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by Jannett Matusiak
Rejection is a rite of passage every writer must endure. Stephen King kept so many rejection letters impaled on a nail, it fell off his wall. He drove in a spike to take its place and kept writing. I think of that spike every time one of my hopeful submissions gets rejected. Imagine if a few rejections bruised Stephen King to never write again. Or if his wife Tabitha hadn’t rescued the pages of an early draft of Carrie from the rubbish and said, “You’ve got something here.”
It’s not just tenacity that his story instills in me it’s embracing the cycle of what it means to be a writer. If I am getting rejected, it means I’m working. I’m revising. I’m starving the self-doubt monster. I’m keeping at it and getting better at my craft. Many literary journals send email rejections now, so I collect mine online in a folder titled NO VACANCY LETTERS. It’s my virtual spike.
Getting rejection letters sometimes causes me to pinch the bridge of my nose and make weird exhalation noises at the computer, but just as often, I read and file them as I would an Order Confirmation from Amazon. This is the biz. Thousands of people vie for as few as four nonfiction spots or less in a given journal. I know it’s not personal. In reflection, I ask myself: Was it really ready to go out? Did I choose the best journal for the piece? Did I follow all the submissions guidelines? Did they publish something like this previously? There are a million reasons why a piece gets rejected. Perhaps the editor was in a food coma after lunch. Some answers will be revealed. Others will remain a mystery. “Keep sending out,” I tell myself.
What a joy when the rejection letters started becoming personal, “We loved your voice.” “…among the strongest contenders.” And my favorite, “We hope you’ll consider sending more work to us in the future.” I had never been so happy about being rejected before. I got inked. I was getting warmer.
I didn’t start off this way.
I think back to the first submission I ever sent out, back when I was just practicing calling myself a writer. Even though I was writing half-baked essays, I happened to write a narrative poem that got positive feedback in class. A fellow student asked me where I most wanted to see my work published. I said, This American Life. She challenged me to submit. With shaky hands but naïve courage, I licked a stamp and mailed that sucker in. This American Life. Wow, I shot high. A poem? Ooof. Not the right fit for a radio program that produces nonfiction narratives. I knew what they produced, but I was bursting to do something with my poem. At the time, their submission guidelines said it was rare they accepted poetry, and I felt rare meant there was a chance. I imagined they might read it as an interlude between their stories. What a fantastical misdirected long shot made by a green writer. I recently went back to their submissions guidelines page and I didn’t see a trace of poetry being “rarely accepted.” I hardly believe myself now. All I can say is, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was still finding my way to the nonfiction genre. I was following my heart but with work that didn’t belong there. Poetry, I love you, but I don’t want to master your forms. You can just keep enchanting me, okay? Essays and memoir are my wrestling partners.
Sending in my poem to the wrong place was more an exercise in bravery than smarts. It was important in its own right because it gave me confidence. But I hadn’t thought through or researched literary journals where my work would be a good fit, a crucial facet in finding the right home for your work. I hadn’t yet spent hours reading, subscribing and getting the feel of the hundreds of literary magazines and journals that exist. I hadn’t yet developed my own palate of where I’d feel proud to have my work published. I hadn’t yet learned the hard lessons of sending out a piece out too soon only to make it better after three more years of revisions and wishing I had saved my top choice for NOW.
You can spare yourself some mistakes by learning from other writers. My advice would be to join good company and nibble on donuts at Lighthouse’s Willfully Submit. It’s a quarterly event where writers get together to hear a few words of wisdom from experienced authors about the art of breaking into literary magazines. You’ll learn valuable do’s and don’ts and have time to research and submit your work. Here we celebrate the rejections and clap even louder for the acceptances. We know those spots are hard wins. I’ve been attending Willfully Submit for over a year and walk out with a jolt of inspiration each time. I finally had one of my own flash essays published in the Spring issue of Defunct. Given the content of the essay, I couldn’t have chosen a better spot for it to land. Perseverance pays off. On to the next.
Willfully Submit your best work Saturday, December 13, from 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. We’ll meet in the attic.
Jannett Matusiak is a nonfiction writer working on a memoir and an instructor with the Lighthouse Youth Program. Follow her on Twitter @jannettmatusiak