How Rejections Tell You to Keep Puckering Up

Yeah, but couldn't you have bought me a drink first?

Trying to place an article about a man who drives nails into his scrotum is a challenge. You have to find a publication that is appropriately (or inappropriately) edgy, but as a writer with an interest in circulating ideas, not so obscure as to not have an audience. And also as a writer interested in circulating cash, you would want compensation, even for a piece that might need to have dark curtains pulled over its stage.

These concerns came to mind the other day when I received a rejection notice for my memoir-style article about a night in San Francisco long ago. I’d attended what I thought was going to be a tattooing display and discussion, but its main event was an S&M demo, where aside from the scrotal crucifixion mentioned above, the artist in question sewed up his testicles over his penis with dental floss, much like a woeful pig in a blanket. Live, naked, onstage, much to my appalled eyes.

The Taste of Rejection
Where I’m going with this is not into any discussion of better choices among an evening’s entertainment (my article does that), but rather the various flavors of writer’s rejections, and how those taste on a writer’s tongue. The image for this post is a shot of my rejection folder, in all its glory. It is two inches high, and weighs almost two pounds. You might think that by my keeping that folder, I have a different—but just as pointed—sense of masochism as my pal with the pliant scrotum. By no means. That pile of “nos” is just a thing writers can step on to be a bit higher on their way to “yes.”

Looking over my hummock of rejections, you can see traces of their evolution over time. Sure, most of them are form letters of the “Dear Author, because of the number of submissions we receive, we regret that we are unable to respond personally ….” variety. But for those publications from twenty years ago where the editorial assistants or (victory!) the editors themselves spent some effort to tell the writer just why something didn’t fit the publication, the “no, buts” are longer and more developed extenuations. In the main, the handwritten rejections from the last few years are brief and pointed. They reflect more of today’s hurried and “next!” pace.

In fact, the letters themselves these days are so much more often little strips of paper, a slight ribbon that perhaps rejects a little more softly, because the “we regret” isn’t followed by the full page’s damning white space of emptiness. And as the evolution of electronic publishing is pushing paper aside, physical rejection letters are fewer seen. The ease of an electronic “no” is hastening their demise. Speaking of demise, I hadn’t gone through my reject slips for years, but in doing so, saw that many of the magazines I’d tried so fervidly to enter have shut their doors for good. Little solace, that.

Aiming High Keeps Your Head Up
But it was fun to flip through my collection, and note my ambition. There’s a partially handwritten, partially printed (from a dot-matrix printer, oh my!) sheet from 1988 on what I pushed that year: Articles to Atlantic, Esquire, Paris Review, Harper’s, Playboy and a host of smaller publications. None of those titans bit into what I was serving, but there was consolation in getting “an intriguing idea” from a Harper’s editorial assistant, and a “It’s a good one” from Esquire. A long handwritten response from a Travel and Leisure managing editor in 1992 detailing alternate publications that might accept my piece that he graciously declined. Even the form salutation from the Utne Reader: “Dear intrepid writer:”

So many of the letters are undated and don’t specifically mention the rejected article or story, so I have no idea what these limbo letters refer to, just a vagabond “no” telling me at some point I mailed, I waited, I hoped, and it was for naught. But clasping hands with those closed hands in my “no” pile are a number of yesses—the extended correspondence I had with Peter Sussman, a San Francisco Chronicle editor, much of it handwritten, about an article of mine he published about my much more extended correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. A series of letters from Lynn Ferrin, the late editor of Motorland magazine (precursor to Via) who had been trying to locate me—pre-email address—in the midst of a couple of moves. Regarding my piece on driving cross-country trying to locate a good cup of coffee, she told me, “Out of the piles of unreadable pap that come over the transom every day, by dump truck, suddenly there’s something that stirs my coffee….”

Here’s my message: keep sending your stuff out. I’ve had articles accepted for publication that were years old, that were sent out 10 times. My rejection folder weighs two pounds, but that’s considerably less than the weight of the 200+ magazines, newspapers or books that accepted and published pieces of mine. The reject folder is just a reminder that you have to do the work, and keep doing it. I’ll pass on the advice of Howard Junker, the longtime, former editor of ZYZZYVA magazine, whose typed signature in his rejection letter is preceded by, “Keep the faith.” And whose handwritten note reads: “Onward!”

