I’m a big boy now

A couple of weeks ago, Johanna Harness on her blog talked about literary rejection as not unlike the experience of learning to walk. We humans, we learn to stand, then take small steps while holding onto something sturdier than ourselves, and we fall down, a whole hell of a lot. Somehow when we’re toddlers, without all of this cumbersome self-reflection and analysis, we don’t really mind the hiccups that are part and parcel with the learning process. But sheesh, get a couple of “I’m just not the right agent” letters, decades later, and it can be an unraveling worse than seeing your favorite baby blanket in tatters.

Something happened in the meanwhile, Johanna posits, that changed how we feel regarding the negative side of the learning process. And it behooves people trying to write for a living to retain the totality of experiences related to getting work published.

When I heard this summer, at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference that agents only request full manuscripts from less than 1 percent of the queries they received, I immediately felt elated. She’d requested a full from me, after all. I was in some kind of elite, somewhere. I was that guy in the US Marines recruitment ad that they never play anymore where he scales a mountain, swims underwater for 20 minutes, grabs a sword and fights a dragon of fire and then SCHWWWWACK! is a Marine in full formal attire. I had abs!

Only not. She declined to represent me two weeks later. Apparently I got a little singed at the flaming reptile portion of the crucible. And I haven’t seen my abs since 1991.

I wanted to find a balance between these two poles—abject frustration and merry winsomeness. It’s too much work to bounce between them in some all too long version of The Pong of Letters. I have written before about the writer’s ego; one needs to be strong enough to accept rejection but committed enough to trying again. And again. And repeat. Somewhere in the mainland of the normal distribution is bound to be humility, earnestness, self-assurance, and an ability to listen honestly. I call that balance.

I’ve been working on rewriting a novel since I left the writing conference in July, determined to have it done in October and to send it to agents before the long winter—and more importantly, the holiday season—takes hold. It has a firm grip, that Sears Santa. I still have nightmares.

While I’ve tried to focus on the novel, I find that I need breaks from it, so I write up blog posts, short stories, flash fiction, whatever will keep me writing, just not writing that. And so far I think it’s been working, at least as far as my continuing relationship with my muse goes. So during some of my “off” time I’ve sent shorter things out for publication and kept on the finding an agent wagon for my memoir. And the rejections keep coming, as they do.

Editors at journals are much more inclined, it seems to this writer, to send out the two-sentence form letter rejection than agents are. Agents, if they were close to liking my memoir project, would add a sentence in or ask their assistants to write something a little personal. Rarely have I gotten the dreaded form rejection, which is only one short step up from the truly maddening non-response, in which they can’t even be bothered to acknowledge that you sent them such drivel.

So I wasn’t prepared for the terseness from these journals. And all of them, or nearly all, suggested I purchase a copy of their publication to get a better feel for what they print. Some of these things cost $10, $15. I’ll read what you have online, and I may already have or have in the past had a subscription, but let’s get real, I simply can’t afford to buy an issue of every single rag with which I’d like to query a piece. I’m a writer, remember? Maybe this isn’t the “right” answer, but it’s my reality. And further, for all the future marketers of America out there, a very extremely rather unfortunately bad way of cajoling someone into buying something is to be a prat to them the very moment before. Lesson of the day.

Finally, I had adjusted to being denied publication. I started putting some of my writing out there for free, “published,” in the penultimately loosest sense of the term, the absolute loosest held unequivocally by the banners hitched up to small airplanes that fly over beaches.

So just like when I read the email saying my memoir had made it to the finals of the PNWA literary contest, I didn’t quite take it in when my inbox alerted me, last night, that a short story of mine was going to be published in the inaugural issue of Split Quarterly magazine, coming up this January. I read that email a few times. Oh yes I did.

I was nothing short of thrilled. And then, within oh, four minutes or so, I took a step back. It’s 2,006 words. It’s one short story. It’s great, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Keep things in perspective.

And then, in the back of my head, that 1% figure remembered. Think about all of the rejections people have received, and they said yes to this piece. I smiled.

I realized, of course, that I was playing Pong again. But I smiled all the same. And it occurred to me that if getting a rejection was like stumbling when learning to walk, then getting a short story in an online magazine was like learning to use pull up pants.

I’m a 40-year-old toddler, apparently.

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8 Comments on “I’m a big boy now”

  1. September 7, 2010 at 10:57 am #

    Congratulations, Ev! Only you could beat yourself up this much as a prelude to such good news. 😀

    • evmaroon
      September 7, 2010 at 11:09 am #

      I suppose that’s a good point, Johanna. I am reveling in it a little, to be sure! Thanks for your congrats, I appreciate it.

  2. September 7, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    I’m learning to see rejection as a good thing; right now, my goal is to get one rejection a week, as a measure of how much I’m putting out there.

    • evmaroon
      September 7, 2010 at 11:10 am #

      That’s a wonderful way of thinking about it. And like I’ve heard, rejections are a sign that your work merited a response. So they’re positive even if they don’t feel that way.

  3. September 7, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    (And also, congratulations!)

  4. September 7, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    We’re all toddlers aren’t we. ;o) congrats on the good news ;o)

    • evmaroon
      September 9, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks so much! And yes, we are always the little kids inside, even as we pack more stuff into our psyches.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Quality Control for the Short Story | Trans/plant/portation - May 3, 2011

    […] so I’ve blogged about it from time to time, mostly in terms of how to handle it (read: don’t take it personally) and what to do in its wake (submit again). Stories, however, need to be as polished as possible […]

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