Essay Saturday: Rejection Letters and Brutal Honesty

Essay Saturday: Rejection Letters and Brutal Honesty
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Rejection Letters

“Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give A Shit”

Rejections come at night. When you’ve had a good day, sitting down to watch a good film, you get an e-mail and it’s that literary magazine letting you know that, sadly, they won’t be accepting your story for publication but best of luck and, perhaps, submit them something else in the future. Rejections. Rejections come at night.

Some of my other writer – or dabble-writer – friends don’t send their work out, they want their work to be perfect – “there is no such thing as perfection” – and they also aren’t sure where to send it. Some of my other friends – me included – send their work out continuously. I keep track of each story by sticking scraps of paper on the wall. Some stories, poems or essays that I finish don’t go out, they sit in a drawer for weeks, months, years.

I recently finished re-writing a story from two years ago and, after its thirty-first draft I shot it out to the plagued literary world. The literary magazines, higher-level anthologies, websites, blogs, journals. And then it’s waiting, it’s adding the list to the wall and waiting for the response which I always assume will be a rejection. The scale between acceptance and rejection definitely slants towards the latter.

Sometimes the letters are robotic, automated responses. Others, there’s a human speaking to you, mentioning why they couldn’t accept your work. The idea of the editor – no matter how small the short story magazine/website/blog/journal – is intimidating and the fact that they’re telling you why, explaining to you what you need to do to either make it work or abandon it is something. I looked over a few of them a few minutes before writing this column, barefoot and surrounded by candles. And here are five:

“Half of me loved them and the other half hated them…”

This was sent to me about two stories named ‘Millennium’ and ‘Stuck’. The e-mail began with an explanation of how, mostly, the editors sugar coated things but here the editor thought brutal honesty was needed. In truth, I agreed with him on one of the stories. ‘Millennium’ was self-indulgent, inspired by Hanif Kureishi’s Le-Weekend. ‘Stuck’, however, I disagreed with. I did care about these characters even if he – and a board of others – didn’t. But now it sits in the drawer.

“It’s too upsetting.”

My short story Cremations was a tough story to publish. It was hard, brutal and as honest as I could possibly make it and I needed it to be that way. It didn’t go through a lot of editing, it seemed to be one of those stories – maybe the only one – that didn’t need a lot of care. Before it was published at Storgy Magazine and Longlisted for their prize, it was rejected by three editors. One of which called it “too upsetting”. When I mention that story I always apologise for Hugo, the dog that didn’t make it.

“Jesus mother of fucking bloody Christ on a rubber crutch, what am I supposed to do with this? This isn’t even a rejection…just…what am I supposed to do with this?”

I wrote a story about a young man going to his friend’s house. The young man and his friend leave their door open and a man wearing a mask walks in. A threesome occurs. The young man can’t focus, he’s confused, disgusted perhaps by the idea of the mask. Above all of the emotions, he is curious. Curious about the Masked Man, where he’s come from, who he is. His curiosity gets the better of him and he removes the man’s mask. The story concludes with an odd almost magic realist feel and it happened as randomly as the story came about, a near real experience. The rejection – from a magazine that shall remain nameless – spurned on a series of e-mails between me and the editor. It developed into a conversation – and a column published within these very pages – about pornography and how does one distinguish their work from pornography and literary fiction. It was an interesting exercise, an illuminating one and the editor and I eventually disagreed on matters regarding story changes.

“We’re not particularly interested in poetry that deals with violation.”

AM Homes, one of my favourite living writers, said, “I write the things we don’t want to say out loud.” Her prose, sharp, honest, sometimes brutal and funny, is controversial. I’m not calling myself AM Homes – I wish – nor am I saying my work is “controversial” by Homes’ standards. The poem was about a girl tearing her grandmother’s house made of sweets apart. She was doing it to make her grandmother remember who she is. Her grandmother has dementia and it seems to have been my way of dealing with my grandmother’s dementia. The poem will be part of my first poetry pamphlet, Creation, published with Red Squirrel Press in 2017 but it will be edited. A rejection is subjective but I take note of that.

“There was a lot to like (especially the one about the stained sheets)”

This was a kind rejection I got from a poetry journal about a poem called Sheets. Sometimes the rejections are brutal, sometimes kind, sometimes robotic, I’m not really sure which is best. People tell me, “at least you’re hearing back from them” and I agree. Sometimes, you plunge your story out and you hear nothing, sometimes due to overworked editors or cyber pests. There is something about hearing back, personally, from an editor, it feels as if you’re getting closer even if it’s a no. It’s a no but there’s a reason why it’s a no. One day, when I’m old, I’ll have those rejections hanging in black frames on the wall against a pile of books.

Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.

Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.

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