You’d think they’d be easy enough: Offer some constructive criticism and some words of encouragement, then hit send. Lather, rinse, repeat. On to the next in the pile.
The problem, as it often is, is the human element. It is all too easy to forget that there are people on both sides of this process.
Now, I’m not implying that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I don’t want to insinuate that an editor’s job is to smirk behind an IP address, gleefully ticking away at their keyboards while picking an essay apart in their decline letter. Nor should we cower behind prewritten rejection letters, sending email after email of the same exact words, the literary equivalent of breaking up via text message.
I read somewhere that there is a word for being a background character in someone else’s story—a name on a cardboard coffee cup, a car on the freeway, an umbrella in the rain, a whiff of perfume exiting an elevator in a crowded mall—and that such a word affects lives only tangentially, for a few seconds. I cannot recall what the word itself is, and I try to find it in online dictionaries, a hail-Mary effort to procrastinate that next rejection letter.
Whatever the word is, I hope it describes the letters I write. I hope that it ends up in a bulging email inbox, surrounded by rejections and acceptances from other magazines, from publishers, from fans. I hope that this decline letter that I have drafted and sent will be marked as read and left to rot in cyberspace.
The alternative, you see, is that what I write is important. Every decline letter could be some writer’s first, someone’s last. There is some pressure in knowing that I have a long memory of criticism from strangers, and that you probably do, too.
I read slowly and write swiftly, like ripping cooled wax from leg hair. I leave the letter alone, come back to the computer to read it one last time before hitting “Send.” The computer asks if I’m sure, and I wince.