“Remember, the acceptances are just as irrational as the rejections.” One the faculty members at my MFA Program often told me this. And the more I forge through the daily life of a writer in the trenches, the more I understand what he meant.
I just learned that an essay that I entered into a literary contest didn’t win or get a nod as a finalist. That alone is not unusual; it’s very difficult to win a literary contest. There are often hundreds of submissions, and in order to win your piece has to get past initial readers and then end up being the one particular piece that one particular judge decides is the best among the final entries. That judge has his or her own tastes, interests, and literary preferences, and if your essay or poem or story doesn’t particularly match those sensibilities, it’s not likely to win.
The reason the failure of this particular essay confuses me, however, is that it is almost universally the essay that readers who know me have loved most. I first wrote it during my MFA studies, and even then the initial draft I presented at a workshop got rave reviews from most of the students and teachers. Since then, over the past nearly two years (after I had polished the piece and gotten the sign-off from a respected reader) I have submitted it to quite a few journals — 13, to be exact, if you don’t count the contest. It has not been accepted at any of the journals. Five of the journals rejected it with a basic form rejection, and eight rejected it with a note that requested more work. These requests either arrived in a form-letter type response or in a more personal letter praising the piece but saying it was not right for the journal. One of the journals, a well-known publication, sent a personal note letting me know that the piece got “very close” and encouraging me to try them again.
In a case like this, it’s tough to know what to think. I am inclined to think the piece is good enough to be published, because it got “very close” at a well-known journal and inspired eight editors to request more work. But part of me thinks that maybe there’s something not right about the piece, because, well, let’s face it — no one has accepted it in almost two years.
But then why does everyone who knows me and reads it love it so much? It’s a mystery.
It’s possible that the topic of this piece throws off some editors, or makes them question whether the event described in the essay really happened (it did — I had a very special, almost mystical encounter with a blue jay that bordered on unexplainable, and that’s what I write about in this piece). I can’t know if this is the problem, or if some other aspect of the essay just doesn’t gel with these editors’ sensibilities.
In the end, I guess I just have to accept what my teacher told me so long ago. “The acceptances are just as irrational as the rejections.” You can’t get too puffed up when you get good news, just as it’s a mistake to get too discouraged by bad news.
As for my essay, I think at this point that I might just include it in my book manuscript and leave it for my future readers to decide — if, of course, that manuscript gets one of those irrational acceptances.
The essay is a good one. I don’t think 13 rejections, with 8 responding with some sort of encouragement, is so bad, although frustrating I’m sure. I would keep sending the essay out until you find the journal, the editor, the issue, that wants that essay. And yes, definitely keep it for your book.
As far as contests go, I’ve always had a problem with them, although I know they are legit and encouraged by many. I don’t like the idea of having my work “compete” as if it were in a beauty contest. I know the argument is you put your work in competition every time you send it anywhere, but at least you don’t spend $20 a shot to get in a line of hundreds, possibly thousands, of writers. The odds of winning are like the odds of winning a lottery. I don’t mind paying small reading fees to have work considered and help keep a journal afloat, but I most often refuse paying those contest fees so my piece can enter a swimsuit competition.
Your piece was good enough to win. It didn’t win because who knows why? Your piece is good enough to be published, more than good enough. Just keep sending it out. You’re a great writer.
Thanks for the support and comments, Cindy (I know you’ve read this piece at least once in its workshop version). I rarely enter contests for a lot of the same reasons you write about here. Someone encouraged me to enter this contest, but I am not sure I will enter another any time soon.
I’ll have to think about re-sending out this essay. Maybe if just the right call for submissions comes along. We’ll see. Thanks for the encouragement!
I remember that essay. It was shared in the first workshop I was in at Solstice, with Randall and Joy, and 10 creative nonfiction students, a really good group. Your (and the faculty person’s) advice on acceptances and rejections makes a lot of sense. Without knowing the tastes of the judges, it’s a shot in the dark, and it’s best to just continue plowing the fields, stay focused on your work, and submit many shots in the dark.
Thanks, Jim; it’s challenging, but that’s a smart approach.