On the 18th of November, The Millions posted a discussion of the nuances of the rejection letter, and it is full of helpful and reassuring advice. That article is not the first of its kind and it surely won’t be the last; rejection is so much a part of writing, such a difficult and necessary part—even after a decade of sending work out into the world and hearing “no” far more often than “yes,” it’s still comforting to read about similar experiences. It’s also necessary to remind myself that the “no” can be its own kindness.
Like many of the stories about my writing life, this one begins in a classroom at Lycoming College, in a fiction class with my mentor, G. W. Hawkes.
I was nineteen, and I drafted a story, “Dreamfish,” that was nineteen pages long, and they were, at the time, the best pages I had ever written. What was striking about that was that I knew. It was the first time I’d really felt my writing in my bones.
The class workshop bore that out: the feedback from my peers was roundly positive. I went to my individual conference with Dr. Hawkes, and he was more pointedly effusive than my classmates, which was a first. Dr. Hawkes is a man of few words, an advocate of reading and writing far more than an advocate of talking about either, and so that meant something, too. I’d written a story worth talking about. For ten minutes, I was so happy, but writing is work, and I had work to do: at the end of our talk, Dr. Hawkes tore the top thirteen pages from the manuscript and gave me back what remained. That was where the story began, and the ending, of course, was not the ending.
Now I have stories I’ve been working on for years, but then, all of those brief, early morning meetings, across two separate semesters, of going over a draft and hearing “not there yet” were crushing, and each one more so. Dr. Hawkes refused to tell me how to fix the piece, too, and there were times when I wished he would. I was so sick of hearing “no,” and I simply wanted to be done with the story, even if it wasn’t finished. My one saving grace was that I was too ashamed of the feeling to say that to my mentor, so I just kept rewriting.
Finally, somewhere in early spring, the story came together, and Dr. Hawkes encouraged me to submit it for publication. He told me to aim high. He said, “Send this to The Atlantic.”
At the time, I knew that was a lofty aim, but it would take years for me to quite understand how lofty. I spent ages proofreading and on the two-sentence cover letter, which Dr. Hawkes did direct: keep it short, keep it simple, and say that G. W. Hawkes had suggested I send the work there. And then I addressed the envelope, SASE inside, to C. Michael Curtis, Senior Editor, The Atlantic.
The story didn’t get into The Atlantic. This is not that fairytale.
The rejection letter, though, was kind. It was personalized, explaining briefly what the editor found admirable in the work, but also why it wasn’t quite right for The Atlantic. Curtis signed it himself.
The longer I write—the deeper the stack of rejections I receive—the more I recognize this moment for the gift that it was. I don’t know that “Dreamfish” was ever on the cusp of being accepted by The Atlantic, but, at the time, it felt like it. That piece of paper and its few words made sending the story out again easier. If what I received in the mail was what rejection was—the real, professional kind—I could accept that. Rather than hearing simply “no,” I could find my way to hearing “not yet” instead, as I had in that year of revision.
The next place I sent the story, Gray’s Sporting Journal, was, for reasons personal and familial, more intimidating than The Atlantic: though I hadn’t grown up in an expressly “literary” household, my widely read outdoorsman father had been a Gray’s subscriber since the magazine’s inception. Beside the stunning photo essays and advertisements for guided fishing trips that cost more than my car, Gray’s ran thematically tied literary fiction. My story was about fly-fishing, and again, I was encouraged to think big. The worst that could happen was that Gray’s would say no, and I’d already survived that.
Gray’s didn’t say no, but Gray’s is also a lovely, glossy magazine where space is at a premium. I needed to cut the story by nearly three pages, and the managing editor put that task into my hands. I trimmed and tweaked and bemoaned the loss of my darlings, and then I saw that I didn’t miss them. What was left was better, stronger, clearer, and in the dim winter light of the following January, the 2004 February/March issue of the magazine arrived. To this day, it is the only piece of my work that has arrived organically in my family’s hands: there my father’s beloved magazine, there his daughter’s fiction.
“Dreamfish” might not have been the most difficult writing task I’ve faced since, but because of where and when that story and its story happened, everything else has been possible. The thirteen pages Dr. Hawkes popped from the original draft showed me that the well of words does not run dry. I need never fear cutting what’s necessary—the writing is better for it—and every one of those not-there-yet conversations impressed upon me the importance of waiting until a story is truly ready to go out into the world. Writing well is not about flattering anyone, and I am grateful to have a mentor who absolutely refused to do so. When he praised something I wrote, it was because he meant it, and in a field as full of doubt (from outside and inside) as writing, to know I could have complete confidence in just that much has made a difference.
Since then, of course, the number of rejections I’ve received has vastly outweighed the number of acceptances. Writers often cry “it’s who you know!” in the publishing game, and I’m guilty of it, too, on my worst days, but we all know some other writer, and we all know some other writer who is struggling. No matter that including “G.W. sent me” in that original cover letter—my teacher knew someone and helped me use that to my advantage—might even confirm one part of the stereotype, there’s less, and better, in the gesture than cronyism: the connection did not get me a publication in The Atlantic. I haven’t even sent a story there since. That connection, though, did result in a minor, invaluable kindness and a measure of confidence and resilience on which I still lean, no matter that it looked, from the outside, like another simple no.