The early mornings are cooling off in Boston. For a time in July it was too hot to sit out behind our house with a cup of hot coffee in the mornings. That’s changing now; I can enjoy a little time by myself. I can listen to the birds and watch a squirrel retrieve the peanuts I left on top of the back fence. Sometimes I bring my camera and try to snap a few photographs, but photography and writing have taken a back seat over the past year to my work-at-home full-time job.
When I sit here quietly, a beach towel hung over one edge of the umbrella to prevent the early morning sun from shining in my eyes, I have just a little time to reflect – a little time to pretend this is all that life is – moments with the birds, a friendly word to the squirrel, the sight of my small, arthritic cat resting on the towel I fold for her and place on the ground. Because she can’t jump and play the way she did as a kitten, I bring her outside with me, supervised, in the mornings. The scents that drift toward her on the morning air and the sounds of birdsong provide stimulation. Once, when a large black cat squeezed through the fence, she stood and faced him, looking as fierce as she possibly could. The intruder, twice her size, lay down in submission.
The world doesn’t tell my little cat who she is; she decides.
It’s been some time since I’ve opened my Excel “submissions” spreadsheet and added new work to the list of essays or short stories I sent out in quest of publication. For years I submitted my writing relatively often. I kept track of every submission – the name of the piece, the journal, the date. When the inevitable rejections arrived, I noted the responses on my spreadsheet. As a private joke, I color coded those responses. Green was a “go” (acceptance), blue was a “nice rejection” (an editor who invited me to submit something else), and a mean dark red indicated the “no’s,” usually arriving in my in-box as “thanks, but no thanks” form letters, some worded more dismissively than others.
Once a piece I submitted the old-fashioned way, by snail mail with a Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope, elicited a small, square piece of paper mailed back inside the envelope with a computer-generated “no thanks.” Apparently, the journal printed the same note six times on a single sheet of paper, and then cut it up into identical rejections.
To be fair, the journal was probably budget conscious, as many struggling literary journals are – and I give them credit for being eco-friendly.
Don’t get me wrong; I have great respect for the hard-working editors of literary journals and the students and interns who assist in the arduous task of reading through thousands of submissions, handling the task of rejecting hopeful writers, and then publishing work that otherwise would never find its way out into the world. I’m sure in most cases it’s a labor of love. It also might be a somewhat thankless job, certainly financially.
During those years, I was lucky enough to find homes for most of my pieces, though few were published on the first try. Towards the end of my “submission stage,” I was submitting less frequently and to fewer journals. My last few pieces went to a single journal: Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. It is such a special journal (it’s about to go on a hiatus after a 10-year run, but we’re all hoping it will be back soon). That publication has always been something different, starting with its unique team of editors who each revealed through our interactions that they respect my voice and my work and have hearts of pure gold, as cliché as it sounds. Let’s call them “passions of platinum” to be more (questionably) creative.
In one case an editor there, when reading the last short story I published, actually asked if I wanted to submit it first to a more “prominent” print publication. She was always honest with me when something I sent needed more work, but in this case, she really liked “The Varmint.”
Another writer might have sent that story to the big wigs (Though at this point, in my view, there aren’t many wigs much bigger than Connotation Press: An Online Artifact). But I said, “No, I’d be proud to see it here.”
I asked myself later, was it the fear of rejection that stopped me from expanding my search for that piece and eventually caused me to stop submitting?
I can’t deny that years of managing the submission process was part of it; rejection is never fun (unless you make a sort of game of it – maybe “toss the crumpled rejection into the bin to win some ice cream”). Still, all writers must get used to it. If you’re going to submit your work, you have to accept certain realities: sometimes your work really isn’t “up to snuff” and needs more revision (being an insufferably curious person, I just looked up the origin of “up to snuff” and you can find it here: https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/up-to-snuff.html).
It’s also important to remember that editors are human beings who have their own preferences and sensibilities. A rejection might have nothing to do with the strength of your writing. Sometimes your piece just doesn’t have the qualities a particular editor prefers. Maybe it landed on the wrong desk on someone’s bad day. Maybe your work doesn’t fit the theme a journal has scheduled for the next issue. Perhaps they just published a story about a blue jay last month, so your blue jay needs to find another nest.
But one particular rejection I received always stuck with me and planted the first seed, perhaps, of something that grew into the break I’ve taken from submitting my work.
I had submitted a personal essay titled “Forty-Six,” and it was a piece I was particularly proud of. The faculty mentor I was working with in my MFA program at the time also thought it was strong. It was one of those rare essays that came together in a way that felt authentic and right from the moment I started writing it. In a general sense, the specifics in the piece added up to a reflection on aging and the passage of time.
