Giving up the ghost, or, when to stop submitting
The harsh truth is this: sometimes it’s time to give up. It can (and should, in many cases, I believe) take a while for writers to make the decision to stop sending out an essay, a poem, a short story, or a longer manuscript. For one, giving up is antithetical to what most of us have been taught about the writing and publishing business. We’re told repeatedly by our best teachers to be survivors, to turn the other cheek when we’re slapped with another rejection letter. We’ve been given examples of now-famous writers who repeatedly submitted their manuscripts to uninterested editors, and in some extreme cases, died before their genius was celebrated in college classrooms and book clubs everywhere. (I’m thinking of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and of Nabokov’s Lolita in particular, though fortunately, in the second instance, the author lived to see his masterpiece praised and canonized).
Especially when I was first publishing, I submitted quite a few of my short stories dozens of times before they were accepted for publication. One of the the previously unpublished stories in my first collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, was rejected more than forty times. I refused, foolhardy or not, to believe that it had few merits and decided to include it in the manuscript, and later was both relieved and vindicated when after Portraits was published, some readers told me they liked that story best of the ten in the book. (It’s “You’re So Different”).
As most everyone who has been sending out work for a few years or more knows, not all of our stories and poems will find sympathetic readers and editors. Not by a long shot. We keep a file of abandoned hopes, one that we glance at on occasion with mixed emotions – wasn’t that story about the guy who dangled himself blindfolded out of a helicopter to impress his estranged wife and daughter a friggin’ brilliant exploration of middle-aged loneliness and disaffection? Or, how could the editors at The New Yorker have failed to see how original and revelatory my poem about cotton candy and flamingos is?
Maybe we haven’t completely given up hope because we can’t make the final excision – discarding the hard copies or deleting these files from every jump drive or cloud they currently inhabit. Because if the story or poem exists at all in some tangible form, perhaps it deserves to exist?
In the last several years, more times than was probably healthy, I submitted a story only one or two times before giving up. I felt the chilling conviction that it should not be sent out at all, but because I had spent two months writing and revising it and only it, the damn story was going out! (In the case of “You’re So Different,” I didn’t stop sending it out because enough encouraging rejections had arrived for me to believe that someone would eventually publish it).
I’d also had the experience of guest-editing fiction for a journal that harvests an enormous number of submissions each year, many, many thousands, and some of the submissions I was assigned were so unready for an editor’s eye that I felt this weird mix of awe and bewilderment as I read through the pile. I kept thinking, If this is what I’m competing with, why does it take me 20 or 30 attempts to publish a story? I’ve been in Best American Short Stories for *&^# sake!
The pill I kept swallowing the year after that publication was bitter and frighteningly large: almost a year passed before I received another story acceptance, despite the BASS 2008 line in my cover letter. I had also already published close to 25 stories by the time the BASS call arrived on a day in late February of 2008. It seemed safe to believe I had some idea how to write a readable short story. But during those many months, I learned and relearned the lessons of humility I had begun my acquaintance with when I began sending out poems and stories in the mid-90s.
In fact, I had almost given up on the story that was selected for BASS 2008. It took me over four years to publish it, and at one point, it sat on my desk for a year and a half and did not go anywhere. I’m not sure why I finally sent it to the New England Review. Desperation? Hubris? A desire to play a practical joke on two editors I respected? No, the truth is that I worried I submitted to them too often; I'd sent them other stories to consider in the preceding couple of years.
Yet, before NER accepted it, I really was thinking of putting “Quality of Life” away for good. If Stephen Donadio and Carolyn Kuebler hadn’t taken it, it would have joined the circular file. I’d have lost interest in it, and this, more than anything else, is what happens with the stories that I stop submitting. I get sick of looking at them. Or maybe the subject matter now seems dull or else there have lately been too many stories published about stand-up comedians with OCD or marathon-running real estate agents who want to move from Newark to Sydney. The subject has been covered well enough, and my story looks like a sad imitation.
The uncertainty of the writing life is discussed again and again in posts like this one, but it’s a subject with so many variants, so many points of view. When I retire a story, it might only be because I prefer to put my resources into submitting newer material. The old, unpublished story is like the chambray shirt I once loved but eventually gave to the Goodwill. I grew sick of seeing it in the closet, remembering its better days, the thrill I felt to look upon it when it was in less-threadbare form.
The unpublished stories, however, did serve their purpose. For one, they eventually brought me to other stories.
--A previous version of this essay appeared on the Ploughshares blog.