A Love Letter to the Rejected Writer

Dear Writer:

You’ve had another story rejected. You’ve lost track of how many times you’ve submitted this particular piece, and you’re wondering if you should bother doing it again. I’ve asked myself the same question a hundred times.
Submitting to literary journals is a disheartening process. You spend time in your room, at your kitchen table, or in coffee shops—writing, writing, writing—then you wind up your courage and fire off your submission to a journal. Days, weeks, then months pass. You try to keep yourself from obsessively checking the status of your submission online. Finally, you get an email. It’s a rejection. Then you rage, cry, or just get depressed. And you do it all over again.
The writing process is difficult enough, but the submission process comes with its own constellation of negative spirals and rabbit-holes. If you are like me, you use Submittable for most submissions to literary journals. I love Submittable. It keeps my submissions in order, and I can download a list of everything I submitted and to where. As of this month, I’ve made more than a hundred submissions since January of 2016. I haven’t submitted a hundred separate stories or essays—that would be crazy. Neither have I published a hundred pieces since I started using Submittable. However, I’ve submitted individual pieces as many as ten times to different journals.
This last September, Penmen Review, which comes out of Southern New Hampshire University, published “My sister Maddie,” a piece I wrote nearly a decade ago. Before Penmen Review picked up the story, it had been rejected by nine other journals. Often, it’s a question of the fit between the story and a particular issue or journal. Editors tell me this repeatedly. It still doesn’t help with processing a stream of rejections, especially when that piece has cost you more time and emotional energy than you give to many of your relationships.
As a rule, the rejections that find me—usually at awkward moments on the bus or in the mall—are form letters that say the same thing.

Dear William Thompson:

Thank you for submitting to our journal. We receive many submissions for each issue, but unfortunately we can’t publish everything…

I understand the point of the form letter. Editors don’t have time to comment on individual submissions. However, now and then I will get a comment from an editor that is thoughtful, encouraging, or offers a snippet of helpful feedback. I’m always grateful for such comments.

“This is quite well written, with strong atmospheric details.”
“The story is very powerful, relating the protagonist’s situation to his mother’s is very impactful. I suggest giving the protagonist a name and more description. It will make the story more visceral.”
“I found parts of this fascinating, but all the pieces didn’t fit together in a way that felt unified to me.”

Feedback is always good. You don’t have to like it; it just needs to make you think about your work from someone else’s point of view. Difficult, I realize. And rejections always carry a particular sting, no matter how many you’ve received.
I remind myself regularly that submitting as part of my work as a writer—in the way that writing this blog is part of that same work. Researching journals that might be a good fit for a particular story or essay takes time. I also try to read something a journal has published before I submit, which isn’t always possible, depending on whether or not the journal has sample pieces available on their website. I set a goal—say, eight or ten submissions a month. I keep a folder of pieces that are in circulation, and I work on pieces I can add to the circulation folder. I happen to be good at compartmentalizing my life—not such a fabulous quality in some ways, but it makes this particular process easier.
Rejection doesn’t mean your work is bad, or that no one likes it, or that you should give up any thoughts of being a writer and take a job somewhere that never reminds you of your love for the written word. Rejection means you are out there—for good or ill. No one can reject something you’ve written if you don’t submit it. And no one can accept it either. Writing is a process, but so is submitting. And both require you to put a little iron in your soul, first for the sake of finishing that story you have to write, then getting it out into the world.

Yours in Fellowship,

A New Story for September

A big thank you to Rebecca Leboeuf and the people at Penmen Review for picking up My Sister Maddie. This story has made the rounds of literary journals, so I’m thrilled that it has finally found a home.
My Sister Maddie began as a writing exercise. I haven’t tried this one often, but it can be helpful. Take a story or an excerpt from one of your literary mentors, then write something that models itself after that piece. You can try emulating language, character, or the way the piece creates setting. It works—for the most part. You will find that your own writing takes a different shape as it evolves. It’s a great way to get started or unstuck.
When starting My Sister Maddie, I used Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat” (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood 1976) as a starting point. MacLeod writes stunning landscapes and character portrayals. I can’t do what MacLeod does, but I can aspire towards that kind of excellence.
Check out all the fine writing on the Penmen Review as well, and if you don’t know MacLeod’s work, then find a quiet afternoon and read one of his short stories. They are lyrical, poignant, and painful—from one of Canada’s best writers.

