Depersonalizing Rejection

On the website of the literary fiction journal Glimmer Train, prolific novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde shares some helpful thoughts about not reading too much into those inevitable rejection slips.

Hyde writes, “I think the most damaging misconception about rejection is that your work has been judged as ‘bad.’ You feel insulted. You feel you’ve been told you’re not good enough for that publication. But in reality, you don’t know how it was received. You were not present behind the scenes to know.”

Taste is subjective, she cautions, and in publications with limited space, the difference between acceptance and rejection may come down to an editor’s quirky personal connection with the piece, or whether it diversifies the mix of already-accepted work for that issue. “It’s hard to quantify why we fall in love with a piece of writing. I do know this: If we dated someone who didn’t fall in love with us, most of us would not conclude we were unlovable. We’d assume others might feel differently.”

As a contest judge myself, I think Hyde describes the editorial process very well. Poems that didn’t make the shortlist one year have been resubmitted and won prizes in our contest later, mainly because they were competing against a different group of finalists.

The experience described below was also familiar to me, but I don’t think I’d draw the same conclusions from it:

Just about every one of my rejected stories has gone on to be published. Without further revision. Some were rejected a handful of times. Others garnered over 50 rejections before finding a home.

Here’s what I learned, and I wish I had understood it earlier: The more I like it, the more likely I am to have trouble finding a home for it. Who knows why? But it shows that my own perspective on my work doesn’t tell me enough. And if I rewrite it because an editor says the ending is too ‘resolution evasive’ (yes, I really have been told that—I couldn’t make a thing like that up), that editor probably still won’t take it, and the next one will say the ending wraps up too neatly. (If our dates don’t fall in love with us, we don’t keep changing ourselves until they do. Well, hopefully we don’t.)”

Like Hyde, I have some favorite stories and poems that have not yet found a home, while others that seem less innovative to me have been snapped up more quickly. Perhaps editorial subjectivity is most at work when we are sending out writing that is closest to the core of our unique selves. Rather than conclude that “my own perspective on my work doesn’t tell me enough,” I am most wary of rejection-inspired revisions when it comes to these special pieces, because this is where I’m most vulnerable to conflating my work and my life, and am therefore tempted to be untrue to my artistic vision in order to feel accepted. Hyde seems to reach the same perspective by the end of the paragraph, so I’m not sure what she means by that one sentence.

Read the whole article here.

M. Lee Alexander: Poems from “Observatory”

I’ve recently finished M. Lee Alexander’s poetry chapbook Observatory, published last year by Finishing Line Press, and found it to be an insightful and enjoyable book. Clear-sighted, modest and wise, the narrator of these poems takes us to London, China, Japan, and post-Katrina New Orleans, always with an eye for the moments of common humanity that open up intimacy between strangers. Below are two of my favorite poems from this collection, reprinted by permission.

Dress Rehearsal

Theatre in the Round

My father dyed
his hair red for the Claudius Play
(or so I called it, wanting him
to be the star–till mom told me
he was a bad guy–then I cried
and called it Hamlet). He would
come home from rehearsal

orange-headed, my father and yet not
my father, almost like a clown I watched
him practice falling. We went to see
the make-up place before the play where
mom said, It’s OK, the knives aren’t real,
but my father reaching for his rust-stained 
dropped the stageprop dagger, and 
    his toe bled.

I got to stay up late that night,
look down through shining dark
to watch Claudius rolling over,
my father and not my father
on the wooden O stage below.
His crown slipped down
and his head lay bare and still.

Now flying from Orly into O’Hare, where
the river’s dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day
and the stores are full of Shamrock hats,
I’ve been called home to the funeral 
too late to watch Claudius rolling over,
my father and not my father,
his hair not even gray.


Thrift Store Elephants

Seeking a mystery for my journey
in the thrift store next to Union Station,
passing rows of bric-a-brac I saw scattered
an army of elephants, someone’s precious
collection, the alabaster white-jade figurine
the first to catch my eye, then the teakwood
one with broken tusk, and on another shelf
a plastic Dumbo, porcelain calf and mother
touching trunks, a Babar figurine, one cruelly
carved of ivory, all cast about the shelves
among the candles, mugs, and shards of 
    former lives.

Hard to think of a happy reason for their 
unlike children’s clothes and toys outgrown–
someone labored years to assemble this herd
and would unlikely give it up without a fight.
I began examining each one in turn, wondering
had been the first, the last, or the most beloved,
which the souvenir from the trip of a lifetime.
The clerk passed, saw me handling them, said
    Those came
from our Hospice box, we get some lovely things
    from there.

I longed to take them home to a place of honor,
somehow let their donor know they’d been
but knew a dozen fragile ornaments to be 
    a foolish
addition to a traveler’s pack. Yet strewn across
    the aisles
hated to think of them going one by one to
    different homes,
maybe gathering dust for years, so I collected 
    them again,
cleared a broad space on a lower ledge and set
    them in
a festive circle tail to trunk, found nearby a carousel
box and placed it in the middle, wound it up, in hopes
the circus animal parade might catch some younger eye,
a child might bring them home as newfound treasures,
maybe start a new collection round them, finding
    joy as
their first owner had by adding to their numbers by year.

Then forgot all about the elephants until I returned
from my trip a few weeks later, stopped in and saw
they’d gone, music box too. Hoped they went together
or at least in groups. On the way out saw the
bull tossed into a box of rags, took him home and named
him Hannibal, because he’d borne a war upon his back.