On Submitting, and Hoping Yourself To Shreds

Since I began submitting stories and essays to literary journals four years ago, I’ve felt scattered.  

I’m not talking “scatterbrained,” though I often forget my keys, and I’ve mis-loaded the coffeemaker and flooded the countertop more than once.  I mean something more existential, a feeling that because my writing is pending judgment in places around the country—sandwiched in two-foot stacks of manuscripts on editors’ desks, passing under the skimming eyes of undergrad readers, languishing in bloated Submittable queues—my identity, to some extent, is also tied up in those places, parceled out and spread paper-thin, too contingent on factors beyond my reach and influence.

I suspect it’s this way for all actively submitting writers:  we are always here and there, and there, and there.  We are talking to you, making polite and (hopefully) witty conversation, while the anxiety centers in our brains are honed in on other locations, wondering if our essay has arrived safely at the offices of Old Prestigious Monthly, or what it means that Big Enchilada Review still has our story after eight months (Likely answer: nothing).  

At any time, pieces of who I am as a writer are awaiting their fate in New York or DC, various Midwestern college towns, central PA, even backwoods Oregon.  My writing has seen more of America than I have and probably ever will.  

I don’t mean to overdramatize this—my writing is not me, any more than the scratch pumpkin pie I brought to Thanksgiving dinner last year was me (my pies, almost without exception, generate more fuss and praise than my writing).  But still, the stakes are high, and personal.  No one else could have written those pages, no one cares quite as much about them, and no one else will receive the fusillade of polite, abrupt “no thank yous” in his inbox, that weekly and sometimes daily echo of pass pass pass, for this particular batch of essays or stories.        

But then, the next email might be the one:  the big acceptance that opens the floodgates of the publishing world and changes the course of my writing life forever.  Maybe it’s only a matter of time.

Maybe.  Or maybe not.

I imagine my active submissions as a glowing map, like the view from a plane at night.  As rejections roll in, it’s like watching lights of cities go dark, one by one.  Again, I overdramatize.

But it does feel dramatic, doesn’t it?  The emotional toll of lobbing your best efforts into the world, hoping they might stick somewhere, knowing most of the time they won’t.  

On a lot of days, this is just an undercurrent, a dull pulse of hope or disappointment as I power through another bakery shift or watch X-Files episodes and sip beers with my girlfriend.  Other days, it feels like everything, a matter of writer-life or writer-death, and I guess this is the problem.  If the vast majority of the work I write and submit, and revise, and submit again, never lands anywhere, can I accept that?  Or at least tolerate it, without bitterness?  If all my efforts amount to a gigabyte of unpublished Word files, and nothing more, will I manage to suck it up, and find solace in being the sort of writer that almost all writers are: the struggling, unpaid, invisible kind, who feel consistently discouraged and yet keep going because the thought of not writing is worse?

In short, will I be happy with myself for having written at all?

I hope so.  It’s a bad prospect when your best pursuit, the thing that most makes you you, threatens to reduce you to the smallest and pettiest version of yourself.  Maybe this effect is inevitable for artists—the price of aiming high, striving beyond our current abilities toward a mark we’re likely to miss.  The cost of reaching.  It’s a recipe for unavoidable frustration (and possible despair, which is just frustration left alone for too long). 

But as artistic people we know what we are getting ourselves into, right?  All we can do is try to indulge the negative feelings less, minimize the fallout.     

And while I wait, and keep writing, I can cultivate the voice in my head that knows better.  Not the hopeful voice (see “recipe for frustration,” above).  The calm, resigned one.  The voice of, well, submission—to the long odds of publishing, to the necessity of failing and learning from failure, to the discomfort of living in a state of perpetual uncertainty, which, if we’re being honest, is everyone’s lot no matter what they’re doing.

But it’s not all so depressing.  That same voice also reminds me that once it’s sent out, once I’ve polished it as well as I can, my work has its own life, apart from me.  It is there.  And there and there.  And I am here, in this chair at my desk in Boston.  There is coffee in my mug.  It’s a quiet day, not too warm, and words are sticking to the page.  Right here, it tells me.  Stay put.

About the Author

Dorian Fox’s essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in December Magazine (as Honorable Mention in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Awards for Nonfiction), Under the Gum TreeGastronomicaAlimentumMonkeybicycle, Bright Lights Film Journal, and others. His work has also been shortlisted for awards by PloughsharesPhoebe and Bellingham Review. He received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College and has lived and worked in Boston for many years.

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Literary Magazines

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Publishing

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