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.