Go Ahead and Submit, But Try Not to Care

[Another entry in the ongoing blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]

by Molly Howes

I can’t take exception to Michelle Seaton’s recent encouragement in the Grub Street blog to submit and submit again. [See here and here.]

Obviously good advice, her recommendations come from a helpful urge and knowledge of how to succeed in the writing business. But I can tell you that rejection sucks. I can tell you that some rejections suck more than others. And I can tell you that they also add up, creating a cumulative “I suck” conclusion that’s impossible to ignore.

I am a compulsively obedient student, learning from my excellent Grub Street teachers and following their advice. I write and revise and seek critique and submit. And submit. And submit again. Having lots of pieces out makes it easier when each rejection comes in, I’ll grant you that. The possibility of the next one getting a better response feeds my hope-junkie craving just enough to keep me going.

Today I am actively resisting the urge to count my rejections. I used to count my submissions, because they reassured me that I was doing something potentially effective. But if I know the number of people who have rejected me (some of them more than once, so they count as more than one rejection) I’m afraid the metaphorical pile will topple and suffocate me. I am tempted to count them today, to add up the degree to which I’ve been rejected by the world, because I feel awful and – what? need to feel more awful?

I had been on a long, productive roll, generating material and seeking publishing opportunities like the secret lover finally freed to pursue my beloved (thank you, Michelle, for that idea of an approach to writing). Then, two weeks ago, I received an encouraging response from an anthology for which I’d written a long personal memoir piece. I was among the finalists and would hear by March 31st. My reaction may suggest a good corollary to the recommendation to submit material. I got hopeful. I looked forward to the next email. I even got confident, thinking about how well my story fit the book’s purpose. Then, I made the unfortunate mistake of getting attached to the outcome: I fantasized listing the publication in future pitch letters. I pictured my piece being introduced as part of an anthology when I read it aloud – from the book itself – at the fall Literary Firsts reading. I didn’t imagine an agent calling me to ask if this writing was representative of my book, but I would have, if I’d had any more time.

You can probably guess that the very nice, encouraging email I received on the 31st was not an acceptance.

Since then, I’ve tumbled into a dark, discouraged place. My usual emotional rhythm includes rallying after a while, so I know I won’t stay here. But I really don’t know what I will do about future submissions. Is there a certain amount of rejection that equals a message from the Universe? Does my number (large but as yet only estimated) equal that amount? Maybe I should listen to all these “No”s and get the point that trying to get published is not where I should devote my energy. I’m not ready to give up on my book and I know shorter publications are important for building my platform, but at the moment the only interest I have in a platform is jumping off one.

Maybe the lesson I should be learning from this crummy feeling is not “Don’t submit"; it’s “Don’t care about the outcome.” I’m not sure there’s a Zen-enough, non-attachment posture to be found here, though. Maybe the lesson is “Keep submitting. You’re close!” which sounds like even more throwing my heart out there to be rejected. Maybe the lesson I will choose to get from this experience is “Focus on the central, deep story you meant to write, not all this marketplace striving.” That sounds more feasible.

My next line of thought is the recognition that this deep disappointment is a familiar contour of feeling. In some lights, you could see my life as a long series of accommodations to disappointment. (Maybe everyone’s is, to one extent or another.) Because this hope-to-despair, followed by find-some-new-hope sequence is a central theme in my childhood memoir, I find myself with the writerly thought: Maybe I can use this suffering. Maybe this experience of rejection can illuminate some of those moments of misery I’m having a hard time capturing in my book.

At the very least, these musings provided the material for today’s blog post.

Molly Howes is a relatively seasoned person but a relatively new writer. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times “Modern Love” column and the Boston Globe Magazine “Coupling” column. 

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