I was reading about submissions the other day—essays by writers who wanted to be encouraging to other writers about the need to submit. Submission is the process by which authors send work to publishers and journals, hoping to see their work in print.
Submitting is also something writers tend to dwell on. It's not just the word: submit. It's the reality that most submissions are rejected. North American Review, for example, accepted a short poem of mine a while back and they have an acceptance rate of a tad over 2%. That's pretty typical, though some of the most famous journals have acceptance rates considerably lower than that—many hundreds of rejections for a single acceptance.
It can be a discouraging process.
I don't submit like I used to, back in the days I actually believed one day I would be a "famous writer." For a few years there, I continuously kept at least a dozen or more submissions out in the world. Five rejections would come back and I'd send out another half dozen submissions. I submitted a novel draft to 63 literary agents, and though I received considerable encouragement, and only one negative response, not one person offered to represent me. A handful asked to see anything I might write in the future. I decided I needed better training beyond the summer workshops I'd been taking for fifteen years.
In 2004 it was time to again apply to grad school. (My applications had been rejected by grad schools too.) A series of wonderful things happened: I was awarded a grant by Literary Arts, I was accepted to a young program at Pacific University right here in the NW, and a story that I'd sent out and had rejected more than two dozen times found a home with CALYX, a journal I had long admired. A lot was happening in my life. My mother was sicker, but I had a new puppy. My brother had stopped speaking to me, but my sons were doing fine. I'd won a couple of literary fellowships.
I entered the MFA program at Pacific University in 2005 with great hopes for what was about to come my way. I thought at the time the program would be wonderful for me. I will say now that it was wonderful. Four incredible writers worked with me and taught me a great deal. I wrote enough story drafts for two or three books and thought a lot about writing and stories and the sort of stories I value and want to write.
Some things didn't happen. I didn't master pacing or plot—always weaknesses. I didn't find a writing group. While I wrote dozens of stories and made friends, I didn't make connections that have helped me professionally as a writer. And though one of my advisors sat down with me to share journals he thought I should submit to, nothing I wrote during the program has been published in the past seven years. Nothing.
For about a year after graduation, I returned to my old pattern of submissions. I sent out work religiously. And soon enough it mostly came back. I was rejected by a better class of journals, but the rejections kept on coming. Rejection—to toss back, I am told.
More life events: my mother died, I lost 40 pounds, my brother was still not speaking to me, many wonderful students passed through my classroom door, my husband needed to retire… I despaired. I stopped writing. I withdrew all my submissions, I gave up everything.
A friend suggested I start a blog and I took her advice to begin writing again, but nonfiction, which is what I have "always" written. I focused on short blog posts. And then I began revising and sending one out an essay now and again. The essays found homes. Poems found homes. I sent out old stories and some of them found homes. Nothing new.
What happened to the fiction?
It's difficult for me to say. I stopped listening to the story I wanted to tell. My sense of humor evaporated during my mother's long illness. I couldn't focus on story. I read fiction, but my optimism died about writing and about a lot of other things.
But perhaps it's coming back. Recently, I opened an old manuscript and I have begun work again. Maybe I am beginning to understand what needs to happen with that novel. Maybe I can make that happen. There is some hope that if I give myself a little space this summer between writing a textbook and weaving and cleaning house and sorting and walking and taking care of business, I can rediscover the voice that wanted to tell the world something I believed was important—the story that once seemed so vital, necessary, and true.
Writing is something that rarely pays in a tangible way. Writing demands time and attention and heat to do well. I don't expect to be a famous writer and I don't want to write what sells. I have to be a little crazy to write what I want to write because mostly no one will publish or read what I think is too important to leave unsaid. So, yes, a little crazy.
There is no audience for the books I want to write, but maybe I need to write them anyway.