Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rejection Letters

Originally appeared on The New Quarterly's Literary Type blog.

The Tao of Form Rejection Letters

In his forward to The Workshop, an anthology of writing dedicated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Thomas Grimes argues that, popular perception aside, the creative writing workshop doesn’t really teach you what to do. He says, “[the workshop] has offered no prescription for ‘fixing’ stories, no formulas for creating characters . . . Everything it teaches, essentially, is a form of No.”

One could argue that the form rejection letter’s doing something similar. In twenty words or less, it forces us to contend with nothingness, the capital-N- No.

My first rejection letter was of such potent nothingness that it didn’t exist. I saw a call for submissions, raided my desk for the best story I had, sealed it in an envelope and bid the little fella godspeed. Four months later the next issue was out. No sign of my short story in the table of contents but, lo, a surprise on page six: a few lines of my cover letter, published verbatim, as a letter to the editor.


I’ve treasured rejection letters ever since, even the generic ones that spell my name wrong and appear in my mailbox a year late.

Not many people like form rejection letters. Feelings are hurt? The form letter doesn’t care. Thanks but no thanks, it says, with a brevity that would make Hemingway proud.

I would argue, however, that the form rejection letter’s worth rests not simply in its ability to make you mad. It’s what it doesn’t say ‘s important. Counterintuitive? Could be. After all, wouldn’t it be easier for editors to just tell us what the hell we’re doing wrong and save everyone the grief?

Easier, maybe, but not necessarily more effective. In an interview appended to his
latest collection of stories, Last Notes, Tamas Dobozy asks us to treasure our rejection letters, particularly the generic ones:

“There was something in that flat ‘No’ you received that was amazingly enlightening – because it told you your writing wasn’t working but didn’t tell you how to fix it. You were forced to improve only on the strength of your own resources, and so there was an organic process at play . . . It was that step into uncharted territory that forced me to develop my instincts.”

Dobozy’s right: you don’t know what you’re looking for, only that whatever it is exists and makes a manuscript once believed to be pristine ugly and flawed. Innocents may die as you question every sentence’s right to life. But somewhere amidst the carnage you find what you’re looking for. The form rejection letter’s boon won’t be the pitch-perfect ending your story needed or the hidden gun you just now figured out how to bring back into play. Its lessons are less transient, more universal.

When all is said and done, the form rejection letter hasn’t taught you where to look – the terrain’s going to change with every story you write – but how.

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