Monday, May 11, 2009

Moving an editor with your words

Laura Van Den Berg, writer and assistant editor of the online journal Memorious, has writen an excellent essay about publishing in literary magazines, The Effort Pays Off, in The Review Review, an online review of literary journals (which is new to me but seems a wonderful resource that I must read more). Her essay spoke to me so much that I feel compelled to quote from it here.

After talking about her despondency at the many rejections she received early on in her writing career, Laura says:
...when I began working for a notable literary magazine as a graduate student, it was still sobering to realize how utterly insignificant the individual submitter is. This is not to say the staff didn’t work hard to treat each submission with the basic level of respect that any reputable journal would, but when editors and readers are dealing with thousands upon thousands of submissions, each writer is, quite literally, just another number. After a few months of employment, I felt incredibly foolish for ever taking a rejection personally. I learned that rejection, as practically any editor will tell you, is rarely personal—because, in all likelihood, the editor simply has no idea who you are. I learned that I was a single fish in a sea of millions, a blip on the screen. I learned that no one cares whether I keep writing or not....
However, this didn't bring her down:
Such lessons were at first humbling, then a little depressing, and then oddly empowering. Empowering in that they made me work harder. ... I kept submitting, but I treated it like an office job—something I did a few hours a week, a completely separate entity from my fiction. I sent out stories knowing that my submission might get lost behind an editor’s filing cabinet, never to be seen again, or be rejected on sight because a reader just hated that first sentence I loved so much. As someone who has a tendency to spend too much time looking outwards for validation, I learned that if I kept relying on external praise to keep me motivated, my writing was bound to suffer terribly. I had to learn to look inward. I had to care enough, and believe in myself enough, to make up for all the people who didn’t
Many writers never learn this lesson, that rejection isn't personal, it is not an editor taking against you. It is that the editor has a sea, an ocean of submissions, of stories, of pages or screens full of words. And that you didn't catch this editor's eye, for whatever reason, on that day, at that time, for that issue, for the theme, the look the editor was going for.

But when it does happen, Laura sums it up beautifully, and, for me, very movingly:
If you are accepted, you’ll know that an editor has been moved, by the power of your words, to care. That you have gone from submission # 935 to a writer of interest and merit. That you have made a passionate connection with a single reader. That with publication, you will likely make more passionate connections with more readers.
Yes. That's it. And when it happens, once in every 30 rejections, 50 rejections, how wondrous and joyful it is, to know that you made that connection. That connection with that one editor for that one particular publication on that day. Not because of who you are, where you have published. But because of the words you arranged on the page, in a way that only you can do.

But - while publication brings you an audience, brings you readers, won't ever make up for your own sense of self-belief, of confidence in your own writing. It can help, but you gotta love yourself, you've got to do it because you love what you are doing, not in the hope that someone, somewhere, will love it for you. Read Laura's full essay here.


Helena Halme said...

Thank you for this Tania, very timely for me. I wrote a personal account about this just a few days ago.
Helena x

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good piece, Tania. There's little else as soul-destroying as endless rejections. One of the first stories I submitted did very well, so I, naively, supposed this was how it'd be. Of course, it wasn't. You have to accept a strike-rate of one in thirty, yes, or worse. That's good going.

I've also read / short-listed for a competition, getting through some 500 stories. Once the weak and ordinary have been discounted, you're left with good, very good and exceptional stories. Obviously, it's the last group that winners come from. It made me realise that 'very good' stories are rejected.

Tania Hershman said...

Helena, rejection of a whole manuscript is much harder to try not to take personally, good luck!

Tom, excellent point and one worth mentioning again and again. "Good" and "very good" will go far, even if it's "exceptional" that wins. And one person's "exceptional" is another's "very good". Ok, getting a bit tangled here, but you see whta I mean!

Nik Perring said...

Brilliant. And absolutely true.


annie clarkson said...

Great thoughts here, thanks for guiding us to this...

Sarah Salway said...

Great piece - yes, got to love yourself, but to keep remembering its process not product. We're not machines!