stray thoughts, writing
comments 14

Dear Sarah

Lone rose

This week I made my first submission. This week I also received my first rejection. It snuck into my inbox while I was upstairs bathing children.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my working life. A succession of jobs that involved writing in one form or another, but didn’t involve my name. I’ve worked for an MP and ghostwritten articles & speeches. I’ve worked for an organisation where everything I wrote reflected the views of its eminent Fellows and was phrased in the first person plural. I’ve worked in a Government department where my words and phrases were put into the mouths of Ministers and printed in glossy policy documents, but my own name was invisible. In all these places (with the exception of the MP), there have been layers of sign-off; a hierarchy of people modifying or agreeing with my words and approving their release into the world.

And, for the most part, I found that frustrating. But now, I also think that these were the jobs I chose. The places I felt comfortable. The positions where I could play with the words, but the words weren’t traceable to me. Where the responsibility for all those words in the world wasn’t my own.

The rejection began, ‘Dear Sarah’. It named my submission and then there was a standard no. But I didn’t feel disheartened; I felt seen. The rejection is evidence. That I shaped something, and finished something, and revised something, and made it the very best that I could at this point. That I submitted something. That I attached my name & my heart to my words and sent them out into the world myself to see what they could become. Someone has typed in my name & the name of my essay! Someone has read my words and considered them (however briefly)! I like that. And I like the evidence of that, nestled in my inbox.

*

I think I’ve mentioned Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor before. It’s so useful that I wish I could keep it to myself. I love it because it blends the practical and the inspirational; because Long makes it clear that the work is demanding and never-ending, but this simply means you’d better start right now & work as productively as possible. ‘Nothing here is offered in the spirit of an academic exercise. Who among us has time to waste?’ she asks. Here she is on the submission strategy she devised when she first started trying to get a poem published,

“My plan was to energetically accumulate 500 rejections by sending out that many envelopes as intelligently as I could (“intelligent” means, read the journal before you send the poems). I wanted the number to be a large number, because I wanted time and I wanted room and I didn’t want to fail. With this setup, a rejection wasn’t a failure; it was progress toward the goal.

So what happened? It took me several months, and 70 rejections before I received an acceptance. That acceptance was one of the thrilling moments of my life.

I have no idea what made me think of that strategy, but years later I am still impressed by it. It reduces the weight of any one rejection and it requires the writer to send out lots and lots of envelopes.”

*

Finally, I keep thinking of this electrifying piece by Michelle Dean in The Toast (via Jessica Stanley’s Read, Look, Think, where I find all manner of wonderful things). To start with because Dean’s experience of ‘success’ is so terrifyingly not what you might imagine: ‘Things started going wrong at the same time they started going right. I sold a book. I suddenly had a second career not just in theory but in fact. And all at once, overnight, the bottom fell out of my mind.’ But mostly, mostly for this:

I was not an early bloomer. It took me too long to figure out for myself that I had something to say. I was a good kid and a good student and what I knew, primarily, was praise. How to find it, how to get it, how to do it without committing any kind of error. You can’t be a writer like that. Not even oh-god-doesn’t-everyone-love-her Zadie Smith is a writer like that. There are mistakes of form and mistakes of content to be made in building a body of work. And for most of my life, I was unwilling to make a single one of them.

I don’t want to be unwilling to make mistakes any more. Who among us has time to waste? Who can afford not to act at all for fear of making an error? I recognise in myself a tendency, a talent almost, for succeeding at things that I don’t really care about. And, its corollary, a tendency to avoid trying the things that I want more than anything. So, another 499 rejections to go.

14 Comments

  1. Dear Sarah,
    Congratulations on your first rejection, and here’s to many more! I love your perspective on this experience. I used the same technique as Priscilla Long when I was learning to ski: I set a goal of falling down 100 times. It was amazing to me how that goal transformed my fear of falling into enthusiastically embracing falling. I also appreciate your insight into why until recently you chose to work on words that didn’t have your name attached. I’m glad you’re ready now to put your own words out into the world. I enjoy reading them, and I want to tell you something a friend told me the other day: you may not always be aware who’s reading your words, but I assure you you’re not spitting in the wind.
    Carry on!
    Leslie

  2. How exciting, Sarah! I’ve been wondering whether you would send (or, indeed, were sending) any of your babies out into the world. I know it’s an over-used metaphor but these words, these little pieces of oneself, are somehow akin to babies. And, as with the flesh and blood ones, someone acknowledging their existence, even if (for now!) it’s with a “thank you but no thank you”, has the knack of pushing the weirdly unreal into the everyday – which is only a good thing when it comes to the submissions treadmill.

    Oh, and you’ve just given yourself a reason for reading Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Look for the part about his rejection spike and take heart!

    • Thanks, Louise. I really like what you say about pushing the unreal into the everyday — just the sight of my title in an email felt strange but good, & made me wonder why I’d never tried before. And, yes, you’re right, I’ll have to read Stephen King!

      On 5 December 2014 at 18:05, edge of evening wrote:

      >

  3. kerryclare says

    “The rejection is evidence.” This is beautiful. You’re a remarkable writer. Keep on.

  4. “So, another 499 rejections to go.” Or not! It’s And it’s never easy but it’s also never predictable. Kerry’s right: you’re a remarkable writer already.

    • Theresa, you’re another person whose words made such a difference to me earlier in the year when everything seemed impossible. Thank you. And now it looks like I’ve got a ready-made accountability group to ensure that I at least do the work (and send it out there!).

    • Thanks, Rachael. I’m glad to have found yours too. And, yes, it’s lovely to find people to share the journey with. Here’s to continuing to try. (And, of course, it wasn’t all smiles: there was moment in the night of thinking — oh they don’t want me, no-one ever will, I might as well stop now etc etc. But then I remembered how much I enjoyed writing that essay. How pleased I felt when it came together in that certain way. There are certainly pleasures along the way.)

  5. I always feel like I’m listening to my own thoughts when I’m reading you. Keep writing, keep submitting; the world should hear your words.

  6. Thank you for sharing this technique! Accumulating rejections as a goal! How brilliant! If anything, it would encourage me to send out a lot more work a lot more frequently. At my current rate, it would take me some 80–100 years to receive 500 rejections (and not because I’m receiving tons of acceptances . . .). Best wishes to you!

    • Rachael, you’ve made me smile so much with your 80-100 years. It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it, just working at accumulating the rejections. Finding that balance between sending work into the world when it’s ready & the best it can be, but not waiting forever for a perfect that may never be. Priscilla Long also makes the point that often when she comes to revise something in order to submit it she finds that it’s far closer to completion than she realised. From there she suggests that not finishing things is simply a bad work habit. It’s definitely true that I have far more unfinished things than finished…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *