This week, I was supposed to be at the Lambda Literary Foundation Writing Retreat in Los Angeles. I was supposed to be a “Lambda Fellow,” which holds a little prestige (at least in my mind) as one of just a few selected to attend this competitive writing conference, the only one in the country designed exclusively for LBGTQ writers. I am not there this week because I was rejected – the competitive admissions process threw me into the slush pile of applicants. My own “community” spit me out and said: Not good enough.
So, in mature fashion, I unsubscribed to Lambda‘s email communications. I mean, I didn’t need to read for the next two months the bios and profiles and activities of the chosen ones, those Olympian gay writers who made the Lambda cut. Fuck that, I am truly not that big of a person nor do I wish to be.
In 2011, I was accepted into the Lambda writing retreat, but turned down the acceptance, to attend the first ever Wet Mountain Valley Writers’ Workshop held in Westcliffe, Colorado. I wanted to work with one of my writing idols. During that week, my idol fell and my dreams of her turned ugly, nightmarish. The thin air and high elevation in Wet Mountain Valley may have exaggerated our perceptions, but she and I didn’t like each other. She criticized me too harshly. “Get rid of this flat, essay-ish writing.” Then she read a few lines, looked slightly disgusted and said, “This sounds like a an old political slogan, not a story!” It’s an essay, you idiot, I didn’t say, and I’m allowed some leeway to reflect, you jerk, I didn’t say. Obviously, you are a pure fiction writer and know nothing about creative nonfiction, I didn’t say. More than once she cut me off when I read out loud in class while letting her favorites read on over the time limit or talk incessantly about themselves or their own work. I hated her. I glared at her. It was like a bad online dating experience – all build up and in person no chemistry. I left the Colorado workshop in 2011 muttering “bitch” under my breath and “You haven’t written anything good in 20 years,” and other assorted, horrible, let’s bring on the bad karma type statements.
I don’t know if I should feel like a loser because I was rejected by Lambda this year, or like a winner, because I was accepted last year. Am I good enough? Am I not good enough? Perhaps I should feel like loser for my bad attitude at Colorado last summer? After having earned an MFA, I couldn’t take some harsh criticism from this author? Or maybe I should feel like a winner for standing up for myself, at least in my own mind?
Which brings me to the point: rejection and acceptance and how one navigates these waters as a writer and as a human being. I am not an authority on the subject, but I do have experience. I don’t always know when to feel good or when to feel bad when I’m rejected or accepted. That’s what I’ve concluded. See, I’m not really going to help you figure it out. I’m just saying…
Those of you who are regular blog readers know I’ve faced a lot of rejection in 2012. I won’t list all the rejections I’ve received. A good majority of them were for an essay called “Marcela Songs,” for which I now have about a thousand versions, and as of yet, no literary journal is interested in any version, no matter how I spin it. I may have to accept that “Marcela Songs,” is a failed essay. “Marcela Songs” is the essay I sent in to Lambda in 2012, further proof, I suspect, that it just ain’t that good. That’s hard for me. I’ve been trying to write this essay since I was 35. I turned 50 this year.
I’ve had other rejections on a smaller scale for other pieces. Overall in 2012, I had come to expect that every time I heard back from a literary journal for the email to say, “Thanks but no thanks, go find somewhere else for your work.” Because of the negative state that the rejections threw me in, I failed to truly acknowledge the positives, even within the rejections – for example, I received some form rejections that encouraged me to submit again. And although they were form rejections, I don’t think form rejections always encourage you to submit again. Or do they?
More important, my blog readers (that would be all of YOU), continued to encourage me with your comments and praise of my blog, month after month. By June, I’d started to think, “Hey, I have a readership that likes my work; maybe, just possibly, I’m not a shitty writer. Maybe, just possibly, I can be an effective writer without ‘being accepted’ in the more traditional fashion.”
Such support helped to renew my confidence. As did the support of individual friends. At dinner recently, a friend of mine said the mansuscript (not the single essay) Marcela Songs should be submitted as a book. She felt very strongly about this and now that I’ve looked away from it for awhile (after madly revising for a year and a half), I’ve looked at it again. I’m going to give it a shot. The manuscript is currently in the hands of a wonderful writer, Bridget Bufford, who is editing the book (in between bouts of poisoning herself on her landscaping “day” job and trying to survive the drought in Missouri.)
Candy Parker, my former editor at GAY e-magazine, recently asked me to contribute blog entries to lesbian.com, a world-wide resource for lesbians, a website that is receiving hits in the hundreds of thousands. She asked me, unsolicited, to contribute my work because she thinks so well of my writing. Lambda is not the only game in town. Neither is a bunch of “Marcela Song,” hating literary journals. Candy’s opinion means a lot. She’s a talented writer. So I should feel good about myself as a writer, right?
In July, the writing energy started to turn from negative to positive. I think this is a typical cycle for a writer, to go from negative to positive (and back again) in how one feels about one’s work and in how it’s received. I don’t believe that energy just makes itself up out of nothing, but we guide it based on our actions and attitudes. That doesn’t mean we control it or conjure it despite my claims of bad karma – just gently guide it, and hope it picks up the right wave.
The turn toward the positive started in July when I visited at the Summer Residency of the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College. I graduated with an MFA from that program in the summer of 2010. And as always, I was welcomed back into a community that continues to think highly of me as a person and as a writer. As always, I was re-motivated as I listened to readers, took classes, and mixed with current students and other alumni.
Next, I attended a very supportive writing retreat weekend with T.M.I. (Too Much Information), led by Eva Tenuto and Sari Botton. The retreat focuses on writing monologue, providing encouragement (not glaring criticism) and then on performance/reading of one’s work. The T.M.I. workshop is one of the best I’ve ever attended. I knew no one there would reject me or tell me my worked sucked. In fact, the atmosphere and experience were in opposition to that. The weekend was about encouragement, about unabashedly letting your story out and then shaping it into a reading or performance. We worked hard, but we celebrated our stories and our writing.
And since those events, everything has turned around. Perhaps I was able to guide my energy wave toward the positive after these experiences. Regardless, during this week when I was “supposed to be at Lambda,” this is what has happened instead:
The literary journal, Cobalt Review, has accepted one of my essays, “Stuck in the Middle” for publication in their print edition in October and has named it one of three finalists in the Cobalt Writing Contest. I don’t know yet whether it’s won but this is a first for me – to be a finalist (or even place) in a writing contest.
Two days later, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, named my essay, “A Smirnoff and Coke,” one of the 10 best they’ve published in the last year and reprinted it in their August retrospective issue. Another first for me, to be named one of the “best.” My friend and fellow Solstice graduate, Faye Rapoport Despres also had her magnificent essay, “No One Watches the Old Lady Dance,” included in that best-of list.
A few days after THAT, Candy Parker informed me that one of my blog entries, “What’s in a Butch’s Purse?” would be reprinted in The Huffington Post Gay Voices Section. WOW. The Huffington Post is big-time exposure and therefore, big-time platform, especially since there may be more opportunities for blogs I contribute to lesbian.com to be picked up by Huffington.
That’s three pieces of good news in just a few days. Keep in mind that last year at this time, I had three essays accepted within two months before all the rejections started. So, I’m thinking this may be my cycle: 3 acceptances (of some kind) per year and dozens of rejections for the next 10 months. Should I feel good about this or bad about this? Some people never get their writing accepted. Some people get their writing accepted on a much more regular basis.
I have recently been invited to submit by two editors, and so I feel good about that, right? Absolutely. But I have learned that even when you are asked to submit, even by a friend, or a friendly acquaintance, that is no guarantee that you will have your work accepted. Late last year, a friend and acquaintance asked me to submit some short pieces to a journal she edits and she ended up rejecting all three. I should feel bad about that, right? Um, I’m not sure. Because what this tells me is that even if someone you know is making the decision to publish or not publish your work, she or he is not going to take it unless it’s good enough. This same person has published my work in the past and asked me to read at AWP in Chicago. So, it’s about my work being good enough, and I should feel good that she thought some of my work was good enough to publish and read aloud and be thankful that she showed me (by rejecting other work) that she’s doing this based off quality.
While I ride a wave of positive energy, even the rejections are getting better, or I perceive them as better.
Recently, I got a very personal rejection from The Missouri Review, one of the best literary journals in the country. I was so excited to get such a personal rejection which said, “I highly encourage you to submit more work,” and which was signed by a REAL PERSON, that I sent the rejection off to a friend and said, “The best rejection yet!” And she agreed. And then we both researched who wrote me that personal rejection. Turns out it was a senior journalism/English major at the University off Missouri and not one of the editors – an intern, a 22 year old. Should I feel good about this personal rejection from one of the best literary journals in the country? Or should I feel bad that it came from a kid? A nice kid with great taste, mind you, but a kid.
And just yesterday, I received this rejection (for a piece of fiction I wrote in the 1990s, believe it or not):
Dear Cindy Zelman:
Thank you for sending us “The Cross Dresser.” Unfortunately this particular piece was not a right fit for Slice Magazine, but we were very impressed by your writing.
We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else during our next reading period.
We look forward to reading more.
Sincerely, The Editors of Slice Magazine
I am choosing to feel good about this rejection, because it will likely be another year before I get my annual quota of three acceptances. 🙂 It’s a long wait for that next wave.
Thank you to everyone who reads this blog and my FB page for all of your support.