Last week I had a short short (or micro story) rejected by an online magazine. Even though the heart immediately begins to race as you read the first few words searching for anything confirming acceptance you then see the word "regret" and feel your heartbeat slow down and all is as it was. Excitement be damned. A year or so ago I blindly (and in the sense of that term mean carelessly) submitted a short shortI had written a few years ago while getting my MFA. Now, when writing short shorts for a workshop class people will be positive about anything that is entertaining for the few minutes they need to hear it. Thus, my short shorts tended to lack depth. But they made people laugh. So thinking that at least some people saw the humor in what I had written I submitted it to a relatively new online zine figuring "what the hell". What the hell indeed came about in an e-mail that said they preferred more mature prose and that the story didn't go anywhere. Hmph, saw that coming. This time around I had worked on a random prompt just to get the juices flowing and kept developing it over a few months. Again I thought "what the hell" and submitted this piece to the same place that had rejected me initially for knowingly sending something subpar. This time I was prouder of my prose and sent it on. Reading the rejection e-mail that was almost two months in the making put a smile on my face because I indeed got much better critique from the editors than I had before. They simply said that the story needed a bigger hook, but that the prose worked and was "solid" and "vivid". Hook I can try to fix. But if they said the voice sucked or that the prose was sloppy or weak again I probably would've just erased the whole incident from memory and acted as though they didn't exist. Knowing that in comparison to the two works they received from me they also so the growth in my narrative voice made me really happy. Yes, the rejection stung still, but vast improvement was made and I did it and they acknowledged it!
Now, let me lay out the types of writers there are in this world when it comes to submissions. There's the writer that toils over every single sentence, every word until it is perfect before submitting anything to anyone, anywhere on this planet. Let alone showing the piece to people and holding their breath as their workshop mates go around the room giving their piece a thumbs up, down, or marginal either way.
There's the writer that composes, may look things over once or twice then submits because they're carefree. What is rejection? It only makes me stronger laughs this "no-holds-barred" writer that throws caution to the wind and has a stack of rejection letters, e-mails, post-its tucked away as their reference to keep on truckin'.
Then there's the reluctant submitter. This is the category I fall into. Why do I not submit? Because I never feel anything is good enough. Yeah it may be better than it was last week, last year, or even in the last decade. Perhaps the prose is steadier, more mature, more vivid, but that doesn't mean it's any good. Yeah, my friends may say it's straight forward and interesting, but once you thrust it out to an editorial board of a large lit mag, small lit mag, or one some hunched over, sleepy-eyed grad students just created to get the stuff "they like to see in print" doesn't mean they'll feel the same way.
I know my voice has grown substantially since I started writing in junior high school, but that still doesn't mean I'll beat out the hundreds of thousands of other aspiring writers in a contest, for publication, or elsewhere. Once it's out there, being read by people in the depths of Mississippi or the most "urban" area of Westchester doesn't mean they'll get my intent. So why even try? Just let the story that slowly increases to stories that inflates into stories & a partially finished novel which will evolve into those two half-done novels, a poetry collection written after a bad break-up, and several dozen stories marinate over time until you're truly ready to have the world (or the editor of Tin House) lay eyes on it and go on to judge it? There's time after all, right?
Judging one's art is the most sensitive thing because (whether you believe it or not) it is a representation of oneself. So when your friends or family look at your painting, listen to your song on a loop, read your story/poem, watch that film you made as your college thesis, listen to the joke you wrote on drunken night many tend to not want to hurt the ego. Some of you may have family and friends who don't mind being an honest, hard-ass or that actually know how to critique your work or someone who'll take the time (if you bake them cookies) to read & absorb your art and tell you what they really think of it. The rest of us may have a dwindling group that continues to compliment us and heavily rely on school, supplemental workshops, fellowships, or online help to get that criticism we desperately need because we haven't quite immersed ourselves in that particular medium we love and toil at so much.
If you're in the "I need more help!" boat I can imagine conversations go something like this...
Writer: "So what did you think of the story I sent you?" Friend/Family Member: "Story?" (scratches chin as though contemplating the reason as to why Rachel Ray and Paris Hilton are famous) Writer: "Yeah, the one I sent you about two weeks ago? You said you'd give me feedback, remember?" Friend/Family Member: "Oh yeah! Sorry. Yeah, I did read it." Writer: (leans across table, in this case the duo are at Arby's, expectantly with eyes wide in anticipation) "And? What did you think?" Friend/Family Member: (looks around a bit before committing to a statement) "I thought it was good." Writer: (skews eyebrows) "Good?" Friend/Family Member: "Yeah, I liked it." Writer: "You...liked...it? That's all?" Friend/Family Member: "Yeah, that's all. I liked it." Writer: (points accusingly at Friend/Family Member then pokes him/her/them in the chest with said index finger) "Fuck you! Fuck you and your Goddamn BA in (insert Major here)! Good means shit to a writer." Friend/Family Member: "Oh, sorry. I just really don't know how to comment on these things. Don't get all bent out of shape. I said I liked it." Writer: "Shut up and give me back my curly fries. You're cut off." Friend/Family Member: (solemnly passes fries on tray with a pout) Writer: "And don't try that shit out on me." (points to himself/herself) Writer, remember? We invented anguish."
We've all been there whether it took place at an Arby's, an Applebee's, in your living room while watching a marathon of Sex and the City or Battlestar Galactica, or what-have-you. And when you have no outlet that is subjective enough you start to feel downtrodden.
Then of course there are those of us immersed in college life whether it is finishing off our BA or going into graduate work where workshops can be somewhat hostile or even less helpful. You may have the instructor that always points out the positives because they don't believe in being negative (yes, the term constructive criticism is considered wholly negative for the most part). Or if you have the instructor that likes "literature" and hates contemporary work, yet that is all you write & read so criticism may not always be...how-do-you-say, open-minded. You may be of a different generation born in the early sixties, seventies, or eighties that remember groups like The Bee Gees, the fight for Civil Rights, were alive during Roe v. Wade, recall how badly the AIDS epidemic began in the U.S. and are not familiar with the words "whatever" or "ginormous" and thus are thrust into a workshop with people just out of school while your work may be on a different level and there's is just about "stuff". As a thirty-nine year old with a husband, two kids (which means three kids in total) that has worked ten different jobs in twenty years thinks what the hell is criticism from a twenty-two year old that just came into her own independence and still clings to "happy endings" to come to (insert City here) going to help?!? Or how about being one of two African-Americans in an all Caucasian workshop writing about slavery?!? The subject matter itself doesn't bode well for an honest, bare-bones discussion and the perspectives from people who may just not be comfortable about race could make things even worse.
Yet, we writers rely on them to push us harder, dig deeper, tug at the heart strings, bring in more action, grab me at the first sentence on the first page, dig into what makes you scared or others uncomfortable. Improve your prose, use less passive voice, be more illustrative, for God's sake stop using cliches! You learn these "rules" try to stay within a certain scope of what you think is decent. You work, work, and work some more until things are crisper, prettier, entertaining and then you send it off to someone who doesn't know you from a hole in the wall and ask them to "please, please accept me into this club of 'published' authors!" "Validate me!" "Tell me I'm pretty and that I smell like sunflowers or a mountain breeze, please!" And you wait, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, many times months (if they like you in some cases) to hear whether you are what they're looking for or not. It's like offering yourself to a good looking guy/gal in a bar every week when you feel you look your best and getting kicked in the shin time and time again because they don't want you. The whole "your story isn't right for our magazine" is the dating equivalent of "let's just be friends". They're not telling you outright they despise you and want you to harbor no ill will towards them per se. Yes, it sucks. And frankly I'm just not up for that type of rejection on a regular basis. So I hope to build myself into the first category I listed of making things perfect before submitting my work instead of saving it on my desktop, backing it up on a CD, and wondering if I should go back to it day after day. It's going to happen I feel it. Baby steps after all. At least I know that I'm getting better, even if it is only the opinion of two people I've never met...and myself.