Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How Do You Deal With Rejection? (11/15/02)



Featured writer: Arlene L. Mandell



Contributors this month:
Joseph (Joe) Kelley
Ariel Smart
Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Winslow
Christine Walker
Elizabeth Hannon
Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Ken Rodgers
Kevin W. Grossman
Mary Gaffney
Rodney Lewis Merrill
Susan Bono


Arlene L. Mandell



"Sorry, we can't use your work. We're too busy to write to you personally, but we urge you to subscribe to our journal, Crazy as a Fox, for only $29.95 a year." This smudgy photocopied dismissal, barely two inches wide, comes to me regularly in one of my stamped, self-addressed envelopes.

Does it sound familiar? Are you crushed when you receive similar missives from heartless editors who, you suspect, are terrible writers themselves and enjoy sending out thousands of smudgy strips? Please don't be sad. I've shared your pain countless times but I've also had more than 175 poems, short stories and essays published in the past 13 years. One could say I'm a grizzled veteran of both acceptance and rejection.

There are so many reasons your essay, "Me and My Toes," may not have made the cut: The editor enjoys getting submissions from all over the globe but primarily publishes works by his friends in a small Montana town. The publication has room for six stories and has received 1,231 entries. They only want poems about horses. They never use poems about horses since the publisher's mother was kicked by one. Therefore, you shouldn't automatically feel "rejected" as in: your writing is no good.

On the other hand, you might reread your small masterpiece before following the classic writing magazine advice to immediately mail it out again. For example, is "Late August," your lyric poem about a white butterfly dipping into golden pollen, the right choice for the winter issue of San Francisco literary zine that likes "edgy, counter culture rants"? Hmmm. Perhaps "Squirrel," your prose poem that compares a promiscuous former husband to a flea-bitten rodent might be more suitable.

"Squirrel" is a perfect example of perseverance. I wrote it in 1990 and it was rejected 31 times over the next 12 years before finally making it into a very cool literary magazine. I know someone is going to love your "Me and My Toes" essay too, so buy another sheet of stamps and turn on your printer!

Arlene L. Mandell is a retired college English professor living in Santa Rosa. For information about her poetry chapbook, Variations on a Theme, contact her at poetessalm@aol.com

Joseph (Joe) Kelley



Immediately upon being rejected I remind myself that the rejector-in-question sleeps with the family dog.



Ariel Smart



When I receive a rejection slip-- my husband and I can always tell by the thin contents of the self-addressed envelope-- I write a brief sentence to the publishing house saying, "Thank you for notifying me about the status of the story I sent you." This objectivity frees me from tortured postmortems about my worth as a writer.

Ariel Smart

arielsmart@yahoo.com


Arlene L. Mandell



"Sorry, we can't use your work. We're too busy to write to you personally, but we urge you to subscribe to our journal, Crazy as a Fox, for only $29.95 a year." This smudgy photocopied dismissal, barely two inches wide, comes to me regularly in one of my stamped, self-addressed envelopes.

Does it sound familiar? Are you crushed when you receive similar missives from heartless editors who, you suspect, are terrible writers themselves and enjoy sending out thousands of smudgy strips? Please don't be sad. I've shared your pain countless times but I've also had more than 175 poems, short stories and essays published in the past 13 years. One could say I'm a grizzled veteran of both acceptance and rejection.

There are so many reasons your essay, "Me and My Toes," may not have made the cut: The editor enjoys getting submissions from all over the globe but primarily publishes works by his friends in a small Montana town. The publication has room for six stories and has received 1,231 entries. They only want poems about horses. They never use poems about horses since the publisher's mother was kicked by one. Therefore, you shouldn't automatically feel "rejected" as in: your writing is no good.

On the other hand, you might reread your small masterpiece before following the classic writing magazine advice to immediately mail it out again. For example, is "Late August," your lyric poem about a white butterfly dipping into golden pollen, the right choice for the winter issue of San Francisco literary zine that likes "edgy, counter culture rants"? Hmmm. Perhaps "Squirrel," your prose poem that compares a promiscuous former husband to a flea-bitten rodent might be more suitable.

"Squirrel" is a perfect example of perseverance. I wrote it in 1990 and it was rejected 31 times over the next 12 years before finally making it into a very cool literary magazine. I know someone is going to love your "Me and My Toes" essay too, so buy another sheet of stamps and turn on your printer!

Arlene L. Mandell is a retired college English professor living in Santa Rosa. For information about her poetry chapbook, Variations on a Theme, contact her at poetessalm@aol.com

Betty Winslow



I deal with rejection by reminding myself with each one that the person who is rejecting my work is only rejecting my work, not me. They probably don't even know more of me than what appears in my writing, so they can't possibly be rejecting me. They don't really know me. Rejections can stem from all sorts of things:

A change in editorial direction.

A new ad campaign.

An editor's fight with her boyfriend or her teenaged daughter.

A lunch that didn't agree with him.

A boss that didn't agree with him.

A late night.

An early morning.

A stockpile of articles or poems or whatever, all just like mine.

A desk six inches deep in manuscripts of all kinds and a migraine headache.

An irrational dislike of my name or the title of my article.

A rejection seldom means, "Your work stinks!" It usually means, "Your work, for whatever reason, isn't what I need or want right now." It just means I need to keep looking for the right place for my work. It means not giving up.

And if reminding myself of all that doesn't work, there are always prank phone calls and sticking pins in editor dolls. (Just kidding, Susan!)

Betty Winslow

Bowling Green, OH


HOW DO I DEAL WITH REJECTION?

  by Christine Walker

You want me to write about rejection? You expect me to say that it builds character, that rejection has made me stronger, a more enlightened individual? You hope I will reiterate what I've put in print elsewhere: that acceptance or rejection cannot touch the deep place from which we work (which when I'm the best person I can be, I truly believe). Or can I safely say here that rejection sucks? Shall I remind you that recently I was a baby bird fallen from my nest of expectations, my brave little thumping heart stomped by a big booted "NO." Does it matter whether it's the first or tenth or twentieth such response to my manuscript? Does it matter that interspersed among the "sorry, but." responses there have been a raft of affirmatives, including those from trusted readers and two agents who loved the novel? Does writing about it (now that my vision isn't blurred by tears and I can see the monitor) help? Only in that, as writing always does, it gives me a word I can use. A word that offers a clue as to why this last rejection was harder than any I received during this past year. The clue is "expectations."

Mostly, I hope. I hope an agent will love the story, I hope an editor will be eager to read it, I hope I'll get a publishing contract and be the "writer to watch" on Good Morning America. Hope keeps me alive, keeps me writing no matter how the work is received, because above all I hope to write more deeply and become a better person along the way. But this last round I went beyond hope. I believed I'd found excellent representation and I bought into my new agent's enthusiasm for the revision I achieved with her guidance. I expected the novel to be published. I visualized the copies I would send to family and friends, the readings I would give. I'd practically packed my bags for the book tour. It's been a few weeks since fielding that last "sorry, but." phone call which left me agentless. I'm okay. I'll be fine. Thanks for asking. And, oh, regarding character. If you need any extra, give me a call. I've got more than enough.

Something else now comes to mind about rejection. One evening many years ago when my son was three, we'd arrived home to an empty house with no dinner in sight. He was hungry and cranky, so I immediately offered to make him some spaghetti, but realized from the look on his face-those scrunched up eyes, the wavering lower lip-that he couldn't last ten minutes. "All right then," I smiled, "how about a peanut butter sandwich?" He glared at me as if I'd taken away his favorite Ninja turtle. He'd held himself together until this moment, but now his whole body heaved and he let loose with sobbing. Hyperventilating, his voice filled with the shattering of his expectations, he wailed, "AND NO JELLY?" In that moment, even though it should have been obvious to him that his sandwich would include jelly, because that's how I always made them, he took me literally and despaired of getting only the peanut butter. The writing life is like that. Luckily, while I was struggling to hold back the tears on that phone call with my agent, I took notes. I just reread them. She gave me a contact at a small publishing house (I've sent my manuscript to him.) She said she loved the novel and is proud to have worked with me. She told me to keep in touch, to let her know how things go, and to send her other projects. She also said that good writing always finds a home.

Christine Walker is the author of A Painter's Garden: Cultivating the Creative Life. Her essay, "Symphonies," appears in the latest issue of Tiny Lights. Her website is www.compozarts.com .

