Recently, I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s (“Eat, Pray, Love”) new book on creativity, called “Big Magic.” In a chapter on resistance, she tells the story of how, starting out, she got a great rejection letter from the late fiction journal Story, written by the editor-in-chief (something to cheer about right there), who said she really liked Gilbert’s story, but that the ending fell a bit short, and they wouldn’t be taking it. Rather than be discouraged, Gilbert was elated, and let’s face it, who among us has not been cheered by an encouraging note (even one penned on a form rejection slip)? Or, who among us has not had this conversation, the one where we compare rejection notes with another writer?
Back to Gilbert, who fast-forwards a couple of years—now she has an agent. The agent sends the same story out and about, then calls her with good news. The same short story is now going to be published. And guess who’s going to take it? That’s right, the same editor at Story! Who calls Gilbert up a few days later. Gilbert asks her, “You even liked the ending?” and the editor replies, “Of course. I adored the ending.” Which goes to show a couple of things. Maybe this tale has to do with fame and connections—when Gilbert was an unknown and in the slush pile, her work was read differently than when an agent respected in the industry submitted it. Or maybe the Story editor read it after a bad day or when she’d had a fight with her husband, and maybe when the agent submitted it she’d just had good news or the sun was finally shining after days and days of rain. Who knows?
I know the same thing happened to me—an editor, who’d taken at least one poem every time I submitted to his journal (and this was a journal I admired) appeared in another magazine with me. He sent me a note (before the internet—a note is something handwritten on paper, put in an envelope, sealed with a stamp) to tell me how very much he liked my poem in there, with one caveat. Why hadn’t I sent it to him first? I should have known he’d like it. Which sent me back to my 3 x 5 cards, where I tracked submissions (remember, this was back in the ancient of days), and where I found out, guess what? I did. His journal was the first place I’d sent it to, and he’d turned it down.
What can we take away from both of these stories, Gilbert’s and mine? I think it’s this: all we can do is write, as best as we can, each time we sit down to the paper/typewriter/keyboard. That’s the only thing we can control. The rest is luck and circumstance—the right journal or the right publisher, at the right time. That’s where things get random. We might send THE best poem ever about, say, kumquats, only to submit to a place that just used a Best American Poem on kumquats, and that’s it for them in this lifetime. And there’s no way we can ever know this. So all we can do is keep trying. I liken the whole submission process to a bizarre game of badminton. Poems go out, poems come back. But the racquet’s in my hand, and it’s up to me to hit the metaphoric birdie back over the net. Keep trying. Keep trying.