08/21/20: On Submissions

So this week, I made two new literary magazine submissions. (I say that as if I haven’t been putting myself out there, when keeping my commitment to write something that people can see at least twice a week—even on holidays—really means that the opposite is true.)

I think it’s important to call attention to that as a win of some kind, even if the submissions get turned down in the end. After all, the act of submitting your work is always extremely vulnerable. You put so much of your effort into something that excites you and you tinker and tweak it for such a dedicated amount of time; all you want is for people to love it as much as you do. You wait through months in real-time (are you the type that prefers to think of response windows in months or in weeks?), and when it does come, it will return to you most likely in form. That’s it. No feedback, no request to send more writing (more often than not). Ostensibly, your work’s home is somewhere else, just not where you thought it would be… Best wishes.

I hold on to anticipation like a balloon. Sometimes I go through my submissions manager just to check if the status has magically changed from ‘Received’ to ‘In-progress’, a change that doesn’t really mean anything. The minute the rejection comes in, the balloon pops. Blam! And it’s gone. These days I feel like it would be easier if I could just let go of the balloon, if I could forget about my anticipation so that the notice of acceptance or rejection becomes a welcome surprise. But something tells me there is a way to steel yourself to rejection, to read it beyond the hard ‘no’ on its surface. Jac Jemc shook things up for me when I found out that she had labelled one section of her website ‘Rejections.’ In February 2018, she wrote about Rejection No. 375, and even went ahead and named the journal! I don’t know when or what it’s gonna take for me to have balls like that, but Ms. Jemc wrote: “I feel really grateful.” Isn’t she doing our version of the Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hours thing?

In the last five or so years, I’ve gotten a good share of rejection letters, and though I don’t know if I’m used to it yet, I do feel like I have adjusted my expectations of the lit-pub machinery to know that the systems we have in place, while imperfect, are truly the result of many longtime quirks, kinks, and grievances getting worked out. For instance, the guideline that says it’s impossible to personalize a response to each submission makes sense to me. As someone who has been in the position of fielding inbox responses for a larger brand, I completely sympathize with the one person whose job description does include managing the submission inbox. In the case of one magazine, they indicated that during their annual submission window, they receive up to 10,000 (!!!) submissions. How do you even begin to whittle that down? On the other hand, I think it’s a welcome concession on the part of lit mags to specify that writers are encouraged to submit the same piece to several publications at once. Most of them can’t guarantee universal acceptance, so why should they hold your work hostage? As a writer, I appreciate that they respect that, and I respect that the only publications exempt from this concession would be the younger magazines, publications still trying to latch onto new discoveries and big names to give them a good headstart. As far as I can tell, the system is as easy as it can be for the time being.

Recently, I was watching an interview with Damon Lindelof of Lost, The Leftovers, and Watchmen fame, and he said something that stuck with me. Talking about how Watchmen was written around an event that was outside of his experience, necessitating collaboration with people who would challenge him on it, he said: “You have to go into it with a high degree of… not cynicism but… you have to respect the degree of difficulty.” I immediately wrote that down on an index card and have been using it to hold my coffee. When I think about what he said in this context, I realize that maybe the version of me that was frustrated whenever he got rejection letters was the part of me that was being cynical about my ability as a writer. I had to do it once, or accept that if I didn’t get in, I would never write well—an approach that led inevitably to frustration. Five years later, I am learning that part of the work I have to do is familiarizing myself with each journal, taking the time to sit down and give the best of my readership to all their prizewinners and reading samples. This is the version of me, maybe, that is trying respect the degree of difficulty.

One of the stories I submitted yesterday was a brand new piece, something that came to me very recently, and I didn’t wait to workshop it, except to share it with friends in one of its early completed forms. I was excited about it, I made a mental schedule to work on it, I reread some older stories that I thought would help me to figure out this story’s direction, and then yesterday, I turned it in. While waiting for a response, I’m doing things to fill in the hours: I’m starting multiple short projects at once, I’m figuring out working schedules to pace myself with each, I’m working so that people can read something from me at least twice a week, and I’m thinking hard about the possibilities of extending that work to other things. (Maybe a newsletter?) In a few months, perhaps I can link back to this post and say that I got it. But even if I don’t, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try linking back still. Just to say that I’m doing the work.