In the late 1990s, I wrote a short story—my first ever—and submitted it to The New Yorker. It was a really amazing piece of fiction, one that reflected dozens of minutes of toil and revision. I do not remember the plot (which suggests there was none) except for one detail: the female character sits on a therapist’s couch, and, wrapped in a blanket like a burrito, floats into the air and–poof!–vanishes.
I am certain this 7,000-word work of art was roughly 7,000 words too long.
More than fifteen years later, I see how many things were wrong with that experience. First, the piece was a piece of garbage. I did not know how to write a story, and I had no one guiding me through the process. I should have sought advice from someone, if not another writer, than at least a friendly barista or the wine guy with the radio voice at the Safeway where I buy cheap Riesling.
Wrong thing #2: I had the gall to submit to The New Yorker. Sure, I had read The New Yorker, usually while waiting for my dental appointments, usually looking at the pretty cover or the cartoons because the stories were, well, a little uppity in my opinion. Perhaps I thought that the inclusion of my story would endear me to the other works of fiction. But certainly, even if my story had been an actual work of art, I was not familiar enough with the publication to know whether it would be a good fit.
These days I am a better writer with a better understanding of story structure, and yes, I carry around suitcases of humility. I have given up trying to like The New Yorker’s fiction and instead peruse People while waiting for my dental checkups. And when I submit an essay or a story, a grant proposal or retreat application, I do so in a much smarter way.
In 2015, I (someone who lives with bipolar disorder 2) got involved in an organization with this goal: reduce the stigma of mental illness by sharing our stories and serving as a resource to others with mental health conditions. With this in mind, I wrote an essay about mental illness in a marriage. Once again I aimed high, and after much revision based on my critique partners’ feedback, I sent the essay to The New York Times. Seven weeks later I received a form letter rejection from the editor: Dear Sarah Callender . . .
A form letter rejection feels crummy. And submitting smartly doesn’t eliminate the possibility of rejection.
After receiving the form letter rejection, I threw a fifteen-minute pity party, then told my puppy I loved him about fifty times. He wagged and replied fifty-one times that he loved me back, and I started researching other places where I could send the piece. After all, it’s the first rejection that’s the hardest. And the second and the third and the fiftieth, and honestly if one more well-intentioned, kindhearted person tells me how many rejections Rowling had before Harry Potter was acquired, I might shriek. She had her manuscript rejected twelve times. Twelve. Big whoop.
But rejection forces me to consider and reconsider just how badly I want to be an author. It tests my mettle and keeps me improving my craft. It reminds me of the importance of knightly (and daily) chain mail. Although this mental illness essay experience had the same result as the vanishing-burrito fiasco, I had gone about writing and submitting it in a very different way. And I felt good about that.
I’d love to share what I have learned about submitting essays, op-eds, short fiction and grant applications. [Read more…]