Sun 17 Nov 2013
by Susan Tepper
No. No, no, no, no, no. Yes— we’ve all had weeks of those words (sometimes multiples on the same day!) where our incredible story or poem or essay or novel manuscript has come back to hit us in the face. A story of mine was called ‘regurgitated sit-com’. The ‘editor’ who wrote that back to me didn’t have the balls to sign his or her name.
Different writers respond differently to ‘rejection’. When I was teaching brand- new writers, I made a conscious choice to not use the word rejection but instead called it a turn down. New writers can be crucified by rejection. I’ve seen very talented new writers throw in the towel because of badly formed turn down letters.
But, here, for the sake of ease, let’s use the currently accepted term: rejection.
Nobody actually likes it. Some of us have come to terms with it more easily than others. I do know writers who are published constantly then have a total freak-out when they get a rejection. This kind of behavior is a bit much.
It taught me how subjective the writing business can be (it is a business).
Nobody can expect everyone to love everything we put out there. When I was a newbie writer studying in NYC, an editor from The New Yorker came to our class as guest speaker. This editor and our writing teacher got into a little offhand conversation about a newly published story in The New Yorker magazine. They both disliked the story. But apparently enough people at The New Yorker liked it enough to publish it. So there you go! That moment was a big eye-opener for me. It taught me how subjective the writing business can be (it is a business). And knowing that took a lot of the heat off rejections.
Down the line I learned that often pieces of work are accepted for reasons other than merit. I learned about the politics of writing as the years went by. That was something less nourishing for me as a writer. It taught me to stay clear of the politics of writing when I became an editor at two literary magazines. I can say with a fair amount of pride that at those magazines we never chose any work that didn’t delight and inform us, regardless of the particular writer’s track record or lack thereof. It was while editing at those magazines that I learned there is an art to telling someone you will not be accepting the work they submitted.
Magazine editors that are sensitive to this situation (after all, most are writers too) will often use a short, polite form letter to turn down work. We had that set-up at both mags. We also had a little box where the person turning down the work could choose to write a short note to the submitter. If the story held promise but just needed a little more (of something), well this was a good place to make that suggestion to the writer. Most people accepted what you suggested and moved on. Occasionally someone took umbrage and came back with a rebuttal. Our editorial policy was to ignore those little outbursts. We writers, even the blustery ones, are sensitive souls, and many become easily hurt and offended.
I think it’s important that editors hold onto the realization that they are dealing with someone’s ‘private matters’ despite how fictionalized the material might be. All writing comes from that subterranean space of heart and mind. That should be respected. When editors take it upon themselves to act aggressively toward a submission, or throw out insulting language, they are hurting themselves as well as the writer and the writing they choose to denigrate. Each time someone acts in a vicious or sarcastic or mean-spirited way toward someone else, for no good reason whatsoever, they are damaging all of society, not to mention chipping away at their own wholeness. Do it too many times and you have a fractured being who will level all sorts of harm toward the world at large.
It is my belief system that we have to acknowledge the good in each piece of writing (even if it’s just one sentence or paragraph), and respect that writer for their courage and intelligence to put it out into the world. If writers are treated in a respectful way, that sentence or paragraph will grow and expand over time into larger and better writing. Words carry enormous weight. People often say the most harmful things to other people, or about them. Then, when confronted they will respond: It’s not what I meant.
Really? Then why say it at all? How can trashing someone’s story or poem or essay make you a better writer, editor, or person? Respect is the big issue. If we try and respect all writerly output, hopefully the courtesy will be returned. This is a difficult business. We need our friends. We need to keep making more friends. We need the writer chain to grow and strengthen, if we are going to continue along this path. Words, when properly used, can heal and move things in ways that seem impossible.
So— getting back to rejection. Like everyone who has been writing a long time, I have been rejected in all forms. On paper for years through the mail, now almost exclusively via email. I’ve had mostly decent and impersonal rejections.
Unfortunately I did get that recent one that kind of stood my hair on end. Regurgitated sit-com material? First it felt like a letter from someone who deeply disliked me. Like an old lover hurling his vitriol. I looked up the masthead and saw that I ‘knew’ all but one of the editors. I felt sort of shocked. Then it struck me funny because I would love to write a sit-com and make lots of money. Maybe this rejection was a message to me. Maybe it was a new path opening.
There is an art to rejection. There is a way of saying: I love you but I can’t marry you. There is a way of saying: your dress is gorgeous but this is a barbecue. There is a way of saying: I dig your tamales but my stomach is acting up. There are so many good ways of saying: Thanks, but no thanks.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her recent book The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, July, 2013) is a novel in stories about a young woman’s adventures in life and love on two continents. Tepper is a contributing editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she interviews authors about their books and lives on UNCOV/rd. She also curates the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC www.susantepper.com