Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 8 June 2009

Writers and rejection


Nobody likes me, everybody hates me,
I guess I'll go and eat worms – Anon.

Like all writers, at least all writers who’ve submitted their work to an editor in the hope of being published in some journal or other, I’ve received my fair share of rejection slips over the years. Some have clearly been templates, standard impersonal responses but occasionally (and by ‘occasionally’ I mean ‘once in a blue moon’) I’ve had an actual written response explaining why my work wasn’t suitable for their publication, a few lines usually although one guy did write me an entire letter once realising I hadn’t a clue what I was doing; I forget who he was (and I’ve since thrown out the letter) but I’ll never forget what he did.

Like so many words we use I find it difficult to define rejection. The easiest way is to say rejection is ‘not acceptance’ but then you have to ask what ‘acceptance’ is. That is easier. I found: “favourable reception; approval; favour” and I think you need all three expressions here to give a rounded definition of what it means to have a piece of work accepted for publication.

Approval is important to everyone. There are very few people who can go through life and not seek the approval of others. Some will bend over backwards to gain that approval, twist their personalities and alter their lifestyles to fit in with others. This is especially evident in adolescence of course which makes it a bit perverse that so many adolescents take to writing poetry although how many actually reveal that to their friends or share their work is another thing entirely. I sent in my poems to the school magazine once a year but, apart from that, I never shared my writing with my schoolmates. But then I’ve always been quite good at compartmentalising my life. In recent years however I’ve closed off several of those compartments and the one I spend most time in is ‘the writer’.

I have to say that once I reached my mid-twenties my need for approval, certainly as far as my writing went, diminished greatly. I put this down to the fact that from seventeen on I was regularly being published. Okay, the magazines were all being produced out of people’s bedrooms and garages but it didn’t really matter. If people asked – and it’s the first question people do ask when they hear you’re a writer – I could puff out my chest and tell them that I’d been published. I'd even been paid – hard cash. I’d even had a chapbook done. The quality is dire but none of that mattered at the time. An editor had accepted my work and deemed it good enough to produce a collection of it. Christ knows if it sold but even that never bothered me. I had been validated as a writer.

I still received rejections. The Urbane Gorilla (great name, I know) took a poem of mine and knocked back every single submission after that. But I could live with that because they still had accepted me. I had the magazine as proof.

In my mid twenties I stopped sending out stuff almost completely. I never stopped writing but the need to have someone else say, “The boy done good,” didn’t seem to matter to me any more. I knew I could write. And from then on the only people who read my work were friends and colleagues. You will note that by this time I wasn’t so shy about telling people I was a poet. I didn’t shout it from the rooftops or anything but then neither did I hide it under a bushel – mainly because bushels aren't in great demand in Scotland, not since we went metric in any case. If anyone asked I’d print up a nice wee collection on A5 paper, bind it and present it to them. No one ever said they didn’t like my stuff but I’d come to expect that and didn’t press anyone to say more than they wanted to say. I mean, you can imagine the conversation:

Me: Did you like it?
Them: Yes.
Me: How much did you like it?
Them: Lots.
Me: …and lots?
Them: Lots and lots.
Me: …and lots?
Them: [exasperated] Yes, I liked it lots and lots and lots.
Me: So, it’s the best thing you ever read then?
Them: Without a doubt.
Me: Without a doubt?
Them: Without the shadow of a doubt.
Me: Honest?
Them: Cross my heart and hope to die.

You get the idea. There are times I’ve wanted to grab someone by the lapels and scream at them: “But what did you like about it? Why is it good?” I haven’t yet but the urge is quite strong. Then again that would only be one person’s opinion. They might like it but everyone else might hate it. Self-esteem is all fine and good but when that esteem is bolstered by the esteem of your peers – or, even better, your elders – well!

This approval thing isn’t so straightforward is it? But one thing I’ve noticed about approval is that a little goes a long way. If one person loves you then it doesn’t seem to matter so much if the world is against you – somebody loves you. It's the same with rejection too. All it takes is for one faceless editor to say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and your world can fall apart.

In his article The Rejection Slip Blues, Carlos Amantea, suggests four categories of rejection:

The rejection slips fall into four general classes: the scrawl, the cold no, the warm no --- and the (yay!) "please send more." The Scrawl is always slashed across the top right-hand corner of the original letter of inquiry. It's usually "No," or "Sorry," or "No thank you," or "Not for us." […] Printed letters of rejection range from a brief cold "No" to the two-page warm, friendly, I-would-if-I-could-but-I-simply-can't.

I've not had many please-send-mores in my life but they have happened. Here's one I found in a drawer from about 20 years ago. Amazingly Purple Patch is still on the go:

Click to enlarge

I would suggest a fifth category because it's not an acceptance per se, the we'd-be-happy-to-take-your-stuff-if-you-changed-this-this-and-this. That can be a good thing. It depends. Marion McCready recently had a collection knocked back by HappenStance Press – her poems came back with lots of annotations but her friends, those who know the editor in question, tell her this is a good thing because here we have an editor who is willing to work with an author to polish their work. This is a rare enough thing in the prose world these days let alone the poetry world.

Oh, and here's a sixth: "We think your work is the bee's knees and would love to publish it. Now, if you can please send a cheque to the value of [x amount] we can make all the arrangements for you. I've been there. You don't want to go there. Certainly not these days.

When you submit a poem or a short story or a novel I think the dynamic is very much like that of a rite of passage. You have to pass a test in order to prove your worth to be included in some select club. I'm a card-carrying member of the I've-had-loads-of-my-poems-published club. I'm not a member of the I've-had-loads-and-loads-of-my-poems-published club, nor am I a member of the I've-had-a-real-honest-to-goodness-collection-published club and there's a good reason for that one. I've never been able to select poems that go together and the longer I left it the more damn poems there were to pick from and – somewhat surprisingly – the task simply got harder and harder and I can hardly bear to think about it at the moment. Actually that's not true. I once took a collection by hand in to those nice people at Canongate to have it rejected a few days later when I said I'd pop back. But it was a very nice rejection. I guess it's why I don't mind reviewing their books for them.

But I digress. A rite of passage is simply a manifested, choreographed implementation of the "Hero's Journey". For a writer everyday life doesn't present the right kind of challenges to prove his or her worth. We have to look elsewhere. As Bret Stephenson puts it in his article, Rites of Passage, "Risk is the most common and necessary factor in a rite of passage ... Risk is the doorway to [an] internal shift" of perspective. In primitive cultures that shift is usually from child to adult. Physically there's usually no change other than a few cuts and bruises. And it's the same the day you have your first poem accepted. You go from being some kind of embarrassment to being a published poet. You get to do The Published Poet Dance all around the living room and everything. But other than that it's business as usual. If anything it's something of an anticlimax because once you've had a poem or a story or even a novel published what're you going to do next? Well, try and get another one published. It never ends.

Click to enlarge 

Let's pause for a moment and have a think about the "Hero's Journey" I mentioned before. In Joseph Conrad's 1902 classic, Heart of Darkness, the main character of Marlow, gets involved in a quest into the deepest part of the jungle, losing much of what he holds dear in the process while gaining a glimpse of the deeper recesses of his own conscious. With an overly simple, yet deeply philosophical plot line, Conrad gives Marlow's journey, what seems to be many of the basic attributes of what Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, calls the "Hero's Journey." Broadly speaking the "journey" breaks down into five steps:

  1. A call to adventure
  2. A series of trials at which the hero succeeds or fails
  3. Achieving the goal results in self-knowledge
  4. A return to the world from which the hero came
  5. Applying his newly-found self-knowledge

I'm not going to make a meal about describing how they could be applied to sending out your work into the big bad world because I know I'm stretching a point (besides you all have imaginations) but I would ask you to consider the 'self-knowledge' aspect. How you face acceptance is as character-revealing as how you handles rejection.

One interesting aspect of rejection is the fact that we're the ones who determine the effect. No one else. You sit an exam and there are marks. Your success is a simple percentage. It's objective and impersonal. At least it should be. But how that score affects you is entirely up to you. In most cases you cannot appeal the result. You may be able to re-sit the test but then that becomes a completely different test with its own expectations.

A submission is no different. You read the guidelines before you begin and follow them. You include no more poems than the maximum allowed, you include the poems in the body of an e-mail or as an attachment or inside an envelope along with a stamped addressed envelope, you include a covering letter and a bio in the third person listing your most recent publications (if asked for), you make sure there are no typographical errors or spelling mistakes in the poems or elsewhere, you tell them if this is a simultaneous submission (assuming their submission policy allows for them). And then you wait for a reply for as long – and sometimes longer – than they say they normally take. We exercise as much control as we can over the situation … and then we have to let go and see which way the wind blows.

And after all of that they say, "No, thanks," or – and here's a seventh entry to that wee list we started earlier – you don't hear a sodding thing.

Click to enlarge

Rejection is not like failing an exam though. Okay, I suppose it depends on the exam, but the thing about rejection is that it is always personal. Someone, some smug bugger sitting somewhere safe where you can't get to them, has had the audacity to say that your work isn't up to scratch. In other words YOU are not up to scratch. And how bad that affects you will depend entirely on how comfortable you are within yourself. I hardly bat an eye when I get rejected these days. I get annoyed when they take months to reply or when they take months not to reply – that really gets under my skin – because I just think it's plain rude not to reply. But that's just me.

There are loads of writers better than all of us put together who have been rejected at one time or another. I won't bore you with a long list but I'd just like to mention E. E. Cummings: Cummings’ first work, The Enormous Room, was rejected by 15 publishers. He eventually self-published the book and it went on to become considered a masterpiece of modern poetry. The kicker? He dedicated the book to the 15 publishers who rejected him. Now there you go.

I began this article after reading a post by Brady at Hunting the Muse. One of his short stories was rejected and he was wondering how to respond to it. Should he perhaps never submit anything to that journal ever again? But the one sentence that jumped out at me was: "Do you guys have any rejections you've received lately?" It's an innocent enough question but it's also another way of looking for approval. If there are other people out there being rejected then I can't be all that bad, can I? Especially if they're better writers than I am. If there are, then maybe he can be accepted into the I've-also-had-my-stuff-rejected-by-editors-who-clearly-haven't-got-a-clue-what-they're-doing club. What can I say to that, Brady? Come on in and draw up a pew. The first one's on me.

There is perhaps a reason why writers are prime targets for being over-sensitive to perceived rejection. Take Kafka as an extreme example. The major figure in his life was his domineering father who had little good to say about his son and nothing good to say about his writing. He began to believe what he was being repeatedly told and yet he found himself unable to quit writing. I suppose it's analogous to a gay man being unable to curb his natural desires despite the fact that his father is deeply and vocally homophobic. I never suffered like Kafka did but I also never received the kind of approval that mattered to me. Perhaps that's why an editor's rejection letter doesn't affect me and never has affected me as badly as many I read about.

The difference between a normal response to rebuffs and an oversensitive one may be summed up in one word: rumination. Highly rejection-sensitive people are also more likely to be overthinkers who ruminate, cogitate, mull over and generally think waaaaaay too much about everyday experience. As you stew in your negative thoughts, hostility and anxiety rise, all in the absence of any real information; you don't know so you make stuff up. It's easy to say, "Don't" but don't. If you want to stop giving in to self pity it helps to understand its mechanisms. I'm on a diet at the moment and my wife has spent an awful lot of time explaining to me how food works. Can you believe it? I'm fifty years of age and I never really understood what exactly a balanced diet is. Understanding makes coping easier.

"And if I understood why they keep rejecting my poems I'd cope a lot easier," I hear you say. Well, that's not going to happen. You can't trace every problem back to its fundamental cause. Sometimes you have to work with what you've got and if what you've got is a compliment slip saying they don't want your work then that's where you start. You update your database and look for somewhere else to send your stuff. Pretty much everything else, no matter how natural the craving to feel rejected becomes, is pointless and a waste of energy.

Let me leave you with a poem that's never been published. To be honest I don't think I've ever submitted it anywhere – I've never been that crazy about it, but my wife likes it so what do I know? Oh, and I don't care what some e-zines say, this is not publication. How can it be? There is no possibility of rejection whatsoever.



The poem came back today.

"Why won't you write me?"
it asked.

"What use am I in your head?

"They won't start to like you
even if you hide me, besides,
I'll glare out of your eyes
at them.

"And what'll you do then?

"I will be born.
One way or another.
And you will love me."


Finally I gave in
and wrote the poem too soon
and it lay on the page
twisted and malformed.

"Dad - help me," it cried
and I went to tear it up.

But I couldn't do it.


"What sex am I?"
the poem asked.

"You are a boy."

"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."


My poem came home today.

"Dad - nobody understands me.
I don't think they even like me."

"Don't worry son -
they don't understand me either."

30 March 1989

[Actually he's mistaken, this poem was published in a 1997 issue of iguanaland in a collection called '12 Stone Mumble'. I was the editor of this e-zine but Jim was the only contributor I ever bothered to marry. Missus Ed.]


Anonymous said...

Jim - my favorite rejection (for writing) was from an agent who told me that the family in 'the half-life of linoleum' was 'too determinedly eccentric.' I loved that phrase 'determinedly eccentric.' She was so very right! So I use that phrase to describe the book that is, deservedly, in the desk drawer. Every once in awhile a character or two from the book appears in a story or poem on the blog.

Your article here is great. I mean, not that it's great that rejection is part of the process, but that I could pretty much smile and enjoy every sentence.

I love the poem that came back and the postscript.

Thanks for the great read here at the break of dawn in NY. I'm off to work, you know, at the magazine.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Koe, if someone had called my characters "determinedly eccentric" I would have been pleased. So, it's not for him, at least he obviously could see what you were driving at.

Glad you liked the poem. It's not that I've had that much published that I can't remember where it's all appeared it's just I've a lousy memory.

Marion McCready said...

Hi Jim, submitting and waiting for rejection's a hard business but nothing beats that first acceptance eh!
It's the months and months of waiting that's the worse for me, I don't mull over rejections too much, you have to get used to it don't you?!

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Sorlil, I can't remember my first acceptance. I was sixteen at the time and I expect my first rejections will have been at the same time too.

The one thing I do remember from that time was sending some of my poems to Hull for Philip Larkin to have a look at and getting a polite response, clearly a template letter, from his secretary saying that Dr Larkin made it a policy never to look at unsolicited manuscripts. I don't have that letter either any more but I know that hurt at the time and I've never attempted anything like it since.

Dave King said...

A really useful post, Jim. I am sure a lot of folk will be very grateful for it. Much good sense and the benefit of much experience. You cannot ask for greatly more than that! One of the best things about it, I thought, was the emphasis on acceptance. That is the crux of the matter, I am sure. People want to feel accepted, writers as much as (more than?) any others. The web has opened up another channel, of course. Someone was pointing out the other day that by posting (say) 20 - 30 poems on a blog you will get them seen (read?) by more people than if they had been published in book form.

Jim Murdoch said...

Very true, Dave. Let's face it, if a poetry chapbook sells 100 copies the poet would be dancing all over the house and yet I average 100 readers every day. I think what you do is the right way to go, a poem - two at the most - every now and then. I look forward to reading your poems because they only crop up occasionally and because I only have one to focus on. That way I can give it the attention it deserves. I very rarely write more than a poem a day and that's how poems should be approached.

Art Durkee said...

