Just the other day I entered my office after winter break, sat down to do some work and came face to face with a copy of a literary journal that rejected me about seven years ago.
At the time I was a first-year at an MFA program.
I was pouring unresolved issues in my life into very intense fictional stories. The pieces were pretty lyrical but also lacked conventional plot; not purposefully, but they did. I had been writing my little heart out for a year, I’d left my life in New York City behind to pursue my life-long dream of writing in New Mexico. I was living in a house with a kind stranger, in a place where everything was strange. Even the shrub growing outside my window was unfamiliar.
I was up nights grading papers, drinking wine alone, and trying to write something that was worth a damn, while feeling very lost.
No one was connecting to my work. My MFA colleagues were confused, friends back in NYC were confused, I was in my own world, struggling to communicate, to connect with a reader. Successful writing—publishable writing—has to, on some level, be a shared experience with a reader. It must translate in some way. Works that get rejected over and over aren’t yet shared; the writing is probably still just for the writer, not yet for an audience.
The story I submitted to this journal was written in second person, was very sexual, and at the end the narrator kills her roommate’s house cat out of rage. I submitted this piece to quite a few places, where it gained, over the course of five months, a healthy stack of rejections. For those unfamiliar with rejections from literary journals, they range from “form letters” (which are tiered) to personal rejections, which are written by editors to say a few comments about the piece’s merit, and possibly why it’s not quite fit yet for publication.
The tiers of form letters, as I like to call them, include:
- The “Hi/Bye:” Dear Bla, you exist and so does your work. Nope. LATEZZZ
- The “You’re Not The Worst:” Dear Bla, your work is just okay. Like, I’d bring a book to read if your work was a concert, but I’d still go.
- The “Spin Again:” We’re sorry Mario, your princess is in another castle. Submit again after you’ve killed Koopa and we’ll read your work with mild enthusiasm and an adult diaper loaded to the brim with skepticism.
Sometimes it’s hard to determine whether or not you’ve received a rejection that’s high- or low-tiered, but one can always check out The Lit Journal Rejection Wiki to determine if they’ve been “Hi/Bye-ed” or “Spin Again-ed.” This journal that sat on my desk also rejected this story. They, however, went above and beyond.
The rejection from this journal not only included a “Hi/Bye,” but they attached a 20-page PDF with basic writing tips. This PDF included the basic narrative structure of a story, a list of what this journal believed constituted a story was which included the bullet points, like
- A beginning, middle, and end
- Characters that have internal depth
and many more nosebleedingly patronizing tips. The end of the document suggested if I were really serious about writing, maybe I should apply to an MFA program and learn more there. My scalp was on fire.
In some ways I’m still not over this rejection letter.
I know this magazine was trying to give out some free advice, but I was enraged, insulted, storming, spurned. How was I supposed to keep on my path when someone clearly thought I had no clue what I was doing?
In retrospect I see their letter differently, as slightly dangerous even. While these tips are true, and many of them create a well-liked story, they aren’t necessarily ingredients that create compelling pieces every time. Listing items for novice writers to include in every story is simply a mistake, a killer of originality, and banality grinder. They were telling the writer what translates well to them: quiet, boring stories with a predictable laundry list of narrative elements. They’ve stayed true to this aesthetic for seven years and I’ve not submitted to them since.
Despite this rejection, and rejections after, I keep working on this piece. Years later I am still toying with it. Most recently it got a personalized rejection from a writer I respect very much, the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine where I submitted. It hasn’t been picked up yet, but I’m confident in its merit. It is through my insistence that this piece is worthy of being written that I continue to make it even better, closer to a shared vision (one that both myself and a reader can enjoy.)
Don’t let rejection or acceptance blind you.
Look to your gut to guide you to successful work. If your goal is publishing, remember that your work must translate, not just from your head to the page, but also into the head of another reader. Work to strike that balance between your vision and what your reader can envision.
Rejection letters aren’t all stamps of inadequacy; they are reminders that you need a more precise translation.
Photo by Gnomes.