Both of my new writing buddies are English majors. At the café where we meet, I offer up my hesitant little poems with great trepidation. I’m terrified. I want so badly for my work to be good. Mitzi’s poems are lyrical, evocative and moving. Veronica is a master of line, rhythm, and imagery. I feel like the dumb sister. Mitzi and Veronica are wonderful at finding the good in my work, for which I am deeply grateful.
It’s our second meeting. The coffee shop is noisy and the coffee makes me hyper-alert and a little nervy. We take turns critiquing each other’s work. When it’s Veronica’s turn, she grins and hoists her bag onto the table with a clunk.
She leans forward, green eyes sparkling with mischief. “Guess what I got?”
We have no idea.
She whips out an envelope and slaps it down on the table. “I got a rejection,” she says.
Mitzi cocks her head in question but keeps quiet. I try not to frown, but I’m confused. What are we supposed to say? A rejection? That can’t be good, can it? Mitzi and I take nervous sips of our coffee.
Veronica is still smiling as she nudges the envelope our way and taps at the return address.
“I got a rejection from Virginia Quarterly.”
“Well… yay!” Mitzi says, obviously taking her cue from Veronica. I follow suit.
We hold our breath until Veronica slips the envelope back in her bag and pulls out her poems for critique. Relieved to be on familiar ground, we don’t mention the envelope again.
After the meeting, Veronica rushes off to pick up her son from daycare, but Mitzi stays to chat. We talk about Veronica and her rejection and I finally get it. Veronica was proud because she’d mustered up the courage to submit to a prestigious magazine. You don’t get in unless you submit, and rejection is the first step. It hurts, but if you have buddies to cheer you on, you can learn to handle it. Eventually, you get enough rejections so they only sting for a minute or two. A few more and it’s like a vaccination, just a little pinch and it’s over. You build up a resistance. You move on.
With Mitzi and Veronica’s encouragement, I got an acceptance after only a few rejections. I was thrilled. That is, until a few months later, when my copy of the magazine arrived. I’d learned a few things by then and I was horrified to find they’d printed a poem of mine that contained not one, not two, but three adverbs. I had submitted two other poems that were much better than this one. Why had they chosen this one? I scrutinized the journal and realized they’d been working on an unspecified theme. My adverbial poem fit the theme perfectly. The other two did not. It was as simple as that.
I’ve been with Veronica and Mitzi now for over ten years, and I’ve learned much more since then. But these first lessons were the most valuable. The writing business is tough, and the only way to succeed is to put yourself out there.
Ask for help from writers who are ahead of you in the game, and work hard at your craft. When you’re ready, send your work out to publishers. Every rejection puts you that much closer to success. Every editor has his or her own agenda, and a rejection may have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Sometimes you get an impersonal form letter. If you’re lucky, you might get a personal note with the rejection slip. Sometimes, as my friend likes to say, your submission “falls to crickets” and you hear nothing. You just have to keep throwing those darts out there. Take aim by researching each journal carefully, and someday you’ll hit the bulls-eye.
Remember, you’re not the only one to receive a rejection. John Grisham’s first novel was rejected twenty-five times. The publishers of the first Chicken Soup for the Soul received over a hundred rejections. The author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit got so frustrated with rejection, she self-published. Gertrude Stein was rejected for 22 years before getting a poem published. So take heart. If they can do it, so can you.