I know I've collected rejections but I'm having a hard time remembering them. I'm sure it's happened. I remember getting turned away for several arts grant applications over the years. I'm sure I could dig into my files and find some poetry rejections, and other things.

And the truth is, I think I don't remember those events much anymore because at one point in my life I took them very personally, and could get quite depressed. I've spent a lifetime learning a (for me very hard to learn) lesson: don't give a damn what other people think. So perhaps I've learned to let it go, much sooner than I used to; and the truth is, I really don't cling to it. There are more important things to spend worry on, if worry you must.

It occurs to me that one of the turning points in my attitude came from practicing martial arts. On the mat, if you mess up, you get up and do it again. And again. And again. You learn that "failure" and "rejection" are only little speed-bumps that slow you down, but cannot stop you or deflect you. It's all about practice, and picking yourself up every time. "Why do we fall? So we can learn how to pick ourselves up again."

In the past four or five years, I haven't submitted many poems to many places. But I've gotten mostly acceptances rather than rejections. I think there's two things going on here—I could be wrong, but this is what it seems to me is happening.

1. I pick my submissions carefully. I actually do what many poets seem to overlook: I read the journal's submission guidelines, and I read a sample issue to get a sense of what they've done before. Picking your submissions carefully can require a lot of research time, so one reason I don't submit a lot lately is because I don't feel like I have time to do all the necessary work of submitting and tracking and following up. The past few years, as you know, have been a whirlwind; so submitting poems hasn't been a high priority.

2. I send a batch of poems out, then I forget about them. I actually do. The truth is, I have a back catalog that's big enough that I can almost always find something to submit, to match a journal's needs; but I don't spend a lot of time on it.

There are a couple of other aspects to this, in recent years. One of them is that for I've been requested for work more than before. Actually being commissioned or requested is more likely to get you in, by definition. It's not always a sure thing, but it's more likely. The other aspect is that I often submit to newer, less established journals, that say they want things a little different from the norm; that can get my weirder stuff in the door, and newer journals are hungrier for material, in general.

The most frustrating aspect of all this, is when I submit something and it's accepted, and journal folds either after one issue, or before my stuff can ever see the light of day. It's frustrating because you feel like you've wasted your effort. On the other hand, that's always the risk: poetry magazines almost always expire after only a few issues; the long-lived ones are the exception.

One reason they're long-lived is because they're supported by grants, by being published at a university press, by an endowment, or all of the above. And that's one reason that the longer-lived magazines also tend to be rather more conservative and rather less open to strange new poem-like substances.

So submitting to the newer journals can be a risk, but when it pays off, even if they fold, at least you can say that poem did see the light of day, if only briefly. So it goes on the list to be printed on the acknowledgments page of your next collection, and you go on.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say it puzzles me that I don't have more rejection slips lying around, Art, me being the hoarder that I am. I have all the recent online responses only because they take up so little space. I guess I stopped collecting them when the collection stopped meaning anything to me.

I liked the idea of falling so that we can pick ourselves up. There is also the point of view that until you have fallen down you won't realise how good lying down can feel. As I get older I've begun to appreciate my limits and I have nothing to prove by getting up; I've got up, I know I can do it, so what?

Like you I also take care when submitting. I don't obsess about buying copies of magazines because I see that as paying to get published besides I never see any poems like mine – or very rarely – so what's the point? No one ever picks the poems I think they will out of a batch anyway.

I keep track of my submissions in an Access database and, again, like you, I forget about my submissions till I think to check the database and discover (like I did recently) that I'd not sent anything out for 7 months. Very remiss of me.

I also favour newer magazines but I'll send stuff to anyone that takes my fancy especially now I can do it online. I no longer can be bothered with the hassle of snail mail, not in this day and age.

Elisabeth said...

All the way from Australia
I came across your posting on rejection via Silliman's blog. I wanted to be a poet as a child but failed miserably and now rely on prose.

