by Rebecca Mennecke
The phrase “turning lemons into lemonade” is a common colloquialism in the English language – particularly in the Midwest. But, what does it mean to turn lemons into lemonade when the lemons are rejection letters and you’re a writer, not a lemonade-maker?
Join Max Garland, Eric Rasmussen, Elizabeth de Cleyre, and Katie Venit at the “Not A Good Fit: Overcoming Rejection And Learning To Thrive In The Literary World” event from 6pm-8pm on Thursday, Sept. 19 at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Library, where they will focus on how writers can spin the negativity of rejection into a positive.
Rasmussen, de Cleyre, and Venit will kick off the event at 6pm with their presentation “If At First You Don’t Succeed: A Conversation on Persevering Beyond Rejection.” Garland will follow with his presentation, “Befriending Failure: Lessons from the Whitman School of Condemnation, Defamation, Denunciation, and Vilification, or So You Think You’ve Been Rejected?”
We had the opportunity to chat with the writers/masterminds behind this event to learn more about their backgrounds with rejection and how they turned those literary lemons into lemonade.
Chatting with Max Garland
Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation focuses on overcoming rejection and learning to thrive in the literary world. Can you tell us about your experience with rejection?
Max Garland: I think "rejection" in the literary sense of the word is simply a part of writing. It's really a part of any human process or endeavor, isn't it? You offer things and sometimes your offerings are accepted as useful to others, and sometimes not. But whether a poem or story or essay is accepted or rejected really has very little to do with the deeper reasons for writing.
RM: What can make rejection so frustrating for a writer?
MG: When a writer is starting out, rejection may seem like a judgement on the "person" rather than the work. Writers may begin to concoct conspiracy theories – how unfair the literary world is, how it's "who" you know, rather than "what" you know. Or writers may become discouraged and doubt the validity of their words. But doubt is part of any heartfelt endeavor. If you need to write to make sense of your life, then you continue, and, in the long run, the "success" of that continual effort will be dictated by how satisfying the writing process seems to you, how important the discoveries you make while writing become to your life.
RM: As the winner of the 2017-18 Brittingham Poetry Prize, the winner of the Cleveland State Poetry Center Open Competition, winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the poet behind several successful publications, do you still find it challenging to face rejection?
MG: For every publication or prize there have been many more times when the outcome hasn't turned out the way I wanted. I don't really consider those outcomes as rejections any more than I consider those prizes to signify success. I consider both as part of writing.
RM: How do we as writers turn something as negative as rejection into something positive?
MG: I'll paraphrase the poet Rilke, and say that "doubt" need not be a hindrance, but a signal that you're approaching something important, and you have a decision to make – embrace the doubt, live with it, knowing that it's part of the challenge, or give it the power to stop you.
RM: Walt Whitman had to appreciate his own work, Leaves of Grass, before anyone else really did. How do you recommend writers gain that kind of confidence with their own work?
MG: Walt Whitman was an undaunted soul. He felt doubt, and was not above calculated professional intrigue, but his reasons for writing ran deeper than discouragement. He was audacious, ambitious, and had a sense of "self" that seemed to transcend the typical understanding of that word. He wrote as if his words came from the shared human experience. When I think of Whitman, I think of something the poet Mary Oliver said. She said it was never a matter of whether or not she was going to write, but a matter of whether or not she was going to love her life.
Chatting with Eric Rasmussen
Rebecca Mennecke: This event focuses on the theme of rejection. Can you tell us about your experience with rejection?
Eric Rasmussen: I started submitting work, including short stories to literary journals and novel manuscripts to agents, about six years ago. The rejections started almost immediately after that and haven’t stopped since! As I’ve learned more about the publishing industry and what writers who eventually get published go through, I understand more than ever how rejection functions in the writing world. But even with that understanding, rejection is still something I struggle with. No more than a few days go by where I don’t receive a rejection, and that still stings.
RM: You have around 1,300 rejections! What do you do with a piece of writing after it is rejected?
ER: One rejection doesn’t prompt any changes. A dozen or so will prompt me to dive back into a piece to add another coat of polish, cleaning up sentences or trying to add creative flourishes. By the time I hit three or four dozen it’s time to think about bigger revisions. What could be added or taken away to make the story sleeker, more engaging, closer to something that lit journals or agents are picking up, or weirder and more unique so as to stand out from the pile?
RM: What makes rejection so frustrating for writers?
