Tuesday, October 25, 2011



Re-ject. What does ject mean? Re- is a prefix, so ject must mean something.

You look it up, because something has to occupy your time while you wait for all these rejections. Ject is nonsense in English. The word comes from Latin, reicere. To throw back. “Here,” an editor (slushpile reader, whatever) writes in a rejection letter, “I’m throwing this back at you, because it sucked.” Well, they don’t say that. Nobody says what they mean. This has always been a problem for me, because I’m not good at detecting subtexts. The slushpile readers say, instead:

“We enjoyed it, but it’s not quite right for us.”
“Thanks for the look, but I’m afraid we’re going to pass.”
“It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, we don’t have a place for it in upcoming issues.”
“This is without a doubt the most brilliant piece of writing from a contemporary author that I’ve come across in all my days, yet I’m afraid the thick and plebeian reading public is simply not ready for a work of such preĆ«minence (nor are they ready for the English umlaut).” [I made this last one up.—Eds.]

And, always, some variant of:

“We wish you best of luck in placing it elsewhere.”

Thank you. Thank you so much. Luck will be required. You’re basically a gambler. You’re waiting for that hit, that high, that jackpot that comes from acceptance. You’re waiting for money, and meanwhile you make lattes and cry on the inside.

Then rejection arrives as a kind and lengthy form letter: “This is no reflection on you as a writer.” Well, yes, in fact, it is. If you were a good enough writer to be in their magazine, you would be in their magazine.

And that’s just the fiction side. You’ve had better luck with writing little pieces for content mills ("How to Replace a Roll of Toilet Paper"), & you're working your way up to GQ. But big magazines are busy; if they’re not interested, they just ignore you. You go on waiting, month after vacant month, wondering if you are more like Vincent Van Gogh – talented, unrecognized – or more like the shitty poet whose blog you found when you drunkenly googled “interminable sadness,” the poet who rhymes “cleric” with “enteric.” 

You should be happy to be rejected, you are told, because it is an inextricable part of the writing process. You write, you get rejected. Everyone. Good and bad. Well, are you good or bad? That’s the thing with writing, you’ll never know.

These lines by W.S. Merwin, in which Merwin recounts a conversation with the poet John Berryman, illustrate the nagging doubt that being a writer entails, but which one must ignore if one is to get anything done: 

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

I mean, holy fuck, such enviable insouciance about one’s life work! But such insouciance masks, perhaps, a deeper despair about one’s own abilities; as the poet Michael Collier pointed out, “Clearly [Berryman]’s thought long about this issue because he’d like to know how good he is.”

We’d like to know if we’re good because we’d like to know if it’s worth it to eschew social outings, “Breaking Bad,” a day on the beach, a clean house, a purslane-free yard, board games with our kids, the GOP debates….you know, if it’s worth it to avoid the things that the rest of humanity seems to do without complaining. You have little time to indulge in these activities, and when you do, you undertake them with a nervous unenjoyment; because you do some undignified thing that makes you money and then you write (unless you are a good writer, in which case writing is the thing that makes you money), and those two activities pretty much cover your days. We wonder, we receive no answers, we submit, we receive no answers, we keep going, we write, we think about our friends having fun watching “Breaking Bad” or reading a breezy novel on a breezy beach, but we keep going and wondering and submitting and being ignored.

And the rejection letter arrives and we’re pissed off about it, but we also cherish it, just a little bit, because it’s some assurance about the quality of our writing. It’s life, throwing something back. “Here,” says life, “I’m throwing this back at you, because it sucked.” And then, foolishly, we write some more, because even deeper down than the wall of insouciance masking our hurt feelings, and even deeper still, beyond the hurt feelings that we only display to friends who we know will find our vulnerability quaint…deeper than all that, we really don’t give a fuck that life thinks we suck. We just want to be sure one way or the other.

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