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If at First You Don't Succeed...You're in Good Company

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine sent me a story about a writer named Serge Volle who submitted 50 pages of a manuscript to 19 French publishers.

Anyone who writes - anyone who tries to get published - knows this drill. You’ve worked on a piece, possibly for a long time. You’ve done the best you can with whatever it is - a short story, a poem, an article. You format your work to meet whatever requirements are specified for this contest or that magazine, and you send this thing that you’ve labored over to a largely anonymous, critiquing engine. You do this because you have a dream of being able to connect with people - with a reading audience - in a meaningful way. You hope that something you say might make somebody’s day a bit better or let them know that you’re also “out there,” doing a similar dance with life. These are a few reasons why I write at least and why I sporadically send my work out to publishers. (By the way, I fully acknowledge the irony of trying to “connect with others” by sitting alone at a computer for huge chunks of time. It’s a weird way to socialize.)

This summer - after several years of not sending my work out - I got back on the submission train. I’d been working on some new poems that seemed polished enough to float into the world. Actually, the names of the literary magazines where I sent my stuff could probably BE a poem.

Standing on Hunger Mountain with Mass Poetry or

in a FIELD - anyone can Spoon River or read

New Letters into the waiting Crab Orchard where

a Black Warrior sits among The New Guard.

(Okay, maybe not.) My actual submission list is longer than this. Over July and August, I sent my work to 13 publishers, and the results weren’t that great. I got a lot of “thank-you-for-submitting-but-no-thank-you” emails. The first 5 or 6 of these didn’t bother me - after all these years of writing, I know that rejection is part of the process. But when I hit the double digits, a little gloom began to accumulate around the edges of my ego. I started opening up my poem files, rereading things, picking at what I’d written in unproductive ways. I saw all the flaws in what I’d done, and my interest in writing new stuff started to fizzle. In other words, my nasty and overachieving inner-critic really got her hooks into this situation.

Let’s return (shall we?) to Serge - and to the reason why my friend forwarded this Yahoo news article. The manuscript that Serge sent to the French publishers didn’t do very well either. 12 out of 19 rejected it, and 7 didn’t respond. Poor Serge. Except (and you probably saw this coming, didn’t you?) Serge didn’t write those 50 pages. Claude Simon, a famous French author and winner of the 1985 Nobel prize for literature did. Serge submitted that material to prove a point. He claimed that the refusals “showed the philistinism of modern publishing” which is “abandoning literary works that are not easy to read or that will not set sales records.” Click here for the full story.

Of course, the article is entertaining and validating for people like me - who sometimes still need a reminder that publishing (that the arts, in general) can be very subjective, that even the most accomplished writers occasionally get the smack-down. (I'll save the question of publishing trends for another day.)

​I know that in order to keep my writing process as genuine as it can be, I must not focus on who’s issuing big rubber stamps of approval. But writing is a curious pastime - those of us who do it, do it at least in part because we have something to communicate…because we have a story or a question or an experience that we want to share, that we hope will be received by someone, somewhere, someday. I will always write towards that connection, but actually making the link - reaching an audience - may simply be the icing on a creative experience that is ultimately...for me, mainly. It is through this often arduous, often deeply orienting practice that I’ve come to better understand myself and all the things that can unfold in life. Writing helps me more than it helps anyone else at this point, and hey, that’s really something. I’ll take it.