ER: Once a writer gets over the emotional response to being rejected (I’m not good enough, it’s not fair, the people who rejected me are mean/stupid/biased/etc.), what remains is the question of what to do with a rejection. How do I use this to improve the writing? The frustrating part is that rejections can mean so many things (that) they are essentially meaningless. Maybe your piece didn’t fit with the issue, or is too close to something recently printed, or is about a topic the editor has seen too many times before. Maybe your writing skills need some work, or your bio isn’t impressive enough. Maybe the editor ended up soliciting most of the pieces for the issue. Maybe your ending isn't dynamic enough, or your characters aren’t likable enough, or the situation is too quiet. Or not quite enough. Good writers will do their best to collect evidence of what they need to improve, but unfortunately, squeezing evidence out of a pile of rejections is an incredibly difficult task.
RM: As an editor, what are some characteristics of pieces that are rejected? What makes a piece "rejectable”?
ER: At the lowest level, not following submission guidelines and errors in basic writing and proofreading skills make a piece rejectable. After that, there are a whole pantheon of reasons, most of which vary by editor. We all like different things, as evidenced by the unique collection of books and TV shows and movies we all love. So, part of submitting is a game of statistics, of finding someone who loves the type of thing you’ve written. I wrote a story that got rejected about forty times because no one liked the ending (I assume this is true, because none of my writing friends liked the ending.) The forty-first editor who read the story loved the ending and accepted the story. That’s how most slush pile successes work.
RM: How can writers get over a fear of rejection?
ER: Sadly, I have no good answer here. I struggle emotionally with rejection all the time. With every new piece, I try to write something more engaging, more entertaining, more tuned to the marketplace. But I would also be betraying my craft if I didn’t write things that I wanted to write, things that I found profound and creative and worth putting on paper. Someday I hope to find where both those concerns overlap, at which point my acceptances will come a tiny bit closer to balancing the rejections. Until then, I wince a little bit whenever I check my email. But at least I understand better than ever before that it’s all part of a process that everyone goes through.
Chatting with Katie Venit
Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation is about overcoming rejection. Can you tell me about your experience with rejection?
Katie Venit: Well, I’ve been rejected a lot. I’ve been rejected quickly, and I’ve been rejected after months and months and months of waiting. One of my happiest moments as a writer was when I got a “higher tier” rejection from one of my crush journals. This is a rejection, but also a note that says they liked it, it just wasn’t quite exactly right for them and please submit again. I was so excited to get that rejection – even more excited than any of the acceptances I’ve gotten because I haven’t quite managed to get anything accepted at my first-choice journals.
RM: What can make rejection so frustrating for a writer?
KV: For me it’s the black box of rejection – not knowing why a piece wasn’t picked up. Was it just not a good fit for them or was there something wrong with my piece – something fixable but that I just can’t see because I’m too close to it? I’ve been trying to place a particular piece for over a year—easily my favorite thing that I’ve ever written, but no one wants it. Is it because it sort of a hybrid piece that doesn’t fit into clear boundaries of flash fiction or prose poetry? Or is it just bad and no one could like it but me? I think I have good taste, but it’s also a very personal piece for me, so I don’t know.
RM: How can we as writers spin something as negative as rejection into a positive?
KV: Someone told me to think of submissions as an opportunity for relationship building. So I try to think of rejections as just a part of the start of the relationship. Let’s say I meet someone I think might make a good friend and ask them to go to a monster truck rally with me. They say no, that’s not their thing. Well, now I know that’s something we don’t have in common. That’s a data point. It might turn out we don’t have enough in common to have a long-term relationship, or it might be that that’s the only thing we don’t share. I gotta keep asking and trying to see what future there is with us. How they refuse my invitation is important, too. Are they classy and kind, or scornful? On the topic of writing, I make a note of the places that say why they didn’t pick up the story. Those are the places that I will submit to more quickly in the future. If the rejections are snarky or inconsiderate, I don’t really care to have a relationship with them, so I can safely take them off my submission list for future pieces. In the flash fiction world, there’s a really prestigious online magazine that took a year to respond to my submission and just said, verbatim, “we’re going to pass on this.” That’s no way to form a relationship with a writer. If you asked your new acquaintance to a monster truck rally and they just said, “no, I’m going to pass,” and walked away how would that make you feel? For me, personally, it’s a sign that they’re not a good fit for me because I value life’s niceties and appreciate the acknowledgement that making an invitation and submitting a story is a vulnerable act. So I suppose the positive would be to look at it as relationship building. Which journals do I want to continue to have a relationship with? Which are a good fit for me, and not just the reverse?
RM: After a piece is rejected, what do you do with it?
