This week I had a piece published in Litro magazine. Of course it’s always exciting to see your stuff Out There, but this felt special for several reasons.
Firstly, it’s right near the top of my ‘wish list’ for publication. I remember reading some advice from Kurt Vonnegut years ago – he said you should always send your stuff to the place you’d most like to see it published, because why not? Back in 2013 I made a massive spreadsheet with a load of literary magazines on it. Right at the top are those I never really thought I’d get into – The Paris Review, The White Review, Granta. Litro is also up there. So it’s fair to say that this feels like a significant win.
Yet more spreadsheets! This one keeps track of my ‘top’ publications and the trail of my successes and failures.
The other more important reason is that it feels like proof of perseverance. It’s International Women’s Day this week, and I’m always humbled by the women all over the world that come up against discrimination, abuse and hate and have triumphed in so many ways. I cannot even begin to claim the fortitude of women like Mary Seacole, Helen Charman and Maya Angelou (this list could be VERY long), but I like to think that I am at least persisting in the face of failure.
Because the other thing the spreadsheet has done is track my successes and rejections. I can see that I submitted my story Chicken Bones for the first time back in September 2016. I liked it. Compared to the other stories I’d written up to that point, it felt like it was more rounded, had more depth. I was told that they didn’t want that story, but asked me to resubmit something else. That gave me hope for its future.
Writing without readers can be a lonely business…
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Alas, it was not to be. Throughout 2016 and 2017 I submitted it to seven other places. All of them the same answer. Either a ‘no,’ or that darker creature, the complete lack of response. Over time, my enthusiastic colour-coded spreadsheet saw less and less use, and the words of Kurt Vonnegut seemed silly. Who was I to try and be published in grand places? What did I know?
Last year, my writing had a new injection of life. I suspect it was the fact that I turned 40, alongside the arrival of a global pandemic. Hey, if those two things don’t give you a shove towards achieving your dreams, what else will?
So, I trawled back through my short stories. As I write on Scrivener, I keep one big project that has all of my stories in. I was astounded to find that, over the years, I’d accumulated over 100,000 words in short stories. There was something comforting in the sheer weight of it all. Surely all of those words couldn’t be bad? Surely some of them could find a home?
Perhaps approaching publication as a search for you art’s true home rather than a search for validation is a step in the right direction.
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I scrolled back through the ones I remembered fondly and reread them. These are actually ok, I thought. It’s amazing what distance from your own work can do. I was also fortunate enough recently to join a writing feedback group (thanks, Yasmin!). We send out our work every month, and send feedback to each other. Now I had other people to have a look, to give me some objective ideas on what I’d written.
And one of the first pieces I sent? My most-rejected story, Chicken Bones. Their comments and scribbles helped me see my work in a new light, and highlighted areas where I could change things, where bits didn’t make sense, where they felt it could be expanded or cut. The result being its appearance for #StorySunday in Litro last week. I’m so glad I persevered.
Because a no is hard. It feels like lots of things. It can feel like like ‘you’re no good at this’ and ‘why do you think you deserve to be here?’ and ‘you’re just a teacher, what do you know about writing?’ A no is ‘why are you bothering with all this so late in life?’ and ‘you’re wasting your time.’
Rejection can feel as though everything you’ve produced is no good. Don’t always see it as a reason to rip things up and start again.
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Of course, a no might actually be ‘we’re going for a different tone this month’ or ‘we had far too many submissions’ or even ‘I had a bad night’s sleep and I’m feeling grumpy this morning.’
As hard as it is to accept, a no doesn’t have to mean you’re a failure. It just means that, for whatever reason, your work doesn’t fit in that particular place, at that particular time.
This renewed perspective has led to two other short stories I wrote ages ago – a dark ghost story and an exploration of a childless midwife turning 40 – being published in two other literary magazines. These were also stories I pulled out of hibernation.
This is not to say I can always persevere, always aim so high. I grumped for an entire day last week when I got some bad news about something I’d been longlisted for. But that’s ok. Wearing the rejections and the difficulties is perhaps just as much of an artist’s life as everything else.
But I hope I can remember to persevere. To remember that things, even when they’ve lurked in the back of my hard drive for many years, might yet find light upon them, might yet find readers.
Keep your aim high and your faith in your work. Others will see it too.
Things can be reborn with new life, even after you think they’ve gone away forever.
Featured image credit Stephen Walker: https://unsplash.com/photos/ZqtrEEOH0X8
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