Thick Writerly Skin

You know your panel is awesome is Jan Seale attends. Thanks, Octavio Quintanilla, for the photo!

My 2012 goal was to amass 100 rejection letters? Well, I'm not there yet. But! There is SOME good coming out of my rejection mission.

This past Saturday, the Texas Association of Creative Writing Teachers held their annual conference at UTPA. I was invited to talk on a panel and share how I survived and thrived in an MFA program. I gave tips on how to grow that thick writerly skin -- you know, that thin layer of awesomeness that comes between me and chronic depression? Yep. That nifty stuff X-D

Anyway -- I thought up four tips:

1.       Understand that all writers get rejections, whether they talk about them or not.

Why is there such a stigma behind talking about your rejection letters? As writers, we all get them. It’s like farting. We all do it. We just don’t talk about it.
But rejection is a healthy and natural part of our lives as writers. I’m trying to do my part to break this little stigma, and it’s helping me see rejection in a healthier way.
You see, at the end of the year last year, a writer friend of mine decided to post her acceptance/rejection stats on Facebook. At first  I was really shocked – how… dirty!  But then I thought about it – why did I think it was dirty? I went home, counted up my stats, and posted them alongside hers. It inspired others to do the same! Albeit, my stats were probably the most ridiculous of the bunch (I’m a serial submitter, guilty as charged), but it still felt good to see I wasn’t the only poet getting rejection letters.

So I decided to take the next step. This year, 2012, I decided to do a blog series on rejection letters and have my readers follow along on my quest to amass 100 rejection letters. The main reason behind doing this was to help ME celebrate each rejection and to keep submitting. I have a little counter on my blog, which I update every time I receive a letter. So now, I get a little excited every time I get a rejection letter, because at the very least, I’m working towards this lofty and ambitious goal.

Plus, even the so-called-greats get rejections. Billy Collins was rejected from Poetry the first time he submitted. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was turned down numerous times by publishers. Here’s one that was posted on Harriet the Blog:

Final rejection:

This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Plath any good service by offering it to the American public. The heroine of the book lacks depth, sensitivity and self-knowledge — she is, in short, a rather naif prig — and thus the reader can hardly be expected to become deeply concerned with the girl’s struggle with insanity. Moreover, the author fails to make clear the psychological motives behind the heroine’s plunge into madness.— Her boyfriend is a “drip”; and she’s frustrated at not being admitted to an Advanced Writing course at college … but these are hardly grounds for suicide. Or if they are, they are hardly interesting grounds.

2.       Understand that rejection ISN’T personal.

Editors get a zillion pieces. A zillion GOOD pieces. And naturally, not all of them are going to fit into a journal. I’ve come to understand that a no from an editor doesn’t mean a “no” to me as a poet or human being. Instead, it means just that – “no” to these particular poems at this particular time for this particular venue. That’s all it means. And once I figured that out, all of the sudden, rejection is very small. 

3.       When rejection IS personal, that’s a good thing! (Here, talk about the different tiers)

As poets and writers, we’re some of the few people who SHOULD celebrate our near hits. Have you all ever heard of “tiered rejections?” It exists! They even have a wiki for it. 
Most of my rejection letters are those typical form slips, “Thanks for submitting, unfortunately these poems aren’t a good fit. Sorry we can’t respond personally” etc etc. But once in awhile I’ll get a personal note that encourages me to submit again (which I do!), and once in awhile I’ll even get an encouraging note about why editor liked poem x, and then there’s the most golden of all rejections – the critique! I’ve only gotten one of those, and instead of being sad about the rejection, I rejoiced that an uber busy editor found my poem worthy of spending time giving feedback on. 

4.       Understand what happens on the other side of the desk

For the past year and a half, I’ve become an editor myself. I’ve learned that even poems that I love might not make it into the magazine, because we receive so many. I edit for Fifth Wednesday Journal. We accept less than 1% of the poems we receive. And we’re certainly not the most competitive magazine out there! So editing helps me see the process in perspective. Whenever I can, I try to include encouraging notes to submitters, but sometimes I’m in a hurry and just don’t have the time.

Anyway --
The panel was a success! Other participants included Myra Infante, author of Combustible Sinners, Brian Carr, author of Vampire Conditions, Andrew Hollinger, a fellow lecturer at UTPA, and Robert Moreira, another lecturer at UTPA. And yes, Jan Seale, Texas Poet Laureate, was in attendance. I was nervous and giddy, but I'm always nervous and giddy. It's kind of becoming my MO.

I've got lots of exciting writer news to share, but it'll have to be for another blog post.