Rejection: A Love Story
In 2017, TNQ and a group of nine writers became engaged in a conversation around rejection, trying to flesh out ways in which rejection functions, not just as a necessary part of the business of publishing, but as a mechanism for maintaining and organizing a particular system of power. We began by publishing a collective piece on the subject, then realized that, despite presenting a critical discussion by a group of diverse writers, we were still missing the voices of editors.
Lately, the conversation in CanLit has also been shifting: prominent BIPOC writers are holding CanLit accountable, and demanding that editors and publishers think deeply about the ways in which they are either supporting and maintaining the current colonial structure or becoming allies in the work of dismantling it.
We know that editors face the daily realities of being overworked, underpaid, and juggling submissions into limited publication space; we hear a lot about this dynamic, but we don’t often hear about the ways editors are thinking critically about race, gender, class, age, sexuality, and ability in the business of publishing in Canada. As part of this conversation, I believe we need to hear from editors who are thinking deeply about their work as gatekeepers within a predominantly white and non-diverse publishing industry.
Eufemia, tell us about your work as an editor, how you came to your current position and the ways in which you integrate intersectionality and anti-oppression into your editorial work. Is this something that is encouraged and supported by the publication? If so, how does the publication encourage this anti-oppressive lens? That is, is the publication heading this conversation or is it happening on the margins?
First I wanted to thank you for asking me to be part of this conversation, and also to congratulate you and the collective—Jagtar Kaur Atwal, Lina Barkas, Hege Jakobsen Lepri, Tamara Jong, Emily McKibbon, Obim Okongwu, and Laura Sky—on that powerful piece of collaborative writing. The combined voices made for a stunning chorus of contemplation.
I think talking freely and openly about rejection is vital. Recognizing and naming the triad of failure, shame, and pain that accompany a creative loss is significant in order to continue generating the work writers are required to do. The cumulative effect of rejections can be harmful and definitely needs treatment, otherwise the humiliation acquired along the way could inhibit an individual’s healing process. Unless you’re the God I heard about from chatty Catholics—creating the earth in a week like a boss with a mob of male scribes writing down holy edicts for everyone to wage war over later—you’ll find this creation business an incredibly vulnerable endeavor.
Truth be told, I feel ridiculously qualified to speak on this topic: rejection is my origin story. A side effect of being continuously spurned by a mentally ill mother who was incapable of forming loving bonds. As a result, I’ve spent years developing coping strategies (chocolate) and keeping peace in my soul (stockpile chocolate), and I’ve learned an awful lot along the way about the need for kindness and the power of compassion.
Let me back up and discuss HLR. The Humber Literary Review started as the brainchild of Vera Beletzan. She gathered a group of creative folks (editors, writers, readers) at Humber College and asked whether there was room for another lit magazine on the Canadian landscape, and here we are this summer celebrating HLR’s fifth anniversary—which is wood. Naturally, I’m going to gift all my colleagues with a pencil.
I was a fan of the magazine from the beginning and spoke to the Trillium Award-Winning poet-editor-godsend Meaghan Strimas about joining the masthead as an essays editor. I’ve been in the role on a learning curve for just over a year. I prefer to think of myself as a gardener planting seeds of inspiration and encouragement rather than a gatekeeper because I couldn’t find the gate in broad daylight with a GPS. The magazine’s mandate is to publish emerging writers—voices we haven’t heard from. This was a major motivation for me, the idea of working with other editors to ensure the print opportunities exist for budding talent. By talent, I mean tenacious individuals who will keep making the effort to improve. Also, I don’t want to diminish the importance of asking an editor to examine their role as gatekeeper. They should be asked to reflect on their practice and the power dynamics in publishing. That doesn’t happen enough.
I’m intensely aware of what the experience of publication means for a writer, the visibility factor and the validation. The process is a marvel to individuals who have spent any spell of their artistic life feeling like a misfit, wearing an invisibility cloak, and wandering aimlessly through library stacks. Is it obvious I’m talking about me again? At the heart of the matter was a missing mirror. There was no reflection. In essence, being a bookworm meant my world view expanded and flourished even as my personal vision of potential and possibility shrank. I suspect it’s impossible to imagine this duality as a reader—personal non-existence versus recognition of the human condition on the printed page—if you didn’t privately experience it yourself. If you were never othered.
Here’s my biggest problem with the current wisdom surrounding rejection as it is dealt with in a creative writing class, workshop group, or submitting to journals—we’re told to toughen up, grow thicker skin, and wear the calluses earned through brutal feedback and rejection slips as badges of honour. Balderdash. Rejection hurts. The pain echoes through us on multiple levels, reverberating and connecting to additional aches and wounds we carry inside. Tough love is an oxymoron. Plus, putting the onus on a writer to be better at receiving rejection dangerously ignores the other half of this relationship equation. This allows the person in a position to reject to be careless, possibly even cruel, without having to defend their dreadful behaviour. We need to cultivate not caring so much? Please, that is absurd. In fact, that set up could easily mask abusive treatment. Basically, I’m tired of toxic shame-mongering bunkham. Enough is enough. What is it that we’re doing here? We could rebuild this world with less cruelty. We have the technology. We can make ourselves better than we were. Better… kinder… wiser.
I come by anti-oppression naturally: descended from sheepherders and bandits, only child, a female at that, daughter of southern Italian peasants, people who didn’t have the opportunity or means to get an education beyond elementary school. As long as the masses were kept ignorant, a government could control them, could feed off labour until the hoi polloi were exhausted to death. The ruling authority could minimize our ancestors as human beings because they didn’t have the skill to write stories, craft poems, or leave a record of their existence behind in any art form. And throughout history, someone else jumped in to fill the void, stepped into that empty space to tell the story. Usually a white male genius. Such generosity knows no bounds.
We can do better now and we must.
We live in a messy world. The destructive forces of bigotry, racism, and misogyny have forged a hell on earth. I’m appalled that we are fighting fascism again. (Mussolini was overthrown by Italians when my father was a boy of eight. He turned eighty this July.) How long have women had the vote? How long have women been allowed an education? (Even in remembrance of Hypatia or Bettisia Gozzadini, the answer is not nearly long enough.) Denying opportunity to everyone means that as a group of souls inhabiting this planet—we lose. I can’t even begin to calculate how much. A zero sum game. In terms of privilege, if we can’t acknowledge that a pre-dominantly non-diverse group holds the reins of power and funnels the direction of the discourse, including the content of publications, then we can’t have an honest conversation and begin to devise solutions.
People need to be on the right side of human decency. Doling out harsh criticism and corrosive feedback was never acceptable. Choose to help, not to hinder.
If you’re unwilling to acknowledge that underrepresentation in literature equals erasure, you’re part of the problem. If you’re not offering feedback through a thoughtful lens, what exactly are you doing? I’m asking for real. My enquiring mind wants to know. Saving capital-L literature from the hordes of would-be storytellers who will cheapen the craft with their rudimentary efforts? There’s no need to be ruthless. Offer guidance. Make suggestions. If you’re not actively interested in helping another writer make breakthroughs to build a stronger community of writers, or investing in those from diverse backgrounds—please tell us upfront so we can stop wasting precious time and valuable resources. If none of this has occurred to you before, which planet in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system did you come from?
Often, as emerging writers, we don’t really have a sense of how much of the editorial process relies on volunteer work. I don’t think I really understood this until I started to talk to writers who were working as guest editors or editors. I had imagined that most of this work was paid, but often, it isn’t. Can you speak to this? I feel it’s important to note that often editors are working because they love the work, but not necessarily because there is an economic incentive. This leaves someone like me who is already underpaid and in a precarious work situation unable to take on work that is unpaid. I imagine there are a lot of writers/editors in this position and this says a lot about the ways that publishing happens on the backs of women’s unpaid work. Can you speak to this?
You’re right that it’s wrong. Who can afford to work for free? This is another way to wrest power from the already disenfranchised. Imagine a world without art. Our spirits would wither.
This is also why an editor is a friend and not the enemy. Frequently, an editor is working late at night, early in the morning, off the side of their desk—to make and hold the space for someone else. That’s a tremendous act of building community. That’s remarkable and worthy of praise.
You have been on both sides of the publication process—what’s something you didn’t realize when you were writing and submitting your work, that you now understand more deeply from your work as an editor?
Sometimes good work could be rejected for a variety of reasons, and that is particular to each situation, each issue. That was surprising.
There is much effort required to be a competent writer, and so many obstacles en route. No magic number of drafts. No one else’s formula will work exactly the same way. Some adjustments are required. The process is ongoing, trial and error. The writers we admire most are our best teachers, and sometimes a class full of engaged readers who want to write will take us further than we could ever go on our own.
I do want to emphasize a detail about word counts. One over and I won’t look at the submission. I can guarantee the piece could have been edited down, and ignoring the specifics when submitting sends out a message that can only be perceived in a negative way: you’re not interested in fulfilling basic formatting requirements. Do the work and don’t make it so easy for your work to be turned down.
Are there things you think we need to know as marginalized/racialized writers submitting to Canadian literary journals?
