Don’t get it twisted, much as we joke and share, for a writer, every rejection leaves you gutted. Seriously, like someone reached their hands inside, and carelessly grabbed a handful of you and tugged hard until you bleed out. If a letter of acceptance is affirmation then rejection is the flipside, a reminder that you’re just.not.good.enough. Now either you believe it and put your pen down for good or you pick it up again and pick your way across the page until you find some kind of rhythm again. Then you’ll submit again – to journals, contests, agents, publishers – and be rejected again, and again, and again, and again. And it’s a special kind of humbling when that rejection comes after you’ve had some small breakthrough, allowed yourself some hope that you’re no longer on the outside with your breath fogging up the glass. The point is, you never get used to it, not really, but you find ways to cope. I keep working, keep writing. Thankfully I’ve usually got a project or client deadline, so limited time to dwell; sometimes though I stop and feel it…and it hurts. Sometimes the feeling creeps up uninvited, unwanted, and in those moments I have no choice but to let myself feel it, and then use the pen to dig me out ; keep working, keep writing, keep working it out (working on craft, flexing those muscles, growing as a writer).
It always comes back to the story.
And for all the ways it can gut you, the thing I repeatedly re-learn in this writing game is that while you must be open to learning from every let down, sometimes a rejection just means it’s not the story’s time. Crushing as it can be, it is not the first and last word on your quality as a writer or even the worthiness of the story to exist. That’s right, that story may still have legs. Sometimes as you’re busily fixing the rejected story you may receive word that it’s been accepted elsewhere. It happens. Sometimes it’s a case of right story, right opportunity, right time.
And sometimes the story needs more work.
2013 makes two years in a row that I’ve been short listed for the Small Axe literary prize…not a rejection but not the win I’d hoped for…something that just makes me more determined to try again. But the other telling thing is both of the short listed stories were previously rejected (no shortlist) by another literary contest; so making the Small Axe short list was a win in that sense (squint and you can see the upside, right?). One of those stories, the one making the 2012 short list has since been extensively workshopped and redrafted, sent out for feedback and edited, reshaped in the end into something still true to itself but also better crafted, I think. I’m almost ready to publish it.
Then there is this year’s short listed piece, Amelia. Amelia was similarly submitted to that other contest before being reviewed, revised and sent out again, this time for consideration for the Small Axe prize. I’m disappointed that it didn’t win, of course; kudos for that goes to Ruel Johnson, who is having an amazing year with wins at the Guyana Lit Prize as well. When this week’s email informed me that I’d been short listed, I didn’t feel as let down as I usually might. That had something to do with three things: I was happy for Ruel; it’s still pretty cool to be one of the submissions singled out for the short list; and perhaps most importantly I’d not that long ago been approached for Amelia’s inclusion in a publication set for release in 2014. That publication is set to feature “short stories culled from the very best entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.”
Moral of the story: it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.