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It's All in a Name. Or, How I Took the Sting out of Rejection by Putting an End to Submission (While Continuing to Send Out My Work)
Poet offers a new way to view the submissions process
Welcome to our weekly column on the ins and outs of lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors everywhere.
In 22 years as a middle school principal, I spent a lot of time advising other people on managing expectations, which is really another name for preparing yourself to be rejected, whether you're running for Student Council president or hoping to be accepted to your first-choice high school. But by the time I retired from that job in the summer of 2020 and started writing poems and sending them out to lit mags, I'd fallen out of practice in following my own advice. I hadn't applied for a job—at least not one that I needed or really wanted—in years, and I had been married for almost 20 years and stopped gambling with dating apps a few years before that.
When I started sending out my newly hatched poems, I had to re-learn for myself that it's not as easy as I'd been making it sound, this business of managing expectations and being prepared for disappointment, let alone being disappointed, which is a euphemism for rejected. No matter how thick you grow your skin, putting yourself and your work out there always comes with a glimmer of hope. Without that glimmer of hope, after all, why bother? I do have an ego and some investment in others besides my close friends and relatives expressing appreciation for my poems. And so the first run of rejections came with their free bonus packs of self-doubt.
As I bucked up and steeled myself for the next round, it occurred to me that in the lit mag world, the term "submission" sets the writer up for particularly acute disappointment because it introduces a power imbalance into the writer-magazine relationship from the outset. But to my surprise, this very power of language to influence how we feel about things was the key to a change I was able to make in my feeling about not having work accepted. (Notice how I skirted the word "rejection" in that sentence. . . )
This shift came with my first acceptance, and not just because of the ego boost and the reassurance that someone might be interested in publishing my poems. A simple sentence in the acceptance note changed my perspective on the relationship between writer and editor.
The language of the standard rejection is often quite courteous. Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. . .we were glad to have the chance to read your work. . .some positive comments about the merit of the work. . . good wishes for placing it elsewhere. But when your work is being rejected, it can be hard to take that goodwill to heart. Certainly my heart was more open when a poem I cared deeply about had been accepted, but this opening sentence was key to shifting my thinking: "Thank you for finding us."
Almost simultaneously with my excitement about the poem being accepted, those thanks triggered an insight. Oh! I thought, I'm not the only one who wants, even needs something, out of this relationship. The magazine was waiting for me to find it! They are grateful to me for finding them! Without the publication, my life goes on, but without the pieces they want, they can't make the magazine they want. Thinking about it this way, I was suddenly freed of feeling like a supplicant at the feet of the all-powerful editor. I had something that might be of value of them.
This shift brought a new word into my mind, and with it, a new feeling about sending out my work. Having decided that I am offering my poems for editors' consideration rather than submitting them to their judgment, I have become much more relaxed about learning that my work might not be the right fit for a particular magazine at a particular time.
In a way, it's the same reframe mind game that I used to play in my job hunting and dating days. "If they don't want me, then I probably don't want to work there," or, "If they don't want me to work here, then I probably don't want to work there either," or, "If they don't like me, then why should I like them?." But rather than being reactive and defensive, it introduces a feeling of generosity into the process of sending out my work.
I changed the names of the folders on my hard drive and in my e-mail account from "Submissions" to "Offerings." Now, each time I move a poem or an e-mail into one of those folders, I have another opportunity to experience the generous feeling of being the one with the thing of value to offer to the one who might need it, to remind myself that it's up to me to decide how I want this process to feel. My attitude about the whole process shifted, as if the dome of an observatory had been slid back to reveal the night sky.
Perhaps you find my trick appealing but aren't sure about the word "offering" with its religious connotations. It might be too suggestive of the collection plate in church or the burnt offerings discussed in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Interestingly, though, those meanings match the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language's third and fourth definitions of "offering," the first being "making an offer." The dictionary also points toward my chosen term in listing "the act of submitting something for consideration" or "something so submitted" as the third definition of submission, the first being the "act of submitting/yielding/surrendering to the will/power/authority of another."
Maybe there are other words one could use. . . proffer does exist in noun form, as "the act of proffering" or "an offer" and has a certain ring. "Thank you for considering my proffer."
And what if editors could be inspired to come up with alternative terms for rejections? Somewhere I saw or heard the word "declined" — I think in relation to a UK-based journal. That's gentler, isn't it? And the linguistically inclined could have all kinds of fun with relabeling the tabs in their poem-tracking worksheets . . . First Declension, Second Declension, and so on.
But for now, if you'd like, I offer you "Offerings" as an empowering alternative to "Submissions.”
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