The first journal I sent it to rejected the piece, and the editor, who was a friend of one of my faculty mentors, was kind enough to explain why it had been rejected. She told me (if I remember correctly) that half the editorial board wanted to publish the essay, but the other half didn’t – not because there was anything wrong with the writing, but because they had trouble believing that someone at the age of forty-six could already be worried about getting old.
That journal, which was new at the time, has gone on to do many great things. Kudos to all who have found homes for their work there, and to the prestige the journal has garnered. But those words stung at the time and stayed with me. The piece was published in a journal I never dreamed I’d get into, but still, I couldn’t quite shake that first rejection.
Why did it stick with me?
I think it’s because those editors were suggesting, perhaps unintentionally, that my view of life was invalid. They didn’t think that aging was an issue for someone my age, so they dismissed my take on the subject.
“Dismissal.” Interesting word. “1. the act of ordering or allowing someone to leave; 2. the act of treating something as unworthy of serious consideration; rejection.”
This dismissal, years ago, was the seed that grew, over time, into a kind of paralysis about participating in the literary community. As I continued to move forward and submit, but less and less, I noticed that I felt gatekept, and not just about the topic of aging. In its noble effort to celebrate diverse voices and marginalized perspectives, some literary figures and organizations were ironically silencing others. Some of this is political, yes, but I see it even in areas that might be considered non-political. I hesitate to call anyone or any event out, but I will give one example for clarity’s sake: one of the panels at an upcoming major event is described this way:
“The country or woodsy stroll is a staple of ‘nature writing.’ But circling Walden Pond or pacing wilderness trails doesn’t cut it today. We live in cities and suburbs. Our communities are diverse. Species are vanishing and ‘invading.’ Climate is changing…this panel will explore how the pedestrian nature essay of old might give way to something fresh, feral, and footloose, exploring new environments, histories, and voices.”
Well, one of the essays in my first book, Message From a Blue Jay (Buddhapuss Ink, 2014), is about circling Walden Pond. Does that mean my writing “doesn’t cut it today?” I think that writing about the woods can be “fresh, feral, and footloose” and can even explore new environments – the environments of our minds, as each of us is unique and responds distinctively to the world around us, whether our corner is urban, suburban, or rural. Is the perspective of this panel that someone writing about rural environments is no longer relevant and needs to “give way?” By “pedestrian nature essay of old,” are they referring to the literal walk in the woods or to this definition of pedestrian: “lacking inspiration or excitement; dull.” Were they unaware of the double entendre?
Some of us may still have the sensibility “of old,” though it might be fed by something new. Some of us still find listening to birds and watching squirrels a peaceful and calming experience that brings us back to a core part of ourselves. That doesn’t mean we are blind to the challenging topics and traumas swirling around us, or even happening to us. Maybe this is our very response to those things.
And by the way, I am listening to birds this morning behind a house in an urban environment. But my heart craves mountains and lakes and the ocean and fields.
I apologize for bringing up that particular example if it offends anyone who is excited to present on this topic. But my very fear of reprisal and desire to apologize – along with the part of me that worries I should apologize to the journal that rejected “Forty-Six” – causes me to pause. Is it that people-pleasing impulse, something I’ve lived with my whole life, that has muzzled my writing?
Rather than having said or expressed any of the above thoughts, I found myself writing less and less. My submissions dropped off and eventually ended. I took control of a project of my own, working with the publisher of my first book on a series of children’s books, the Stray Cat Stories, that give me the opportunity to do something positive – give a portion of all proceeds to animal rescue organizations (to be honest, all of the proceeds have gone to animal rescue groups so far). This project has given my writing a new focus and purpose (and type of reward). My publisher and I worked out an arrangement that gives me a level of control that I never had over any of my previous work; I chose my own illustrator and am responsible for project-managing the process.
In a sense, I have taken some control over my own destiny with the help of a professional publisher, MaryChris Bradley. I am learning, slowly, to say what I want to say, to be who I am, and to stay true to my own vision while respecting the knowledge and experience and insight of a pro. In the end, we both want to put out beautiful books, and so far we’re succeeding.
Of course, I’m still working all this out. I hope at some point to get back to the type of work I wrote before and to submit that work to literary journals and/or future publishers. But I needed some time to step away from it all and from the process of trying to “fit in.”
I needed some time to remember that the whole point is to be creative, not to conform – even when it’s the non-conformists you realize you’re trying to conform to.
The fact is, I was losing myself. So I grabbed my coat and walked out of the party I’d worked so hard to get invited to.
Where did I go? For a walk in the woods.