Charles Tan has kindly storified my tweets on perseverance, writing, and the editorial process. Today I saw a few people wanting to refer to this conversation in blog entries, so I have very slightly tweaked these tweets and am putting them in an entry format here. This conversation continues various conversational threads from #dontselfreject (also kindly storified by Charles), which I should also make into an entry here.
My life as a writer changed radically in 2010, when I decided to start my own poetry market, Stone Telling. I saw first hand how hard many of the submitters worked, and how many were rejected for reasons other than “this sucks.” I had to reject for many reasons, chief among them, the work did not fit my vision. I had, and continue to have in all my editorial projects, a very strong vision – and there are many, many pieces in every slush. Even as a beginning editor, unknown, editing poetry, which is perhaps less densely populated than fiction, I received a lot of work to consider for the first issue of the magazine. Some of it I wouldn’t publish for love or money, e.g. there were fatphobic and homophobic pieces sent to this fat, queer editor. Such work was in a minority. On the other hand, there was a lot of competent work that either did not wow me, or wowed me but did not fit my vision. Some work was good, but I felt the poet was not done growing yet. I sent personal rejections a lot. Some I would not send now. Let’s face it, rejection – even the kindest, most personal – sucks. It perhaps especially sucks when you’re starting out. Personal rejections, even sensitively worded, can devastate a beginning writer.
After reading for a few issues, I noticed a curious thing: some of those “good but not exactly there” poets submitted work again. Others did not.
What I saw in those submitters who tried again and again was courage. It was the courage I lacked myself as a writer. because, writing from my own gut and all too often about my own marginalizations, from a place of pain and struggle, rejections hurt me and taught me to self-reject. But my submitters, my Stone Telling submitters whose work I did not even buy, taught me courage to keep trying, keep working, keep improving.
Not everybody can do that. Mental health issues surrounding writing can be overwhelming, and all too often impossible to overcome. Rejection hurts. Having one’s most heart-wrenching, gutful work rejected hurts like little else. To say, “Everyone can do it!” – is ableist as well as unrealistic. Not everybody can, and if one cannot, it should not be a value judgment.
But – I want to tell you a story. We’d just accepted a poem which was pretty much perfect. I am not going to name the poet. This poet’s work was in the slush from Issue 1. Over & over this poet sent work to us and was rejected. Between 2010 and 2015, this poet sent in 17 submissions. Over these years, I saw them grow and grow. The work went from good to excellent. Some of the work we rejected sold elsewhere, and was nominated for awards. It was STILL not right for us, but it got closer and closer; and then it was perfect.
As an editor, I am so, so proud of this poet. As a person, I am so, so grateful for the lessons of courage and good cheer they taught me (in case you wonder, yes, this is a marginalized person.)
I couldn’t have done what they did. 17 times! I would self-reject.
Stone Telling submitters – and then, An Alphabet of Embers submitters – gave me courage and helped me understand how sending work out looks from the other side. Since 2010, I completed and sent out many more poems. While poetry became easier for me to submit after 2010, prose was still often a struggle. Reading for An Alphabet of Embers gave me a window into prose. I completed and sent many more fiction pieces after AoE, and I was at peace with the process. It became easier, even though rejection is still difficult.
I have been here since 2008. I have noticed a pattern. Some writers seem to emerge perfect and polished, and they sell and sell (though some of those people later burn out). Others – more often, I think – have a great story and sell it. Then, other successes don’t come. or don’t come as easily. For others, even that first sale proves elusive; they write and submit consistently, but do not sell. Very often, there is a long, hard slog between that first acceptance and the next one (or at all) – a long, hard slog of writing/learning, sending out and being rejected while watching other people sell and sell. That’s where many people self-reject, and even leave.
Frankly, yes, this long, hard slog is discouraging and demoralizing. “What’s the point?” I have certainly thought many times. I started in 2008. It is 2015 now and I sell a lot more than when I started. (My bibliography is broken down by years, if this is interesting). I sold no prose in 2009, and not for the lack of trying.
I have talked earlier about the myth of “rapid, youthful rise” which works for some, but is hurtful and demoralizing for many. Not everyone can keep slogging, not for everyone it’s meaningful even to try. But, as an editor, I have seen so many people grow. in the 5 years I’ve been editing, I’ve seen my repeat submitters improve – because writing/submitting usually teaches you something. Often improvement is slow, so that the writers themselves may not even notice it. Often you not only need to improve your writing, but to hit that exact right note with the exact right editor.
Personally, I prefer the slow method of growth because it taught me so much about the process; it also taught me so much about people, and it is people, always people, who are at the core of my endeavor as a writer and editor.
I want to address two frequent concerns. First, It seems that many people worry about annoying editors by submitting again and again. I do not think it is a danger, unless your work is offensive to that editor (e.g. you sent a homophobic piece out to a queer editor), or unless you disregard guidelines. So yes, please follow guidelines, and if you feature diverse characters, please do try to get things right. However, repeatedly sending work that does not offend but does not make the cut is NOT A PROBLEM. Editors want to buy excellent work, and not hitting bulls-eye from the get-go does not disqualify you. If an editor is telling you to submit again (including via a form), that means “please submit again.” There’s no trick in this.
I also want to briefly address the concern of falling behind. Yes, there are a few prodigies who probably have never felt behind – but many, if not most writers I talk to feel they are “behind.” I find this troubling. First, we cannot all be behind. Second and more importantly, there is something damaging and painful about the idea of ahead and behind. It’s as if there is this huge herd of writers all running in the same direction towards a judge with a little red flag, and maybe a rope. But we’re not a herd, there’s more than one road to run, not everyone is able to run, and there’s no ultimate judge either. We move at a different pace, towards different goals. Some of us must take breaks before we can move again.
I personally find comparisons to other writers, as well as envy, unhelpful, but I am not a jealous person, it is not an emotion I have. I am speaking as a person who walked a long, hard, frustrating and painful and demoralizing road between my first sale and today. I did not run my road. I walked it (stopping), and I am nowhere near done. I’m simply somewhere different from where I’d started. I like this place I’ve reached. Would I have liked to have an agent and/or a book contract by now? Yes, of course! But I am not “behind.”
There is a Russian proverb, dorogu osilit idushij, “the one who walks will manage the road.” If this road is for you, keep moving – keep moving when it is easy and when it is tough, take rest breaks when you need them, remeber that self-care is #1, but don’t self-reject. If the road is not for you, that’s completely legit. That’s not a statement about your worth, either. As always, please remember that I am only a single person and everything I say gets filtered through the lens of my own thoughts and experiences, so if what I am saying does not work for you, that’s absolutely legit as well.