I don’t want this post to be about boasting, or complaining.
My purpose in this note is to encourage someone.
I hope it will encourage me too.
I turned 50 this year, woah! Anyhow, for those of us who have been nearing this threshold and for all of those who are ahead of me on the race, we know about types of loss that only build momentum. Losses that are physical, emotional, and communal.
Sometimes we see it coming.
Other times we get blindsided.
This is not an essay about loss, though, thankfully. I just wanted to contextualize my small little celebration. It’s a reminder, first to myself, but maybe to some of you too.
There is not much we can control in this world. We can, however, choose what we’ll do.
We can choose to press on.
On April 14th, 2014, I sent my first story out into the world. I submitted it for The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction in Nimrod International Journal, which is affiliated with the University of Tulsa.
What can I say, I thought I had a good story that would surely win, and part of the prize was the opportunity to speak at their writer’s conference in Tulsa in October. I thought – 3 for 1 – I’ll win the prize money, get my first official publication, and also see my family, during the fall, my favorite season. Maybe I’d even get to watch a Sooner football game. Win-Win-Win!
On June 28 of 2014 I received the issue in which the prize winner was included (my fee included the issue). My story was not included = no write/no call rejection!!!
Luckily, by then, I had already tasted rejection. I’d submitted a second story – “Choice” - on 5/14, a Wednesday. I received the following reply on Thursday, 5/15-
“Thank you for sending us "Choice". We appreciate the opportunity to read your work. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us at this time. All of us at -------- Literary Review wish you the best of luck in finding a home for this piece. Thank you for your submission…”
This is what those of us in the lit business call a “form” rejection. I’ve seen many variations of this standard “cool you tried, but nah.”
Thankfully, “Choice” was accepted for publication (my first ever) on November 3, 2014, just five months after I began submitting. I was ecstatic! It had only been rejected fourteen times :)
That first piece I’d submitted to the Nimrod International Journal was called “Alder Street.” It was finally accepted on June 6, 2017, a mere 947 days and several revisions after it was first submitted.
My second acceptance, of “Something Great and Lofty,” arrived on May 2, 2015, 181 days after my first. It was nominated for an award, an encouragement I desperately needed.
By then, see, I’d added 10 short stories and 4 poems to my submission ledger, and these had collectively accumulated over one hundred rejection notices. Lord, have mercy!
There have been many ups and downs with my writing. I was once blessed to receive three acceptances in just a few days. This was followed by 133 days without a single acceptance.
I’ve had three stretches of over six months without an acceptance. Those long periods without a ‘yes’ can be discouraging, but more so when there is a steady stream of ‘no’s coming in week after week, if not sometimes once every few days.
I’m setting the stage for my big triumph, here, and I hope you are still with me.
This week, I received my contributor’s copy of Flint Hills Review. My poem therein – “Every Apocalypse is Not the Same” – is my fiftieth publication! I have a weird thing with numbers, so receiving my 50th pub soon after my 50th birthday seemed worthy of observation/consideration.
There has been a lot of discouragement in the world these last few years. Some days, it is hard to ignore or look past all the loss, in my life and in the lives of people I love. My guess is there are a few of you out there feeling the heaviness.
The life of a writer is one of rare peaks of joy (publication-it's out in the world to read!) punctuated by sometimes long valleys of rejection, some of it polite or encouraging, much of it painful. I won’t say how many times I’ve been rejected overall, but the number is many.
Nevertheless - fifty times editors from literary journals have read my poems or essays or stories and said, “yeah, this is good, let’s publish this.”
That would not have happened without those other days, when they said “sorry, bud, this isn’t what we want.” It would not have happened if I stopped doing something I loved just because it wasn’t recognized or praised.
A lot of days we feel like we are not what the world wants. At least I do.
That is not everything, though. I can keep working, keep revising, keep striving, and most importantly, keep believing. I can press on.
I hope you will too.
P.S. – Last week, I received notification of the acceptance of another poem, which will be 51. Keep grinding, friends.
P.S.S. – We lost a great writer this week. Frederick Buechner will be missed. One of my favorite writers, he had great humble faith, literary skill, and wisdom. Last summer I read “Godric.”
Here is something Godric (Buechner) said about rejection and the renewal of hope-
“As a man dies many times before he’s dead, so does he wend from birth to birth, until, by grace, he comes alive at last.”
"Examine all things; hold on to the good."
-Saint Paul the Apostle