On Rejection

Two weeks ago in my prose Creative Writing class, we read and discussed Bret Lott’s essay, “A Home, a House: On Writing and Rejection,” from Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life. In the essay, Lott explores the relationship between the writing life and the publishing life, using the analogy of a lean-to in the woods for the writing space and a house built from rejections (and acceptances). He calculates, as of August 2004, that he has received 597 rejections (for stories and essay alone–not his books). This figure (understandably) startled my students.

As I visual aid, I brought my binder of rejections (those that I saved) beginning in 2003 and running through 2009, when I stopped saving them. The binder also contains my earliest acceptances, including my first post-MFA acceptance: a poem in The Chaffin Journal. I told my students how I had danced around my apartment, how Amy and I had celebrated by going out to eat at some fast-food place in Southeast Portland. Using the classroom projector, I displayed my Submittable account, showing them first the number of rejections, and then the acceptances. My disclosures added an up-close example of several of Lott’s points.

By my rough estimate, in 12 years I’ve sent out close to 500 submissions. As my website’s publications section attests, some fellow editors have decided to publish my poems, stories, essays, and reviews. I’m proud of each item on that list, not embarrassed by any of them, and I take great satisfaction in the places where some of these works were published.

Lott reminds writers that they “will be rejected,” and he suggests that writers need to view the submission element of writing as a “business transaction.” I understand both ends of the “business transaction” element of submissions: as a writer, and as an editor. Since I became editor of Windhover in 2012, my own comfort level with being rejected has increased. This isn’t to suggest that I enjoy rejection but only that I understand and “accept” the dynamics: I don’t take rejection personally. I reexamine the work (perhaps), and then send the piece (or pieces) out again.

In the closing section of the essay, Lott reminds writers that the real joy, the real delight is in the creation of (and reworking of) the pieces themselves. I agree. Probably because I hold on to that exhortation, I find that the submission process (the rejections, the acceptances, the unanswered submissions, the lost submissions) doesn’t wildly raise or drop my emotional barometer as it once used to. Perhaps as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes in that famous passage, we might add that there is time for publication, a time for rejection.

On Editing (#3)

I’ve had the privilege of working on various literary journals over the last 15 years, and none has demanded as much work and time commitment as has my editorship with Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature. None has brought me such satisfaction.

This afternoon I finalized the selections for the fourth issue I’ve edited, an issue that will be larger (again) than the previous year’s issue. Each issue I’ve edited has grown in size, from 18 contributors in the 2013 issue, to 50+ contributors in the forthcoming issue. This forthcoming issue also marks the 20th volume, the first issue having appeared in 1997. It’s amazing to me that a journal with such a distinct focus is still continuing two decades later, and I count it an honor to edit such a publication.

My history with the journal dates back to my poetry submission in 2005. The following fall, I received my official rejection letter. When I assumed the editorship in the summer of 2012, I discovered the electronic version of my rejection letter and printed it. (I’ve told this story before in various places, but I still find it ironic and amusing.)

Now that the acceptances are complete, I will commence in one of my favorite tasks: organizing the issue. Editors organize their issues with various rationales, but I have taken my cue from Brian Bedard, the former editor of South Dakota Review where I served as managing editor during my doctoral studies. Brian arranged the issue so as to create an arc, with links between pieces (maybe an image from a poem echoing in a short story that followed). When I proofread the pieces after he informed me of the table of contents, I was always amazed by the connections he made.

In my role as editor, I employ that same guiding principle. I reserve several hours and then spread out the accepted pieces on the large tables in my department’s breakroom. I pace, I shuffle paper, and I look for those links. And just as there’s an exhausted satisfaction when I’ve completed the selections (and when I’ve created a proof and when I see the physical issue), there’s a satisfaction and pleasure when I’ve solidified the order.

But for now, it’s time to relax and to enjoy that extra hour.

On Editing (#2)

2 months ago I wrote about my experiences as a guest fiction editor for a newer journal, Driftwood Press. At the end of that post, I referred to other kinds of editing I’ve done, adding that I would write at a later date about some of those experiences. Today, I thought I’d share about a wonderful editorial experience I had two summers ago.

One of my pastors, Austin Fischer, approached me about offering a critique of his manuscript. Even though it was already accepted for publication, he wanted someone to read it from a literary angle, to read it at the sentence level. Having the summer open in front of me, and interested in his project, I said yes.

For a few weeks I spent time in the world of his book, Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism. The first pass involved reading the book from beginning to end, leaving aside my Pilot G2 .07 black pen. As I read, I was absorbed in his story. It sure makes editing more meaningful when you’re genuinely interested in the writer’s work.

The second pass I read with my standard pen in hand, looking for ways in which the language might be improved, stylistic glitches might be remedied. Where might sentences be combined? Where might sentence patterns be varied? Where might there be crisper verbs, sharper nouns? How could I help Austin’s message be more clear?

I gave Austin my marked-up copy one Sunday after church, and we made plans to meet later that week after he read through my line edits. I recall a sunny morning where we sat outside at Starbucks. I was drinking black coffee. I shared some further observations about the book, and there was the pleasure as he offered me words of affirmation in what I provided. I knew my work was not only appreciated and valued; my suggestions moved something already good toward the great.

And in those ways, I felt less like a line editor and more like a writing coach. I believed in his book from my first read, and even after “marking it up,” I had a more profound admiration of what he was sharing in his story. I’ve told him that I’m ready for the next book, whenever he’s ready to write it.

Note: if you’re interested in what editing services I can provide, please feel free to send an email to plainswriter.nlh@gmail.com or contact me via the Contact menu tab.