Writers on Writing

Craft essays are those pieces in which writers talk about writing—their process, how they started writing, or how they keep writing. I read such pieces in the hope of gleaning something that will help me the next time I feel stuck, overwhelmed, or desperately discouraged about my own writing.
Recently, I read “This is How a Writer Writes a Story” by Margaret Malone. She thoughtfully explores the messy business of writing fiction, and her first experience of having to write a story for a creative writing class.
But there are as many opinions on writing as there are writers. If you are someone who wants to write, or someone who wants to write more effectively, where do you begin?
Two years ago, I decided I had to quit screwing around with my writing. I had to get stuff finished and sent out. Many literary journals use Submittable as their online, submission portal, and I decided I would use Submittable to send out as many pieces as I could. I wrote and wrote. Those pieces I finished went into a folder on my computer; those I couldn’t finish, for one reason or another, went into another folder.
Since the late fall of 2015, including several older pieces I pulled out to revise, I’ve completed thirty-five. I’ve made over one hundred submissions, through Submittable and by email, and I’ve published seven, including essays and short stories.
My goal over the past eighteen months has been consistency—both in terms of what I’m writing and how much I submit. My draft folder has more than a hundred pieces, most of which won’t turn in to anything. But that’s fine; I hang on to everything I write.
In order for me to understand myself as a writer, I needed to complete as much as I could, and I needed to get used to editors rejecting my work—never an easy thing to do. However, it’s even possible to turn rejection into a motivator.
Kim Liao offered some of the best advice I’ve heard recently on writing: aim for one hundred rejections a year. This seemed like masochistic advice, but then I thought about it again. Rejection isn’t a measure of a writer’s ability; it’s a measure of a writer’s output—the consistent, day-to-day grind of writing and revision that makes you better at what you do.
I’ve sent out a story, had it rejected, then gone back to look at the story and been horrified that I let it get out there. Then I revise it and send it out again. This is always a lesson in humility. I usually learn that I was more anxious to send out something I thought was a great story than I was interested in making it the best story it could be.
Flannery O’Connor, one of my favourite short story writers, would call this day-to-day work of getting stuff out there the external habit of writing. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor says the external habits of a writer will be driven by his or her common sense—or lack of it—as well as his or her own circumstances. Writing, for O’Connor, is more about getting the habit of art, and the habit of art is about getting at the truth in an imaginative way, which is both messy and laborious. O’Connor writes: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
Several years ago, my daughter bought me pottery lessons for father’s day. We went to a series of classes that summer. I quickly discovered that pottery was much harder than I thought. First, you have to centre the clay on the wheel, then you have to decide what you will do with the clay—a mug, a bowl, or something else. Clay can be unforgiving. There’s a point at which you have to stop forcing the clay to be something you want; you have to let the clay take the shape it’s going to take. If you force it, the clay will slump, and you end up with a collapsed mess on your wheel. Each time you throw a pot, you learn more about how to work the clay.
Writing is like that, but it’s also more forgiving—thank god. You can revise, restructure, flip the point of view, or simply start over. But that story or essay or novel is going to have limits; you need to understand what you are building in order to not force the thing into a shape that’s going to make it implode. Hence, the folder with more than a hundred partially finished pieces.
However you go about it, writing is about writing. Thinking about writing won’t get words on the page or the screen. Thinking about food won’t put your dinner on the table. Write stuff down. Get feedback on what you write, but don’t let anyone tell you what your story should or shouldn’t do. Feedback is invaluable. Listen carefully, express your gratitude, and then go back to writing and revising.
Once you’ve established a discipline of writing, and once you’ve had a few lessons in humility, you will discover what my friend Tom Wharton calls the fifth element of story. The fifth element, according to Wharton, is that space between the story, the listener, and the teller, “a magical space, a pocket dimension, a field of invisible forces. You know this space when you’re in one that’s really working. It casts an enchantment over you.”
I mostly know the fifth element as a reader. It’s the experience of a book or a story that transports me beyond what I am, that helps me to see the world according to a new pattern of understanding—even if it’s just for a brief space of time. If you can write a story that transports your reader, you can know that you’ve had a hand in something truly humbling—the function of art and the operation of story.

Travels in Scotland and Encountering the Literary

As you travel through Scotland, it’s hard not to encounter literary types from the past. This last May, my daughter and I drove from Glasgow down to Dumfries. We wanted to see the Robbie Burns House. In spite of teaching English for a living—not to mention my Scottish heritage—I found I knew surprisingly little about Burns. I knew he was a poet, of course, but I didn’t realize he died so young—at the age of thirty-seven.
We found the house, a small two-story place just off a busy road in Dumfries. It had a large room downstairs, with a wide fireplace and alcove for possibly preparing food. Upstairs had two rooms, one with a small space, big enough to hold a desk where Burns wrote and worked. The man clearly loved women, as he had several illegitimate children, as well as a family with Jean Armour. The last few years of his life was spent working as an Excise Officer in Dumfries to support his family. Not quite the romantic picture of the Plowman Poet—save for maybe the illegitimate children. You can read more about his life here.

We walked up the street to the church where Burns is buried. It’s a mausoleum, a structure about the size of a garden shed, where Burns and Jean Armour are buried. Apparently, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy visited Burns grave, which at that time was a simple stone, not befitting the romantic life and legacy of Burns. The mausoleum came later.
After leaving Dumfries, we looked for a place to picnic. We found a lovely spot in the Forest of Ae, a grassy spot beneath a tree, right next to a burn. We sat, had our lunch, listened to the cows across the road, and watched the dog-walkers and cyclists pass by.
We drove north the next day towards Inverness, passing through lovely countryside, open and hilly, with heather and gorse purpling the fields—the perfect place for romantically minded, heartbroken young men to wander in despair as they thought of their lost loves.
We made one longer stop on the way north—a place called The Hermitage, which is a park in Craigvinean Forest. The walk takes you through tall trees and down to the River Braan, a shallow, fast-flowing stream. Again, Wordsworth and Dorothy got there before us. As we wandered along the path, I thought about what it meant for me to walk such a path in the footsteps of people like Wordsworth and Dorothy, who saw these same sights nearly two hundred years before.

Travels in Britain, a Literary Pilgrimage

For the last five years, I’ve been trying to arrange a trip to the UK. I finally managed it, and now I’m here. The last time I tried to travel to Britain, I had to cancel because of family matters. That was for a Harry Potter conference in Scotland. Much of the travelling I’ve done recently is like that—taking trips to places, but always to a conference. Travelling to conferences means that you need to attend sessions, and you get less of a chance to see the place you’re visiting.
This time it’s different. I’m travelling with my daughter, and we are hitting as many interesting sites as we can. Because so much of my reading and academic work is tied to this island, my trip feels as much a literary pilgrimage as it does a holiday. We’ve already seen many places in and around Glasgow, but so far my favourite has been visiting the antonine Wall near Falkirk.
The Antonine Wall is a roman Wall built around 142 C.E., which was a way for the romans to try to push their territory into what they called Caledonia. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, a hundred miles to the south, the Antonine Wall was a turf wall built on a stone foundation. The foundation remains, but little else. You can also find the remains of a roman fort known as rough castle nearby. The romans abandoned the wall after only eight years, withdrawing south to Hadrian’s Wall.
We got spectacularly lost trying to find the wall—missing a sign, and getting sent in circles by the ubiquitous round-abouts, which seem to be the favoured way of moving traffic here. Once we found the site of Rough Castle and the Antonine Wall, we got out of the car and began to wander. There’s a dog park on the other side of the wall, and people were out walking dogs or jogging in the late afternoon.
There I was, my hands on the wall—an ancient foundation, now covered with moss and grasses, built nearly two millennia ago by the romans. We walked farther on to the site of the fort, and I stood on the remains of the rampart, and thought about the romans and their efforts to push their way into this country. Who knows what the peoples of northern Britain thought of these southern invaders. We of course can speculate, and I could feel my imagination running away with the possibilities. I thought of Tolkien as we followed a path lined with large stones leading to the fort, , and standing on the old rampart I thought of the books I’ve read by rosemary Sutcliff—books such as The Eagle of the Ninth, in which Marcus and Esca, his friend and former body slave, journey into the north to discover the fate of the lost Ninth Legion.
The hills, the quiet, and the ancient stones covered in grasses fill me with an emotion I can’t articulate. The place itself inspires the imagination, but I also feel a connection to the landscape and its people through the books I’ve read that were in turn inspired by these same places and their histories.