A Year of No

I committed to myself in 2016 that I would make more of an effort to get my writing out into the world. I submitted my work to publications more often last year than ever before. For the writers among my readers, here’s a breakdown of how that went:

I submitted individual pieces (poems, essays, and stories) 70 times, to 25 different outlets. Twice I submitted directly to an editor; the other times, I submitted via whatever means the publication specified on their website—Submittable, some other system, or email. I drafted multiple versions of cover letters as well as my biography, tailoring them for specific markets. I reported most of my submissions on Duotrope, which I’ve been using for several years. I also began keeping track of my intentions and outcomes for specific pieces and markets on a spreadsheet.

In some cases, I responded to calls for themed submissions; other times, I fervently searched for the best home for a piece; occasionally, I entered contests. I spent $12 on sample issues and $15 on contest fees.

I’ve now received answers for all but one of those 70 submissions. The one that is outstanding is a contest entry for which I paid a small fee; I’ve been waiting over 7 months for a response that was due before autumn. All of the responses I have received have been rejections, except for one. A poem was accepted, then the editor requested an edit, and in the course of our conversation about the edit, the editor requested more edits, and it got to the point that if I made all the edits requested, the poem would no longer be what I wanted it to be, so I withdrew it. I withdrew an essay because the market I submitted it to unexpectedly went on extended hiatus. I withdrew a set of poems after waiting 9 months for a response that never came. I received two personal notes; all the rest were form rejections. Most markets took 2-3 months to reply.

Early in the year, I applied for a grant and was turned down, although the rejection letter included some kind feedback about my sample piece. The application cost me $15.

I also put together a chapbook of poems that I’d written over the previous several years and sent it out to some chapbook contests. Most of the contests I researched required a fee, some as high as $28, so I had to be choosy in order to keep the cost down. I settled on 7 contests, with fees ranging from $10 to $20; in total, I spent $101. Only one publisher promised a copy of the winning chapbook to every contest entrant—you rock, Gold Line Press! One press responded after only 2 weeks and I waited on another for over 8 months; most returned a decision in 4-5 months. I didn’t win any of the contests I entered, nor did anyone agree to publish my chapbook, but I did earn one honorable mention, from Concrete Wolf.

What do I make of all this?

If nothing else, this past year was a lesson in how to handle rejection. The hard truth is that either I chose markets that weren’t the best fit for my work or my work wasn’t good enough to wow an editor. I suspect that some of both was true, depending on the work and market in question. Having my writing turned down so many times brought on waves of depression. But I expected rejections to get me down, and I worked through it. It’s hard not to doubt yourself when you keep hearing “no.” I gave myself plenty of pep talks throughout the year, and I also made an effort to connect with other local writers so that I wouldn’t feel too hopeless. It always helps to be reminded that all of us who write will have work rejected, and that this doesn’t mean we should give up.

A lot of positives came out of this year of no. I’ve created a system for keeping track of what I’m working on, what I’ve completed, and where I’ve submitted. I’ve become much more familiar with literary publications that feel like homes where I’d want my work to live. I’m doing more deep reading and I’m understanding better what I want to achieve in my writing. I’m learning to let go of my ingrained need to impress in favor of striving to make myself proud. I want to feel satisfied that the work I send out into the world accurately reflects what I hoped to achieve and is the best that I could have accomplished at that moment in time. I want to slow down when I’m creating, but be brave in sending out work once I’ve decided to call it done. Rather than viewing this past year as one of failure, I’m embracing my rekindled desire to continue learning and developing my writing craft. I’m more determined to push myself further when that instinct to play it safe and hold back tries either to sabotage my work or to convince me to hide it away.

But probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that I need to let go of so many expectations. It’s more important to allow myself time to dwell in the unknown, to sit with questions and to give myself permission to follow my curiosity wherever it goes. I must let go of what I imagined a writing life would be and embrace the reality of what this particular writing life needs to be for me.

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #8 of 52. 

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