No. No, no, no, no, no, no We regret. Sorry.

  by Elizabeth Hannon

I get "no," nada, not. I get it because I hear it in my head even before it flies to my door. "Yes" is a surprise and wonder, "no" is sandpaper, a rough truth that sometimes rubs me the wrong way, takes a more than a little skin in its grainy teeth. It may take a few days but the swelling subsides.

I write because words push me around, nip at my heels, call for a family conference at the kitchen table, do an eye popping lap dance in my dreams. There are journals of words that will stay moored in their hard bound harbors but they were the words that urged me to take a trip, round up some of their cousins, those willing to walk around the world, those who long to sit and talk with someone other than me.

Rejection cuts two ways. It teaches me there's a "business" end to writing and if I want to place an order, if I'm hoping for a reply, I better learn all I can about how publishing "works". It assumes I'm submitting things on a regular basis or at least now and then. It requires the same patience, time and energy as writing does. It helps if you know why it is this essay or that poem deserves to be heard by ears other than your own, to understand how well it sings, why it came to call now. If you don't, the terse rejection letters, which march through the mail, may point to a warp in the weave of a story. I "know" when they're "right" when I didn't tie the ends tight enough, or I used amber when the character was so clearly, in hindsight, cornflower blue. And sometimes it's a no like the one your mom gave you when you asked if you could pack a lunch and meet Sandy at the Fallen Tree. "No." "Why?" "Because I said so."

Oh really? That kind of no still raises hackles sends me storming round the room vowing to "do it anyway!"

I handle rejection by remembering I started writing to save myself. I'm not going to stop. And like the sign in the shoe shop says, "one perishes by one's own cunning." I can pretend "it doesn't matter" or I can get better, I can continue to "risk" knowing that's what the words expect, they expect me to take a stand on their behalf --- not to back down.

Elizabeth Hannon, Santa Rosa, CA.

How I Deal with Rejection:

  by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

The honest truth? I don't. Well, that's a half-truth. I have finally figured out, after about two hundred of those familiar S.A.S.E's I labored over two-six months earlier, have made their way back to my mailbox that there's almost no point in opening them; when an editor adores your work, they CALL you, because contrary to my common experience of them they don't waste any time when they actually want something.

So when a rejection arrives, I open it with the same dread as a bill and tell myself it won't hurt, not even a pinch to hear the ever-familiar lines of a pre-printed rejection: "Thank you for submitting to our magnificent journal blah blah but we can't place your paltry work at this time." But it does hurt, just like hitting your funny bone is still going to hurt the tenth time you bang it on your desk in frustration.

I'm sick of their passive-aggressive stances. I want to hear "You blather on and on like an idiot for four paragraphs before we see anything we like..." or "You had us at 'moon-rise' but you just had to keep going, didn't you?" Because it's only the courteous thing to do to inform me why it didn't work or grab their attention or why Sy Safransky, for the umpteenth time, just didn't "fall in love with" my work again, right?

What I do most of the time is reinforce the flimsy walls of my ego by re-reading a piece of my work that I really like, something that I might even have gotten nice feedback on from others at one point, and I say "yeah, I can do this. I'm not full of crap."

Then I eat lots of cheese. Or drink too much coffee, checking my voicemail and email over and over again waiting for that call that will make everything right.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Petaluma, CA. Creator/Host of the LiveWire Literary Salon, Participant in National Novel Writing Month 2002. For more info about the LiveWire schedule, go to www.thewritelife.com

Ken Rodgers



The sky's as blue as the eyes of a ridgeback pup. No clouds. Three crows are sitting in a cottonwood tree hacking cackles back and forth. Out-of-work potato pickers laze in line at the employment office waiting to draw their checks. You look at the pavement. Pink gum has hardened between stones mixed with asphalt. A copper penny is abraded flat by days of car tires. She looks at you with a mask that hides emotion like goodies stuffed in a paper bag. Trucks rumble on a highway someplace. You think about kneeling, know it won't do any good. She tries to smile. You grit your teeth, promise to be perfect, always defer. You position your hands as if in supplication to the Virgin Mary. Overhead, two sparrows fornicate on the telephone wire. Her eyes look past yours to the old white stucco building with the second hand store and the locksmith. The day is waning. It ain't coming back. How about a kitchen knife in the aorta.