Onward indeed. Now, what editor is likely to go for that scrotum piece?

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12 thoughts on “How Rejections Tell You to Keep Puckering Up

  1. I’ll go sideways from here, in part because I don’t want to stand too close:

    You’ve managed to find a gap in my beliefs and fill it nicely. While I’m out screaming at authors to stop glorifying the bloodletting of rejection slips and just publish the durned thing themselves, there is still the world of periodical publishing which is so very different, in many respects, from the hoary bastions of traditional book publishing.

    Thank you for teaching me something. Perhaps a skosh less thanks for the details farther up the page . . .

  2. In the words of Billy Joel:

    “I really wish I was less of a thinking man and more of a fool not afraid of rejection.”

    Tom, I’m not at all sure what that quote implies about you and your 2-lb rejection folder, but it did surprise me to find out that Billy Joel is a thinking man.

    (Actually, I admire how you keep putting your work out there—and that 200+ acceptance record!)

    Maybe it’s because I’m a woman who used to live in the Bay Area, but your scrotum story just makes me miss SF all the more (while not making me wince and unconsciously, protectively cross my legs). And it brings back memories of a rave I attended—’enjoyed’ wouldn’t be quite the right word—in the city when I was still young and brave enough. The rave also offered up S&M demonstrations that were appalling (but I couldn’t look away from) and really REALLY loud music. So I did what any prepared girl scout would do: I removed my tights (in the bathroom of course; I have some sense of decorum), stuffed them in my ears and retreated to a corner of the rave warehouse. And that’s when I finally started to blend in.

    So, if you find an editor for the scrotum piece, I’d like her name.

  3. Joel, yes, periodical publishing (and writing) is different, and I think writers get a different emotional glow from being in magazines, especially ones they’ve admired. One form I like, the personal essay, seems more at home in a magazine than a book, though it can get comfy there too.

    That said, I just read an article about the Postmaster General giving a keynote at a conference of magazine publishers, who dread the cutbacks in postal delivery and the potential of Saturday delivery going away. For various reasons, it could mean the end of yet more magazines.

    The PG’s interpretation: I dunno what’s going to happen either.

  4. Annie, one would naturally ask, did you manage to fit your tights entirely in your ears (one leg per ear), and are there still some strands at this very moment swimming to your brain? It is easy to see how someone with a pair of tights coming out of their ears would fit into a social gathering.

    I’ve been to other SF events that were nearly as high on the weirdness scale as that one. And of course, been to many concerts where my eyeballs (not just my eardrums) were rattling from the volume. I’m pretty sure that’s where my tinnitus comes from. What?

    PS scrotum editors aren’t that easy to find, but I will keep a look out.

  5. Well, I toss my rejections. I don’t need the reminders. But I’m sure the S&M demo would have welcomed your folder if you put it in a leather bag and encouraged him to tie it to the end of his glans sans dental floss….sort of an ode to rejection statement – the bittersweetness of it all.

    Can’t say I’ve ever seen that particular kind of bizarreness, although the folks who enjoy impaling themselves with fish hooks and 500 pound test line and swinging from the ceilings like living, humanesque entomology displays seems to rank high on strange in my book.

    As far as who I’d pitch it to:

    Men’s Journal: Esquire: and definitely Cosmo – the grand dame of all this is bizarre sexually. If you want suggestions on pitching it, email me!

  6. Becky, yeah, I didn’t tell you about the Master Lock through his urethra (and I’m not kidding, though I wish I were). The people you are talking about, who hang from hooks, were part of the photographic display. There’s a famous (or infamous) guy name Fakir Musafar who was well-represented in the images. Google him if you want to cringe.

    Hey, maybe I’ll check some of those mags. The problem is that this is a memoir-style piece about something that happened years back, so it’s not that topical. However, I do draw it into the present, so maybe…

  7. Ouch!! Does he ever use his penis for sex? Or does he just have sex with machines and automobile? Easy to draw it into the present by contacting them and doing an interview, find out what’s happened since then…has he faded into obscurity, lost his penis to infection….what’s he doing now? Why did he do it?

  8. Hey! You’re in luck! 20-Year Anniversary!! Pitch it to hospice and nursing magazines on the angle of “unusual patients”….they see some doozies…The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation may not appreciate his approach, but the CA chapter/offices sure would. Seriously. There are a ton of places that would appreciate a retrospective….

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