time, I tweaked the story, adding features reminiscent of every boy I was ever close to, romantically or platonically. Most of the rejection letters were mimeographed, and anyone I consulted with for feedback could only say, “Well, honey, it’s lovely.” After some debating about whether AGNI, The New Yorker, Carve, Hobart, and other glossy magazines determined my worth as a writer and most irrationally, a “worthy” human being, I came to these conclusions:

1. I had never been published in any literary magazine. Ever. My biography was very standard. College graduate. Humanities geek. Works multiple jobs thanks to a batty attention span.

2. Aside from the white whales, I wasn’t giving other publications any consideration. I was somewhat emulating my old boss. The best dermatologist I ever had went to medical school in Galveston, Texas. The worst dermatologist I ever had graduated from Johns Hopkins. My old boss insinuated that I simply wasn’t worth Bad Dermatologist’s prime expertise.

3. I wasn’t being myself. I was writing in a way to impress, but it was just excessively rehearsed. Again, I remind myself of subjectivity. I now like to write how I talk. It’s kind of difficult to follow along, but I like to tell stories from odd angles. I often begin with settings and situations we usually find mundane. I try to be funny. Sometimes, the reader laughs. Sometimes, there’s no reaction. I’ve tried folding a crane out of pinewood. It comes out stoic and choppy.

4. I was placing so much goddamn prestige on “getting published” that at one point in time, writing just wasn’t fun anymore. I ran out of ideas and shied away from abstraction. I wanted people to like me, even if this entailed boredom and the installation of French vocabulary I truthfully can’t pronounce.

5. I was an isolationist. In college, I only took one English course (advanced composition and rhetoric). The rest concerned psychology and the cult of Mao Zedong. I took all this time to scribble, and while free-writing facilitates the articulation of opinions and unspoken grievances lodged in the back of my mind, I didn’t know the basics, or what makes books like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces captivating across the decades. I read more, I asked more. From strangers, mostly. And I began to express myself better.

I am not saying I’m averted to submitting to Tin House, Hobart, and other fantastic venues where I’ve found some of my favorite stories (along with some of the most khaki-cloaked dull). But there’s much room for improvement, and there’s little reason to leave the journal shut. If not for anyone else, writing for the self is therapeutic. It’s enlightening. And possibly preventative, depending on your personal demons.

Don’t let a rejection letter, from a publisher or agent, ever get you down. Those seventy-five words or so do little to nothing to validate your passion, sincerity, and dedication to your craft. Keep building, keep thinking, find glitter in the dirt. And of course, cling tight to your truth. Didn’t Fran Drescher have some kind of oddity? Did she seek to change it? Perhaps, for those aspiring to write, the ultimate goal is acceptance. Acceptance within yourself, and perseverance to shake off mass denial until that manuscript finds its home.

Nicer Words Than Cunt

Slovenia.

It is off our grid.
Melted whipped cream,
a sweet like the syrup
that also runs across
burnt pancake batter.

It is not Mexico.

Nonetheless,
despite your urge
to steal the pink
and red Starbursts
from the bag of classics…

Both are off the grid.

Watches shall melt
onto barren sand,
dry and weeping
as veins usually do
behind upturned cheeks.

But you are chipped paint.

A cat in shades,
rubbing your nose
along the surface
of molting feathers,
that hefty, screaming hen.

Porcelain greedily salvaged.

The beautiful girl
standing onstage
before dozens, on dozens
of bystanders bludgeoned
by ever hungry irises.

Frida Kahlo.

Tracing self-portraits
to stress her strained love
like the hen who pecked
at synthetic guacamole
in a poorly decoupaged bowl.

Emily Dickinson.

Reciting verses and twirling,
spinning, and tapping
those buckled feet
assembled by those
whose skill defies that goddamn hen.

Showtime’s purring thief.

Sweet and Conscientious – Poetic RITUals by Ritu Bhathal

51OZQmeTjcL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_“…there is something for most situations.”

Oh, is that right?

If we respect convention, my age warrants questions, about the longterm boyfriend I do not have, the left ring finger pale as eggshells, and what I would do upon receiving a call from the daycare director after baby’s first brawl. In the barest sense, during these conversations, I answer with “Not yet.” Motherhood is foreign to me, but projects in my planner beg for attention. My obligations are limited, and as of late, my deepest conversations consist of “goo-goo”s and “coo-coo”s with none other than my two cats, George Batman Michael and Tabby.

Ritu Bhathal has a cat. Children, a husband, a profession commanding compassion and patience. She maintains a blog, But I Smile Anyway. Here, we find authenticity. In the giddy, frazzling, and sometimes tear-worthy moments of a life we have encountered sometime before. The bus monitor, teacher, neighbor next door. A woman I would like to meet on my sidewalk, share conversations with, and look up to as a model of bustling positivity.

I mention again my aversion to self-help books. Often times, I fail to relate to the sources of frustration discussed, sources that have brewed others’ anxieties and inner tensions that I grapple with daily. I sense some condescension, a reminder of “I’m twenty years older than you.” However, filled with the cries, sighs, groans, and laughter of a busy life I have yet to experience, Poetic RITUals does not condescend in the slightest. Rather, Bhathal’s book comforts.

A child learning to blow bubblegum. A working woman keeping a home. A dash of redolent romance sweet like hazelnut creamer. Contemporary issues such as prejudice, and some self-deprecating humor. The ways men perplex, and the ruddy grace by which they captivate girls in their hopeful youth. The author’s pieces, thoughtfully constructed in their rhyme and concise sincerity. Some bits remind me of well-written sitcoms from the ’90s that some of us can re-enact, word by word. There are sections of sentimentality, verses that left me thinking of the magic experienced each time I journey with Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. Undoubtedly, Bhathal’s collection is diverse, playful, enticing in its humor and emotion, and most admiringly, real. Girls in their twenties yet to wed may surely delight in her warmth and wisdom, verses appropriate for morning reading before the drive to work. It would not be farfetched to predict that grandfathers will smile, leafing through musings about chocolate cake, the restlessness of young children, and a matter-of-fact, personalized rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Rarely do I come across books about family life written without the drippings of sappy vanilla that leave our tummies and thoughts aching from overcompensation. Bhathal loves her children, her husband, her cat, her life, and daily sights. But the love is composed, neither preachy or theatrical. Self-aggrandizement, child worship, and Instagram shots of couples smiling too widely have no place in RITUals. But know that at a point, perhaps two, three, or more, one may be left smiling upon completion of this work. Through rain’s residual mud puddles, the teasing of daylight saving time, the loss of those we cherish and squabbles between people with whom we live, Bhathal encourages us to seize the moment. To reflect, learn, and smile any which way life takes us.

Poetic RITUals, in its gentle honesty, is now available on Amazon, through Kindle or paperback. 

Stranded

The trio gathered around the tree.
Brittle arms, cramping legs.
Within the grid, a step outside.
Makes for news, science class lectures.

The house was not so far.
Of a family name, everywhere.
Streets, the farm, and grocery stores.
Papers blotted with quiet faces.

Not a question, room to look.
Exit signs shall not apply.
Squeezing through a sighing fence.
Relying on nothing but word of mouth.

Someplace hides the safe spot.
A house on the edge, passably good.
An entryway with a doormat.
Fibers taught while colors dried.

Flashlights had given up.
Synthetics ’round ankles sealed.
They wondered of their tins and slips.
And questioned the history of reason.

The trio answered the moans of the sky.
And speculated on risk’s expense.
A sister’s nine-to-five, denied.
As boats and fish treaded blithely.

Those who claimed the aching land.
Fathers and sons in enterprise.
Made it clear that Here was theirs.
Winded brawn defiled.

Strangers out of solid work.
Fingers unseen by umbrellas.
Beards, their only lighted flare.
Seeking mercy near sharp whiskers.

Cat No. 54 of the 500 Cats Project