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“Though I hope this doesn’t discourage you from submitting to us in the future, your story will not be published in our journal.”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