Rejection comes in different sizes. The literary ones sting for several days, but don't make you go on a walk about for two years.

We're writers, no? We live in a mental maze of events created in our own imagination. Write a novel and get one hundred sixty-five form rejections composed as to humiliate all writers off all levels of all genres at any time. Makes you want to set your feet and scratch the dirt with indignation like a pit bull ready for a fight. No problem here, eh? We can just wish it away; rejection I mean.

Well, OK, maybe not. Rejection is a demon with the heart of a blackguard. I'd like to slice its evil ticker with a saber. Do it down. Take it out. But what the hell, we'll see rejection's demise right after the arrival of the Messiah. It will stop bothering us about the time all those gnashy-toothed harpies shriek the world into eternal peace.

Yo - sayonara, baby - the reaper will collect his due. And the legion rejecters, too.

So we must --- just --- gird up our loins.

Ladies and gentlemen, throw down you harquebuses and cutlasses.

Get to writing.

Ken Rodgers, Sebastopol, CA

Kevin W. Grossman



It's been less than a year since I've taken writing seriously-seriously meaning the creative yet difficult art of revising and regularly submitting my work. At first, the rejections I received took a significant psychological toll. I was naÔve; I wanted to say "screw it" and give it all up. There were too damn many better writers in the world and I just couldn't compete. I couldn't do it. I reread what I submitted-it looked and sounded like a third-grade grammar exercise.

I was surprised they even sent me form letters. I thought maybe there would've been a scarlet question mark scrawled on my returned submissions, or maybe they would've included a vocation-assessment questionnaire, spanning from ditch digging to stenography.

But I didn't give it all up. I couldn't do it.

I decided to hang my rejections up on the wall in front of my desk. I knew I wasn't the first writer to experience this; I wasn't that naÔve. I knew that even when my work improved, I'd still have to deal with the subjective tastes of editors, working that submission grind. My mindset began to change nonetheless. I wanted to be better. I started joining workshops and reading through books like David Madden's Revising Fiction.

And the rejections kept coming-they still are-so I continually reread and revise my work, and then send it right back out there again. I also try to do my marketing homework and get a feel for the publication, but I don't always spend a lot of time on that part of the process-it's still a crapshoot and I still have a lot to learn.

I feel like I'm a paperboy again, riding my bike in the predawn darkness through a strange neighborhood with judging eyes peering at me from behind pulled shades and curtains. I try to work on my throws as I pedal down the street, but I keep hitting bottlebrush and juniper.

One of these days I'll hit a porch, and a light will go on inside.

Kevin W. Grossman

Santa Cruz, CA

kwg_gdp@pacbell.net


Rejection

  by Mary Gaffney

In the beginning, there was no rejection, only writing. Then the rejection began. I wrote an article and sent it to a magazine. I didn't know about query letters. I didn't know about clips either, which didn't matter since I didn't have any. The magazine rejected my article. I took that as a sign that I should not write articles.

I wrote a children's book. The publisher rejected my manuscript because they didn't publish books for children. I knew that, but I thought they might want to start.

I wrote a romance novel. I figured out the formula and thought I followed it. My best rejection said, "Where's the romance?"

I wrote Mary's Tex/Mex Cookbook as a Christmas gift for family and friends, but I printed a few extra copies to submit for publication. I would have been better off spending my time cooking chili rellenos.

Pornography. Travel. A mainstream women's novel. I was a writer in search of a genre.

My first publication was a travel piece in Cartwheels on the Faultline from Floreant Press. I had found my field. I've continued to have success with travel writing, but now I'm venturing back to other areas. I realize that if I don't take the risk of rejection, then I don't have a chance of acceptance.

Mary Gaffney's latest venture can be found in Jasmine Nights and Monkey Pluck: Love, Discovery and Tea. Find out more at www.teacupsgroup.com

DEALING WITH REJECTION

  by Rodney Lewis Merrill

How do I deal with rejection? Poorly, I would say. Yes, I think that best describes it.

My proxy crawls back-three-to-six penniless months after I send it-clad in its prophetic self-addressed stamped envelope. Inside, it bears the oily heel print of a perfunctory "Thank You But Unfortunately" letter.

Despite the drill of past experience, my heart exsanguinates. The ensuing motivational anemia forces me to bed where I pine for my lost spirit and dashed enthusiasm for the rest of the day.

Shortly, my corpus callosum short-circuits. I pull the covers over my head and fantasize about a more gratifying life in which my talents, ambitions, and affections lead to a respectable, financially rewarding vocation - garbage collection, for example.

I grow sullen. All attempts at solace by friends and family fail to move me, although plying me with pound cake topped with chopped banana, walnut ice cream, maple syrup, and marshmallow fluff will occasionally come close.

I rewind and play Stuart Saves His Family for the sixth consecutive time. Stuart Smalley, member of every 12-step program known to man, predicts, as he always does, that not only will he fail to save his family but he will die in a gutter - unknown, unloved, and thirty pounds overweight. In the face of an acceptance letter, I would find this funny. Now, I nod in morose empathy.

This malaise passes. Eventually. When it does, I feebly rise from my bed and pick the sticky walnuts and pound cake from my clothes. Then, I wobble to my desk. There, I press the creases and puckers from my paper surrogate. I dress it up with a deceptively cheerful cover letter and seal it (and yet another two-dollar-and-fifty-cent SASE) within a fresh 10" by 13" mailer.

As I approach the corner mailbox, my wounded soul cries out, "Mother of God, please, not again!" But, I take a long, slow, deep breath (Ohm Mani Padme) and plunge it for the fifth, sixth, seventh ... time into the mysterious postal conduit that leads back into the hostile world of heavy-booted strangers.

Again, I wait.

Rodney Lewis Merrill is a highly published freelance writer. Rodney lives in Astoria with his wife, Kate Merrill, in Astoria Oregon. He can be contacted at RLMerrill@charter.net. On a good day, he will respond.

Susan Bono



Those of you who have accumulated that wall of rejection slips can sneer when I say that most of what I know about rejection I learned by dishing it out. I admit that I am a sniveling coward when it comes to putting my own toes on the line. I started Tiny Lights as a way to honor good writing. I planned it like a party and dreamed of all who might appear on my guest list. But to my horror, I discovered that in order to say "yes" to a few fine writers, I had to learn to say "no" to many, many more. Over the last eight years, I have watched hundreds of writers doing the very thing I find most difficult-exposing themselves to judgment. It is only by their example that I've been able to take similar risks with my own distressingly fragile ego.

Whenever a publication rejects me, I am still tempted to slink off into oblivion with my tail between my legs, but it's hard to sit there pouting when I have seen rejected writers willing to enter my essay contest year after year, giving us both another chance for acceptance. Every time I receive one of their courteous notes thanking me for my time and consideration, I remember that I want to be the kind of writer who can disengage from disappointment and gracefully move on. Every now and then a writer will compose a letter that impugns my intelligence and character, but most of us agree that it is better to build a bridge than burn one.

And if I am accepted for publication, there is still the act of bowing to the editor's knife, a humbling ordeal whenever the editing is aimed in my direction. Here is another opportunity to feel rejected. After all that work, the writing isn't good enough? In my role as editor, I've noticed that those with the least publishing experience tend to resist the hardest at this stage, but more seasoned writers graciously regard editors as facilitators. Of course, it's important for these writers to protect the integrity of their work, so they have shown me how to consider editorial suggestions with an open mind and a grain or two of salt.

I don't know why it's still so painful to be reminded that not everyone loves me or my writing, but without my experiences with Tiny Lights I might be further burdened by the notion that everything an editor takes a pass on is BAD writing. Hardly. I have found myself being insufficiently moved by an essay to accept it, only to see that same piece of writing get published elsewhere to great acclaim. These passed over essays are further proof that objectivity simply does not exist. Turn over a pile of writing to a judging panel and discover how easy it is for intelligent, well-respected jurors to disagree with you and with each other. After the dust settles and the winning essays are published, the amazingly varied feedback sometimes makes me wonder who is reading what.

But you can't learn to handle a bike by watching someone else ride. Writing is not a spectator sport. Sooner or later, I'm going to have to take off the training wheels, fall down, collect some more lumps, get a little dirty. You know, "You can't win if you don't enter"? But once I get over my fear that rejection might kill me, I'll find myself surrounded by really great company.

Susan Bono is still working up her courage at sbono@tiny-lights.com

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000ó2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devilís-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so heíd know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. Davidís dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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