A friend, creative writing teacher and writer, Olga Lorenzo once talked about the need to bear the painful rejection slip or perish as a writer. She used the analogy: you are on board a ship about to embark for some far off place. People throw yoo flowers or streamers or whatever else they might choose to offer, complimentary or otherwise. Once the boat has pulled away from the quay and you are out to sea, you can throw away whatever has been offered or keep it as you see fit. I particularly love your expression here: 'Risk is the most common and necessary rite of passage. Risk is the doorway to an internal rite of passage.'
With due attribution and with your permission I will quote these lines again.

Jim Murdoch said...

Lovely to see another Aussie visitor, Elisabeth but I'm afraid I can't take credit for that quote. I couldn't remember writing those lines so I checked and much to my embarrassment I find I've failed to credit Bret Stephenson and so I've amended my post accordingly. I'm usually quite diligent at attribution but I guess that one slipped through.

Tiffany Gholar said...

Thanks so much for sharing this! I really needed to read this now, as this has been a week of many rejections. Actually, I'd rather they were rejections of my art or my writing, as that does get easier to deal with over time, just as you said. Now I am trying to apply that idea to getting turned down for jobs and mortgages as well.

And thanks for sharing your poem. I liked the imagery and the concept of a new creative idea being like a child.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Tiffany and I'm sorry you've had a bad week when it comes to rejections. The whole point to the article, which I hope you took away, was that we are in control of how badly we let rejection get to us. And also to keep in mind how arbritray the whole process can be. I've had to interview people for jobs and it's a hard call. Some people interview well and turn out to be poor choices as employees. You never know. As for mortgages, it's just not a good time to get one of those I expect. I'm sure a couple of years ago you would have had no problems. Glad you liked the poem and hope to see you comment again.

McGuire said...

Another peach of a post. You ever consider putting these into paperback form on of these days?

I don't submit enough to get rejected all the time but I have been rejected my fair share. Most simply say - This wasn't for us.

One said: We don't go for things written about misery. To which I replied, via email, 'it wasn't miserable it was futile.'

When I get back to Glasgow, and even before, I'm going to fire off a wee clutch of poems to as many magazines ezines as possible.

I don't mind rejection. But I once recieved a comment on this blog and someone said: 'This isn't poetry this is awful.' And, I thought fair enough, I'm not shakespeare. I might be a dyslexic half demented shakespeare of the present. But I suppose my worst fear, and my surest challenege, it to be told: you can't actually write well at all. Some times I believe that.

The key is to always know you have a long way to go. Humble pen man ship follows a great pen.

ken armstrong said...

They say you have to be able to paper your walls with your rejection slips. What a jolly room that would be. :)

I look it more as me making a business proposal - would you like you use this? It doesn't hurt me anymore when they don't.

Sometimes I've been shortlisted for good things. when that happens, and you don't win, that can sting more because the expectations are raised.

I like this post, 'not telling you why. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

I'll be honest, McGuire, I don't think these wee articles are good enough to be printed in book form and even if I did I'm not sure there's a market out there. No, the Internet is the place for stuff like this where at least it gets read.

I like your response to the person who said you write miserable poetry. I disagree with them but then I don't know what you sent. Maybe it was. One man's futility is another man's misery. I tend not to respond to rejections. I can't imagine it would ever be very helpful and the odds are it would get their backs up. There's never been a magazine I was that desperate to get into. I just move on and ply my trade elsewhere.

We all have a long way to go. I mean what would we do when we got there? Sit around and sip piña coladas for Christ's sake?

And, Ken, I think that is a very mature perspective: a business proposal, yes. But even in business people have expectations. The trick is not to bank on them.

As for why you liked my post, can I just say that I'm glad you did? No explanations necessary.

Anonymous said...

Here's my worst rejection story. It's painful yet entertaining. Thought you might enjoy it...

Jim Murdoch said...

Christ, Stuff! That was horrible. At least letters and rejection slips you can ease your way into but that was such a slap in the face. You should work it into a script. Don''t forget - it's all fodder.

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