In Valhalla there are no rejection slips.

So, a while back my agent sent a pdf of my novel to The New Yorker with selected passages highlighted she thought could be used in the magazine.  Unsurprisingly given my fresh fish status, the NYer editor did not bite, but sent my agent the nicest possible rejection notice.  I will go ahead and include it:

Shapiro is incredibly talented and this is quite a debut, but we didn’t see any way to excerpt from it, unfortunately—the pieces you suggested are strong but fragmentary—and we felt that she wasn’t quite ready for the top-20 list, though she’ll in all likelihood make it there eventually! Thanks, anyway, for sending it over; it was a pleasure to read. Stay in touch if she writes any stories—or if anyone else crosses your mind for this issue (or any other).

This is a stage in a writer’s career: flattering personalized rejections with an invitation to submit again.  This is, in itself, an achievement.  As far as I can tell, a writer’s career looks something like this:

Stage 1: uncontrolled production of thousands of pages of crap.  The afflicted asks herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 2: some small moment of recognition.  The afflicted may be told by a writing instructor that she is good, or get into an MFA program.  The afflicted begins to submit work places, receiving a veritable avalanche of rejection slips that have been xeroxed so many times that the type on them is actually degrading.  The slips are literally slips, as the writer is not yet worth the expense of an entire sheet of paper–that is when the submission is ever acknowledged at all.  Often silence is deemed a sufficient rejection.  The afflicted may sometimes doubt her own existence, and asks herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 3: repeated near-misses.  The afflicted may impress a writing instructor who will ask her to submit a story to his new literary magazine, which he is starting with a big-name editor who will subsequently not like the work in question.  The afflicted may start seeing hand-scrawled notes on rejection slips that read “good work” or “submit again.”  She may get requests from agents to see her full manuscript, which will inevitably get turned down after months of anxious fretting–but sometimes the agents may say something nice about it.  This cycle of crazed hope/crestfallen disappointment may last for years, and the afflicted will ask herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 4: someone says yes.  The sky is ripped open, angels sing; the afflicted is elated that she hasn’t spent the last few years/decades/epochs talking to herself like a ranting homeless person.   At some point she actually said something, and someone heard.  This in no way means the cessation of impersonal rejection slips, which make the one acquiescence seem like some sort of perverse fluke.  The afflicted will then worry endlessly about being unable to make the magic happen again, and will ask herself, “why am I doing this?  I must be some kind of blithering masochistic idiot.”

Stage 5: in Valhalla there are no rejection slips.

Through all these stages, the afflicted keeps writing anyway, though she is too close to her own stories to be able to see that, in their slow way, they are getting better.  Improvement is like erosion: you can’t see anything happen, but if you take a measurement ten years later you have an inkling that, maybe, something did.

4 responses to “In Valhalla there are no rejection slips.

  1. you mean stage 4 (“someone (i.e., agent), says yes”) is after stage 3!🙂 i think i’ve been in stage 3 for an eternity.

    • Dude, I feel your pain. Writing & submitting sucks so much because you spin your wheels so hard for so long and all you get is a huge shower of mire. Then one day the car jostles itself out of the hole with a shudder, and you are left idling there totally flummoxed.

  2. Pingback: The Writing Workshop, or, Only Do This to Yourself if You Crave Intense Discomfort. | Elena Mauli Shapiro

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