Last week: my credit card was a’frauded the same day that there was a debacle involving Marshall, his car, and the icy night both were stranded in; (I didn’t hear my cell phone to save him). Then I got sick and spent three days straight mostly sleeping. This morning I awoke to a sharp little pain deep in the ear I got irrigated last week at the Doc-in-the-Box, and in my first hour of consciousness, my impression of this has already traversed the quick route from, “Huh. How ‘bout that,” to complete certainty that this is the first sign of a degeneration into total deafness that shall take effect in just a few hours—that this is, indeed, my last hour of normal hearing. Damn all those waivers I signed at that stupid clinic—and that irrigation hurt.
There are good things, too: chief among the good things, there’s this golden space of a few free hours this morning—before I need to make up a handout on quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing for my classes this afternoon, and before I worry—damn it—about returning to the the Box-Doc for my inevitable eardrum-amputation diagnosis. Another bright spot is this: I’m no longer working the coffee joe job. Again. For now.
Finally, I’ve gotten what they call a “good rejection” letter from a fancy-dancy literary magazine for an essay I wrote.
For those of you who live in the actual normal world which doesn’t involve publications with names like the Wheat County Review, here’s the deal: literary magazines still exist. Some are chock full of really amazing, beautiful writing and artwork—and there are more truly excellent literary publications alone out there than anyone on this earth will ever have time to read. The truth, too, is that literary magazines are mostly read by other writers, poets, and artists—precisely the folks who are busy sending the magazines their own work and trying to get it published.
These places are really hard to get published in.
Or, closer to the truth: So far in my own little writing life, I’ve mostly submitted to the gold star sort of lit mags—places like Tin House, Agni, Creative Nonfiction, and the Kenyon Review. And since you generally get back no more than you give in this life, mine has been filled with rejections a-plenty. Henshaw, these lit mags are the Beautiful Ones, filled with amazing writing and amazing design, the places where uber-talented upstarts rub, err, pages, with really famous established writers.
My pattern is this:
1. I write something. I revise it a whole bunch and get excited about it.
2. Then I send it out, usually in one, glorious, caffeine-drenched fit.
3. The Gold Star journals summarily reject the piece.
4. I kind of give up. I never admit to myself that I’m giving up. The giving-up takes the form of never really trying again with that particular piece of writing.
5. Which is exactly what “giving up” means. And, which is exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, as a writer.
6. But c’mon, we’re homo fricking sapiens. We respond to conditioning. I was a teenage feminist, and I was taught that “No means No.” I believed that.
7. Still, I know…
I have been published in commercial magazines—places with a more general audience—but the lit mags, these are the tougher nuts to crack. Friends tell me to look at this in a positive light. It’s like I’ve jumped some hurdle without even practicing, they tell me. I, of course, am convinced that it means my writing must be hopelessly middlebrow* forever.
[“Hopelessly middlebrow:” the term my old friend’s sister was tagged with by a snotty ex-classmate at a reunion. The sister made some ‘70s television reference. Rejoinder from former roommate: “Sarah,” sigh, “you are hopelessly middlebrow.” We who began our careers writing pithy news copy about City Council fights could stand a little assurance every now and then from the Literary Community that we are not hopelessly middlebrow.]
Then last week happened. I sent this essay I’m really excited about out for Round #1 of submissions, which means The Big Guys. The very next day, I received a rejection letter in email form. Only—Hang on, the email told me, this was no standard rejection. That is actually close to the exact wording: This is not a standard rejection. There were a couple more sentences about how this was the kind of writing that made them excited about something-or-other. This was the sort of writing that inspired them to do what they did. Why, this was the sort of writing that—well, it was just great, but still, no.
This “No” did not feel like rejection. This “No” excited me. This “No,” coming, as it did, from one of the schmancy lit mags of the land, said that maybe, just maybe, I was not hopelessly middlebrow after all. This was the kids at the cool cafeteria table complimenting me on my shoes. I still couldn’t sit with them, but now I went on with my day blessed with a little spark of acceptance. Ah, those Doc Martin knock-offs of yesteryear.
We are in a strange business, Henshaw. You spend almost all your time getting rejected. I have friends—good writers—who have collections of their “good” personalized rejections taped to their office walls. I’m trying to believe this is a healthy lesson. Some sort of zen thing. Right? Something about not clinging to material victories in this short, short life. Still, the good rejection means something. For me, this morning, it means I’ll shoot that essay off to two more lit mags for every one I’ve—excuse me—it, has been rejected from. I have a fiction-writing friend who makes this her policy; she tells me she now gets excited about rejections because they spell out this vast opportunity to populate the world with her stories. My fiction-writing friend does a lot of yoga and meditates, while I drink too much coffee.
I’ll let you know. Maybe I’ll get another good rejection to pin up tomorrow.