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.



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





When Adoptees and Birth Mothers Clash

My pain trumps yours. That’s what it feels like when an adoptee hears a birth mother say she can’t be honest because it hurts her too much, that she can’t talk about it because it hurts her too much, that she can’t listen because it hurts her too much.

My pain trumps yours. I’m willing to bet that’s what it feels like when a birth mother hears an adoptee say she can’t stop asking because it hurts her too much, that she can’t keep quiet because it hurts her too much, that she can’t let it go because it hurts her too much.

Many adoptees need to know the truth of their beginning to feel whole. Not all, but many.

Many birth mothers need to never speak about what happened to feel safe. Not all, but many.

It hurts me to witness birth mothers fighting against adoptees, adoptees fighting against birth mothers, each claiming the greater pain, the greater trauma, when they were together decades earlier at the moment that altered them both forever.

We are each entitled to our pain.

Pep Talk To My Writer Self

When we hear a song on the radio, it’s easy to decide whether or not we like it. We do this automatically, without thinking too hard about it. We say beautiful voice maybe, or love that beat, or if they play that song one more time, I’m gonna scream. We don’t need anyone to tell us whether or not the song is good enough to like or too good to hate. Either our toes tap or they don’t.

Why does it sometimes seem so much more difficult to take a stand about a piece of writing, to simply say either I like it or I don’t, without the guidance of a higher power in the form of academia or a prestigious publication? There’s a difference between saying a piece is well-written and saying I like it. Which carries more weight? Well, if I skim the first few pages of a book and don’t like what I’ve read, I won’t buy it, no matter how well-written it is.

Good writing is quantifiable. It can be measured against a set of standards (though there might be disagreement about what those standards should be). But how do you write something likeable? You certainly can’t please every reader. One person will read your stuff and be blown away, while another won’t even bother to continue reading past the first few lines. The only thing you can do is write something that you yourself like, in the hopes that if you, at least, really like it, someone else will too. One out of the other billions of people in this world is bound to like it, right?

So the key, it seems, isn’t to write something likeable, but to write what we ourselves like and then try to find those others who might like it too. And, to write it well, as well as we possibly can. In that regard, there’s always something to be learned, always some way to improve to meet this standard or that. There are masters we can study and imitate. But to write something we ourselves like requires the exact opposite. It requires that we trust our own instincts before the judgment of any reader or reviewer. We must trust that if we’ve put our heart and soul into our work, if we’ve written something we feel proud of, it will resonate with some subset of the population. We must trust that the result of putting our selves into our writing will be a piece that speaks to an aspect of being human to which others will instinctively relate.

It’s hard to be so trusting. Someone will inevitably read our work and think it’s crap. We can’t let that stop us. The key to success is not giving up. According to Rolling Stone, The Beatles were rejected by nearly every record label in Europe before they finally signed their first recording contract. Now nearly everyone likes at least one Beatles song. And we don’t need everyone to think our writing sings, just one small subset of everyone, our niche. If we write to the rhythm of our hearts, they will tap their toes.

A View from Both Sides

I’m peaved at a couple of literary magazines right now. Back in March I submitted a poem to several different publications. I’ve heard back from all but two. These two really piss me off, because their websites give the impression they are functioning entities when I suspect they have, in fact, suspended publication. I suppose I could write and ask them if this is the case, but why would they respond to my question if they can’t be bothered to kindly reject my submission?

I’m a relative newbie to the whole literary magazine racket, so I guess I’ll chalk this up to learning experience. But it sucks, doesn’t it? It takes a long time to research these journals to find the ones that might be most receptive to my work. Now I realize some of that time has just been pissed away. How hard would it be to update a website? It’s unscrupulous to continue to accept submissions knowing you’ll never use any of them.

Despite my frustration, I press on. I keep researching. I keep submitting. I want to get my work in front of readers. I’m trying to build my reputation as a writer. Along the way, I’ve discovered some journals I really love. Memoir (and) and Contrary immediately come to mind. For every dud, there are a handful of brilliant and respectful publications that make it all worthwhile.

Recently I was asked to join the editing team of a brand new literary journal (more on that in a future post). Being on the other side of the equation is a trip. We’re all still getting comfortable with the whole process of soliciting submissions and selecting work to include in our first issue. We get lovely pieces we can’t use because they don’t suit our magazine’s theme, and we get suitable pieces that require heavy editing. Both cases are a challenge.

Our personal tastes and biases are unavoidably injected into this process. It’s good for writers to realize this. I submitted to a literary magazine for the first time close to two years ago. My piece was rejected and I slunk away planning to never submit again. That was dumb. It’s always good to take a critical look at a piece that’s been rejected because you may find it needs tweaking. But if you still feel strongly about the piece when your editing is done, send that sucker back out. Success in the game is finding an editor with your taste, one who will love your piece as much as you do.

As a writer, I need to develop a thick skin and an unfaltering belief in the value of my work. As an editor, I strive to be honest yet compassionate. I want our new journal to be one of the good guys, a stimulating publication where writers want to place their work and where they feel valued even when a piece is rejected. And I promise, our website will always be up to date.