Dear Lit Mag Editors,
You have turned me into the Chris Crocker of the literary writing world, forced to wear a blonde wig, cower under my bedsheets with a camcorder, and plead that you “Leave My Story Alone!” as black rivers of mascara slalom down my face with a velocity that would make Tammy Faye Baker envious. In just one year you have reduced me from a hope-filled, cautiously confident writer of short stories with a modest, but not unimpressive of prior publications, into this mewling jumble of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and vituperative rantconteur.
I was lucky that when I began having my work published back in the 90s, the publications came easily. Editors sought me out, asked for new work to consider, and put me into print. Then came That Story. I was high on it, the world, alas, was not. I received plenty of personal rejections from editors, but no consensus as to what needed fixing. Call me immature. Call me a King Baby. Call me arrogant. Or just call me stupid. Because I let that story and its non-publication become not just my writer’s block, but rather a Writer’s Bloc, a Siberian proportions.
So I quit the writing biz until last year, when I picked up That Story, reimagined it, recast it, and rewrote the shit out of it. I started work on other stuff, too, but the first baton in my return to the lit mag marathon was to be That Story. To right a wrong, of sorts. Now, as it nears the 50 rejections mark, that old frustration knob keeps turning toward 11 in volume, especially after last night when I received a rejection from a journal. It was personalized and indicated a good level of knowledge of That Story. That was encouraging. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last because the note started out praising it as a “well-constructed” story, then proceeded to list the reasons the readers couldn’t justify “moving the story forward”: -- all of which pertained to its structure. Huh?
Back in my MFA days, I would have shrugged off a critique of my work like that. That’s much harder to do after almost 50 rejections and is compounded by feelings of being a writer who is out of step with current trends in publishing. And it’s hard right now because I received a second rejection for That Story last night, a standard rejection that stated it wasn’t a “great fit.” Whatever that means. At least “great fit” doesn’t contradict itself.
Everything these days seems to be on a spectrum, from autism to sexuality. So why shouldn’t rejection be on a spectrum as well? On one end of that spectrum, it is astounding how some journal’s readers/editors treat submissions, and by extension writers, so cavalierly, especially given than most of them are also writing and submitting themselves. If I read the excuse one more time about the onslaught of current submissions, the billions-and-billions of stories that lit mags receive, I’m going to puke. I’m sure it’s true, but all of us are caught up in this schizophrenic, vicious cycle: more and more writers submitting more and more stories to more and more magazines with more and more ease (I love the online services that make sending out work an exponentially easier task, if you can afford it) while being assessed by an ever-tightening circle of readers. And I’m not including the “more and more” pressure to publish that writers who rely on the academic world for their livelihood tell me they feel. It’s an exhausting cluster fuck for all of us involved.
I don’t have a solution, but I fear that it hurts writers. It hurts editors. And it hurts readers and supporters. That cannot detract from the fact that this system sucks. And yet, good work does find its way into print and cuts through the clutter and finds readers. I see and understand that contraction, and am flummoxed by it.
But I digress. My intent is to give voice to my frustration about my story. When I was younger, I was perplexed by artists who spoke with despair about not being understood. Now I not only get that notion, I feel it, gut level. And what a lonely place that is: to pour oneself into work that is not appreciated, or not appreciated enough. One of my writing mentors believes that if readers don’t get a story, then the writer needs to work harder. That can be true. But I would counter that for at least some of us, the reader needs to work a little harder, as well.
As a photographer, we learn from Robert Capra that “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” As a writer, the reverse is true, especially when the writing itself is complete. The short story form is elusive and vague, yet specific, too.
My commitment to finding That Story a home will continue. I have seen advice to others that sometimes one has to abandon a piece, especially when the responses from editors do not point to some sort of consensus. I am not of that mind. I believe in That Story. I will continue to work on it and I will not abandon it. And I won’t let it prevent me from completing new work. I’ve learned that much from this process.
It’s just this (and I understand my experience is only The Writer’s Plight): I have gestated a good piece of work. I need a midwife to deliver it into print. Unfortunately, almost 50 midwives have told me my baby is ugly, or perhaps, just not un-ugly enough. But I will continue to hawk my baby. There’s only about 950 other journals to go.