KV: After each round of several rejections, I’ll look at it again and decide if, with distance, I can see how to improve it. And eventually, after 10, 20, 30, 40 rejections I’ll probably give up on it if my passion for it is gone. I recently submitted a piece to only one place and it was rejected, and I don’t think I’m invested in it enough to keep trying. It depends on how strongly I feel about it. I find submissions to be incredible tedious, so I’m not going to bother if I don’t love it. But it all comes down to priorities and what brings you joy. I couldn’t care less about seeing my name in print—I’ve seen my name in print regularly for 25 years because I’ve been in journalism and freelance writing. That drive for me is spent. The joy of writing, for me, is in the writing and revising. If I enjoyed writing and revising a piece, but it’s not getting picked up and I don’t feel passionate about it anymore, then it’s done its job and I’ve gotten all the joy out of it that I’m going to. So I let it go. The only time I still get an additional jolt of joy out of publishing is when I publish locally because then people tell you they read it and enjoyed it and then you can build a relationship with that person. (Bonus: it’s also easier to place a piece in a local publication like Volume 1’s local lit column or Barstow and Grand.) But random people living in California or Estonia who read your piece on a smaller flash journal don’t tend to reach out to you. Maybe it’s different if you’re published in larger venues. I don’t know yet.
RM: After getting rejected, do you ever get nervous about being rejected again? How can writers move past a fear of rejection?
KV: They say that little kids have big emotions because everything is a new experience for them. They scrape their knee and it’s awful, the end of the world, because maybe it’s the first or second time that’s ever happened to them. But eventually, by the time they’re 40 years old, they’ve scraped their knee so many times that it’s not noteworthy anymore. Slap a bandaid on it and get on with your day. I’ve heard the same thing happens with beekeepers. The more you get stung, the less it matters because you’ve been stung so many times before and survived. The novelty wears off. Same with rejection, I think. I used to be sad about it, like, down in the dumps for a couple days, but really quickly into my submission journey I stopped caring. Partly it’s because I got used to it, and partly because I realized what I was just talking about, that seeing my name in print doesn’t call to me. The thing I still struggle with is submissions because I’m a working parent of young kids, so above all else I value efficiency and efficacy. My free time is so limited, and if I spend that not writing (which brings me incredible joy) but submitting, only to be rejected very often, one wonders what’s the point (which is why I will so often abandon pieces). I sure hope the purpose of this panel was not to be purely motivational, because I will not succeed in that. I’m not the person who’s going to tell you to keep trying and not to give up, that it will eventually happen if you just keep going. First of all, that’s just not true. I could try to play for the NFL with every fiber of my being, and it’s not going to happen. I could try to be the next JK Rowling, but the odds are pretty similar. However, I will tell you not to give up on something just because it’s hard or it hurts sometimes, because it won’t always be that hard and it might not always hurt. But eventually you have to figure out where your bliss is and chase it. Maybe that’s writing fan fic in a composition book that you hide under your mattress and never show anyone. Maybe that’s trying to see how quickly you can rack up 100 rejections. I’ve done both, and I know what brought me more joy, and that’s my path. Your path is your own.
Chatting with Elizabeth de Cleyre
Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation is above overcoming rejection and learning to thrive in the literary world. Can you tell us about your experiences with rejection?
Elizabeth de Cleyre: My experiences with rejection aren't especially unique. I imagine all writers can attest to the cycle of submitting, receiving a rejection or an acceptance, and then doing it all over again.
RM: How do you continue writing after rejection?
EdC: I view writing and publishing as two separate yet overlapping entities. Rejection doesn't make me write any less; if anything, it prompts me to write more. This may be an extreme way of looking at it, but how one writes in the face of rejection seems akin to how one lives in the face of death. We know it's inevitable, but do we stop ourselves from writing as a result of it?
RM: As an editor, what do you look for when deciding what makes a piece “good” or “bad”?
EdC: "Good" and "bad" are subjective terms I avoid as an editor. I'm in service of a piece of writing or a publication, so I ask myself what the piece/publication is aiming to do, and whether it's accomplishing it. What I look for in a piece changes depending on the context of the publication. I don't think pieces are good or bad, as much as they are the right fit for the right venue at the right time. Which, in many ways, is trickier than just naming something as good or bad.
RM: What do you do with a piece of writing after it is rejected?
EdC: After a piece is rejected I either send it to another venue as-is, or I decide to revise it before sending it out again.
RM: What makes rejection so hard for writers?
EdC: Personally, rejection is hard for me because I put so much of myself into my work. As storytellers, it's up to us to make meaning out of events in life. So often we make meaning out of a rejection, and that meaning is usually, "I'm a bad writer." There are so many factors that go into placing a piece (timing, voice, subject matter, context, the editor's subjective tastes, whether that publication has run a similar piece recently) that it's really impossible to determine why it wasn't accepted. Ever since I dropped the story and started to view rejection as a kind of protection or redirection in my career, it's helped me take it less personally.
Learn from Max, Eric, Katie and Elizabeth on Thursday, September 19 beginning at 6PM at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.