I’ve been submitting my writing for publication for exactly fifteen years now. My first ever submission, to a small local journal, was mailed on January 10, 2000. On February 1, I submitted a short piece to a local contest. I never heard back from either.
On February 12, 2000, I mailed a submission to another local contest. I received a phone call shortly thereafter that I had won. I still remember playing the message back several times on the old answering machine. You know the kind that beeps and clicks and rewinds the miniature cassette tape, which ceaselessly fascinates the cat?
My 8th submission that year resulted in a Hedgebrook residency. My 14th resulted in being published by the esteemed journal Calyx.
Not bad for a first year. But consider that with three acceptances, I also collected eleven rejections.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve collected many more rejection slips than I have acceptance letters: about 85 acceptances out of 775 submissions (I should have cracked 1,000 by now, but I’ve had a couple of slow years, because, you know, the Momster thing). Not all of the other 690 were outright rejections: I had to withdraw some pieces after an acceptance when I’d sent out simultaneous submissions. Still, that’s a heck of a lot of rejection for even the most self-actualized adult to handle. I have a binder crammed full of rejection letters, with a supersize bag of Cheetos consumed for each one received. I know writers who have burned their stack of rejections, or who never kept them in the first place.
But I take pride in my bulging binder. It means I kept going, that I persisted, and someday when I get called an “overnight success,” I’ll shake my rejection binder like a pompom (if I can hoist it over my head).
I especially like the heft of the binder, because paper rejection slips have largely gone the way of the old answering machine. With the exception of a few dinosaurs, the entire submission process is now virtual. New writers might never get to experience the sensation of shuffling outside in the rain and pulling a flimsy SASE out of the mailbox that sometimes gets jammed shut (maybe because you slam it shut every time it offers you yet another unjustly deserved rejection slip). The envelope on which you’d dutifully written your own name and address and stuck a stamp licked by your own tongue feels empty. Never did such a weighty response—your entire future is in this envelope!—seem so hypocritically lightweight. Has the editor forgotten to include their acceptance letter, because they were so stunned by your brilliance? No, the poor literary journal has chopped up a page into a half dozen rejection slips to save on paper. All of your sweat equity does not even yield you an 8.5×11 sheet of multipurpose bond, much less Classic Linen.
The worst thing about these mere wisps of confetti is the complete lack of feedback. Did your story come in a close second? Or is the graduate student who read only the first three paragraphs now using it as an example of bad writing to his bored undergraduate class, lamenting that it completely lacks metafictional virtuosity and would improve with second person, present tense and a non-gender-specific narrator? “Geez,” he might be saying, scratching his beard and tightening his manbun, “this writer must be an old fogey, like 35, at least. What the hell is this ‘answering machine’ thing that the denouement hinges upon?”
Thus, out of hundreds of rejections, here’s my favorite:
Why don’t all journals do the same?
The editor ends with this:
I like to think that during breaks at the slush pile parties, they drink boxed wine and crack themselves up at old answering machine messages from exes and in-laws. I’d be happy to lick a stamp and stand in a holiday line at the U.S. Postal Service for an editor like that.
While I’m at favorites, here’s my favorite acceptance letter, for my essay entitled, “On Being Asked if I’m Related to Alice Munro,” in which I kvetch about the constant misspelling of my last name. The essay had already been accepted by The Massachusetts Review, where it was published, and I had dutifully withdrawn the essay from this journal:
Dear Jennifer, We are glad to inform you your story "On Being Asked if I'm Related to Alice Monro" has been accepted for publication in the Clackamas Literary Review. Please let us know if our work is still available for publication, if so please email as an attached word document. Thank You, Editorial Assistant