Know that your writing is necessary, needed, and vital. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Do not let rejections silence you. No doubt, a negative formulaic response to a piece you’ve reworked and rewritten is discouraging and the refusal will slow you down. Just don’t let it stop you. Submit to contests and competitions. Continue sending work to HLR and other lit mags. Keep knocking on those temporarily closed doors while looking for an open window. When you’ve found an entryway, make sure it doesn’t slam shut behind you. Share the wealth of information gathered. Develop resiliency within a community of supportive writers and by watching Tara Brach videos.
Never doubt that your voice matters. Particularly if you are a woman, BIPOC or in any way part of a group that has been marginalized for the last two millennia. We belong as living breathing fully realized people on the page too. The margins are for study notes.
Your worth is absolute and not dependent on an acceptance letter.
Tell us about the odious rejection letter. My writing group shared some of these letters with each other. I received a really hurtful rejection letter a few years ago that I’ve been meaning to transform into something—maybe a broken poem. The publication had reached out to me and asked me to submit my work, then rejected it. The letter informed me that my work was too simple, and that they hoped that I’d continue to read their publication, and then they threw in a compliment or two. It felt like a slap in the face. It seemed to suggest: Please continue to read us, but no, we would rather you not submit your work to us again. It felt like it was a very sloppy rejection letter and it stung and stuck with me for a while. No, I will not be submitting my work again to that publication. Can you speak to your rejection letter at the Humber Lit Review? Is it a form letter? Have there been any thoughts on integrating an anti-oppressive lens into the rejection letter?
That is appalling, Leonarda. I think this goes without saying but let me say it loud and clear: that should never have happened. Ever. Dreadful. I’m disgusted. Give me names. (Not to post online here, obviously, but I heed warnings and appreciate them.) That felt like a slap in the face because that is exactly what that was: a smackdown. That was a sucker-punch move designed to confuse and meant to inflict anguish, essentially a form of disguised gaslighting.
Remember the folks who have caused harm and avoid them. I’m not talking about the person who has to sign the form rejection letter or email; I mean the person who delights in diminishing your work and pours salt on the insult camouflaged as a compliment. The person or group who needs to belittle others to feel bigly important. Don’t give bullies ammunition. They already have an arsenal and they don’t need your cooperation.
I think meditation teacher Cheri Huber is the source of this quote I memorized years ago: “Everyone struggles with self-loathing.” I’ve held on to this truth when dealing with difficult circumstances. Here’s the thing: containment matters. We’re not supposed to spread our suffering over each other like an infection, like some ongoing bubonic pain-plague. We’re not meant to stay wounded; we are here to help each other. If you can’t help, at the very least do no harm. How freaking hard is that?
Hurt people hurt people. I’m not absolving myself of this in general life, but I take my responsibility in a creative environment seriously. I’ve frequently had to remind students to follow workshop guidelines in creative nonfiction classes. We don’t get to judge how the narrator lived, or the choices they made. We’re only focused on ensuring the story makes sense as readers. That structural gaps aren’t making a Swiss cheese out of the essay and interrupting our understanding in a way that would make us stop reading. I’m always stunned by how many writers will say, “Feel free to tear this story apart because I want real criticism.” Follow the inherent assumption to the extreme and this is what we get: being considerate is akin to lying.
Once, tired of repeating the need to be respectful, I said, “Yes, sharp commentary and savage assessment always works so well in the outside world. Let’s continue in that vein. What could possibly go wrong?”
There is a better way. Choose to be kind. Give assistance whenever capable. Stay vulnerable and keep safe. Find people you can trust. Stumble and stride down a creative path together. Be wary of the wounded animals you will encounter. Change the world with your art and mend the pieces of your broken heart too. Isn’t this what we’re all trying to do here? I think it is.
Are you comfortable telling us about an experience you had with rejection and the impact it had on you or your writing?
Sure. I’ve definitely been had. Undermined, and brutishly rejected. I felt duped. Similar to your story, it started with an invitation to submit. Step-by-step the procedure felt as serene as my root canal did, like my work had been sliced into ribbons by a paper shredder and tossed aside, good only for stuffing packages. I was devastated. I couldn’t sleep one night—wrestling with intrusive thoughts and mild depression—I absorbed a bunch of detrimental malarkey.
Sometimes writing can take us to scary places, investigating dark, poorly lit basements and scary cobweb-covered attics. A caring community is the well-lit, welcoming living room that assists while you find your way there and back—that figuratively has your back. Community says “You’re safe. We’re here and we are willing to make the journey with you. We will follow you. Take us there. Not as tourists, but as souls with fast-beating hearts who want to understand every aspect of this world in all its agony and glory.” Writing is not cozy. The craft takes years to learn. At times, writing is frustrating and uncomfortable. The habit is strenuous for the body and necessitates exhaustive stretching of the self, taking in and filtering the whole universe of personal experience—everything you have ever felt, lived, overheard, observed, witnessed, and survived. Protection is fundamental.
Like I said, rejection and me go way back. It’s been a steady companion, annoying and argumentative. Extremely combative. Sometimes I’m knocked down in the fray. Then I have to focus on applying first aid and not letting the injury fester. That could contaminate my heart and by extension the writing. Rejection is a fierce opponent, a beast with a perpetually changing face. We will all experience this one.
The best advice I can offer? Get off the battleground when you can and help others navigate the booby traps because it’s not a level playing field. Never was. One day, maybe.
With that as my motivation I asked if I could rewrite the magazine’s routine “submission not accepted” reply because we were using a standard one. I was worried about reinforcing a writer’s negative beliefs when I couldn’t add a note or make suggestions due to time constraints. This is HLR’s new rejection letter:
Thank you for your submission. We appreciate your interest in the Humber Literary Review, and are thankful for your support.
We frequently receive more work than we are able to publish, and have to reject more work than accept. Unfortunately, we are going to decline your submission at this time.
Humber Literary Review—one of the newest literary magazines in Canada—has a mandate to publish emerging writers. Choosing poems and prose for the next issue is often an intense process that involves many discussions by the editorial staff. On occasion, we have had to pass on submissions that were polished and publishable because we had already received many that fit well together to make for a cohesive read. This is the part of putting together the magazine that we dislike the most: sending out the rejection letter.
Regrettably, rejection is an integral part of every writer’s life. Trust us: as editors, as fellow writers, as human beings, we are familiar with the discomfort and distress rejection can cause.
We believe rejection to be a blip on the writing path, a paper badge of honour on the way to achieving your goals. We hope that you feel the same and will continue writing and submitting your work—to us and to others. We wish you every success in this lofty aim.
The editors of HLR
What are you looking for when selecting a piece for publication? How much time goes into the decision? Is it something that you feel right away?
This is hard to answer. I suss out the potential of a piece or how close the essay is to completion. Time is of the essence. If I’m pressed, the piece needs to be pretty near publishable. To pin down what I’m looking for is complex. Fresh perspectives, strong voices, attention to detail, love of language, to name a few features. Generosity, I guess, would be the greatest quality I hope to find woven through the writing.
Editors have often told me it’s difficult to do both: engage in critical editorial work and work on their own writing. One of my first introductions to your work was in a class with Ayelet Tsabari. I remember being so moved by your work and the ease with which you took up painful memories. The writing was on fire and it captured the entire class. What are you working on now? How do you manage all the responsibilities and still continue to work on your writing?
How lovely, thank you, Leonarda. I’ve said it to her many times and I’ll say it again here, meeting Ayelet saved my life. She championed my work in such a way—a defibrillator for my despair—that I was able to move forward and imagine more possibilities. I was living in my own time zone—TST (Trauma Standard Time) and dealing with personal and professional setbacks. I met her in a year-long class at The Writer’s Studio. She was as you know her to be—gifted, generous and genius. That’s not a combo I’d come across before.
Currently I’m working on my second book, My Father, Fortune-tellers & Me: A Memoir, forthcoming from Mother Tongue Publishing (Fall 2019). I wouldn’t say I’m juggling all the responsibilities gracefully. A dust-bunny that could choke a hippopotamus drifted past my foot this morning. I used the moment to practice non-attachment.
Again, thank you for asking me to participate in this conversation. I appreciated your thoughtful questions and valued the opportunity to put rejection under a microscope and study its many components—elements of loss, fragments of grief. We all have to move through heaps of murky, frightening, sometimes ferocious territory in our lives; let’s agree to show up for each other with as much grace as possible.
And I know you didn’t ask for this, but who doesn’t need a bounce-back playlist? Sharing mine and recommending that every writer compiles one. Voilà, my dealing-with-rejection soundtrack:
- “What’s up” – 4 Non Blondes
- “Not Ready to Make Nice” – The Dixie Chicks
- “Lost” – Coldplay
- “Born to Die” – Lana Del Rey
- “Everybody Hurts” – R.E.M.
- “Stand by Me” – Ben E. King
- “Kiss” – Prince
- “Under Pressure” – Queen with David Bowie
- “Whatever It Takes” – Imagine Dragons
- “These Dreams” – Heart
- “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – Crowded House
- “Like a Dream” – Francis and the Lights
- “We Belong” – Pat Benatar
- “Brave” – Sara Bareilles
Leonarda Carranza is a Central American born writer, who currently resides on the territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation and homeland of the Wendat, Anishinaabe, and Haudenosaunee nations.
Eufemia Fantetti is a writer and editor grateful to live in Toronto on the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples.