I got a very polite rejection yesterday from The Florida Review. They apologized for the delay in responding, contextualized the long wait around some editorial and personal changes, yadda yadda yadda, told me they’d found my story “Unsayable Things” engaging, but that it didn’t meet their editorial needs at this time.
As I do when I get rejections, which I get frequently, I updated my “Short Story Submissions” database, my digital warehouse of failure and ball kicking and invisible bruising that helps me keep track of all the places that are turning down my work, when they’re turning down my work, how long it takes them to turn down my work, and with what tone they’re turning down my work. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, there are a variety of different brands of rejection. Impersonal form rejection? Impersonal polite rejection? Mildly personal encouraging rejection? Re-write suggestion rejection? What’s fucked up is that you get to the point where when the rejection even names your story, or suggests that a human being actually read it and enjoyed it, even if it’s a no, you come to love that no. The polite rejection becomes it’s own form of yes. Welcome to the twisted world of writing for publication.
And when I opened up the “Short Story Submissions” and navigated to the story in question, then to the journal in question, I noted that I’d submitted to my good friends at TFR in March of 2012. Yes, you read that right. March of 2012. A full thirteen months after I’d submitted. When I submitted to them, Obama hadn’t been reelected yet. I was a year younger. As were my children. Of course I’d long ago forgotten about the submission. TFR assured me in their rejection that they have fixed whatever was taking them so long to respond and that they are committed to honoring the 2-3 months time frame they normally take to kick people in the balls wearing blindfolds. I believe them, and in a twisted way, was still glad to hear from them. Unlike agents and publishers, who only respond to you if they’re interested, and let silence stand as the sign of rejection and lack of interest, most literary magazines, eventually, do get back to you. Provide you with that human need for closure.
The adage among writers is that you’re not supposed to take rejection personally. Don’t let it get you down. Build a thick skin. It’s so frequent, rejection I mean, and the odds of sneaking a good, or even perhaps excellent, piece of writing through to a respected journal, are so slim that lit mags spend most of their time saying no. With such terrible odds and so frequently hearing “no,” it’s better to protect your heart, not take it personally, and keep submitting, knowing that they’re saying no to great stories all the time, and that half of it is kismet, luck, or some nepotism that you can’t even control. So, don’t take it personally. And I don’t. I don’t let it hurt me.
It hurts like a motherfucker. Not every time, mind you. But the entirety of it hurts, I mean. A deep aching something that you pretend isn’t there because if you acknowledge it too much, it becomes hard to do good work.
Mostly, I don’t take it personally in the way that traditional people take traditional things personally. Like most writers who want to publish, I’ve gotten pretty good at being rejected. Repetition does help make you numb. I see the brief form response, thanking me for the opportunity to read my work, telling me how many submissions they get and how many worthy stories they pass on, etc. Sometimes they say something nice about the story. Mostly they don’t. Sometimes they tell me to submit again soon. Sometimes they don’t. And, even though it all adds up to the same thing, mostly I believe them. It must be mind numbing to receive so much work, a lot of it shit, but a lot of it totally fine, and even some of it rather fantastic, but to have only so many feet for all those shoes. I update my database like a good soldier, may submit the story to another five or ten places, then begin waiting again. Rinse, wash, repeat. But this idea that it’s not supposed to hurt you to be rejected over and over is hilarious. And totally unrealistic.
Of course it hurts. Last time I checked there was blood pumping through my veins. So…what to do?
Day to day, you play dumb. You don’t let it hurt you. Every no can’t be the end of the world or you’d never have the courage to write another word. That’s no strategy. But pretending you don’t feel is insane too. I’d rather accept the hurt as part of the journey and teach myself how to manage it, rather than to become a robot who doesn’t feel. Robots don’t write very good fiction.