We All Want to Be Heard: Some Musings on Writing Rejection Notices

 

The text of my article that appeared in The News Tribune on January 11, 2016

Every New Year’s, I think back on the previous twelve months.  What was important during the year?  What did I learn?

This past year, surprisingly, one of my most significant lessons came from a job that involves disappointing people.  I discovered that helpfulness can be tucked inside the word no.  Let me explain.

I am the fiction editor of my graduate school’s literary journal, and I log many hours reading unsolicited manuscripts.  When writers send stories to our journal, the assistant editors and I read the submissions. The assistants make recommendations, but the final thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision is usually mine.

This fall in a three-month period, we received 89 fiction submissions.  We will publish five or six of them.  We send rejection notices to the authors of the other stories.  If you do the math, that’s a lot of disappointment to dole out.

Our figures are nothing compared to those of larger magazines, however, which may reject thousands of submissions a year.  Most publishers communicate the bad news to authors through a form notice: “Dear _________, Your work is not right for our publication . . .” Some publishers and literary agents skip even this courtesy and do not respond at all.

But on our journal’s staff, we are all struggling writers, well acquainted with frustration and disappointment.  We know what it’s like to pour hours and hours into a creative and perhaps very personal work, only to send it out and receive . . . nothing.  So we sympathize with our submitters, many of whom are talented.

When I took this editorial position, I did not look forward to telling authors no, no, no.  As I began declining manuscripts, I used the journal’s online form letter, which saved me time and emotional effort.

But the assistant editors had been reading the stories, too, and often the assistants wrote me useful comments about the pieces.  So I started including these observations in the rejection letters.  Then I started adding a few thoughts of my own.  Certainly I couldn’t send personal notes to everyone; but sometimes I would tell Ms. X how to improve her pacing, or I’d urge Mr. Y to intensify his concluding paragraph, or I’d simply encourage Ms. Z to keep writing because she seemed to have talent.  These notes were time-consuming to write, but they were much more satisfying to me than “Dear ___________.”

They were more satisfying to the recipients, too.  We began to receive grateful replies.  The authors accepted our “no” and deeply appreciated our explanations.  They thanked us for our encouragement and suggestions.  Sometimes they sent us more of their work and hinted that they’d like more feedback.  All of us on staff were volunteers, already busy and not eager to add to our workloads.  Yet we were gratified that writers viewed us as thoughtful and supportive, for we could each tell our own stories of the difference encouragement makes.

As I reflect on 2015, I remember these correspondences with writers I will never meet.  I think of how people ache to know they are not being ignored.  In this age of unanswered phone calls and neglected emails, don’t we all want someone—whether a journal editor, a boss or a spouse—to consider what we have said, and to respond?

This past year, over and over, I had to say no.  But I learned that no, communicated thoughtfully, can also say I have taken you seriously.  That is a message people desperately long to hear.

As I write this column, which is my last one, I’d like to thank The News-Tribune and especially Patrick O’Callahan and Cheryl Tucker for devoting this op-ed space to new writers.  Thanks, TNT, for taking South Sound readers seriously.  Thanks for inviting voices like mine to be heard.

My Sister Gave Gifts She Didn’t Even Know She Was Giving (Nov. 30 article, The News Tribune)

 

connie_paintingOn an April evening in 2009, my phone rang.  It was my brother-in-law in Kennewick, calling about my sister.

“Susie had an accident,” he said, straining to stay calm.  “She fell off her horse and . . . she can’t move.  She’s been airlifted to Spokane.”

I flew to Spokane, longing desperately for the best, dreading the worst.  At Sacred Heart Hospital I hovered at my sister’s side while a nurse examined her utterly immobile body.  I waited for the nurse to say something—anything! please!about how Susie would improve over time.  But the nurse just looked at her with pained eyes and said, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you.  So sorry.”

I made myself stand strong until Susie fell asleep.  Then I rushed to the hospital chapel, collapsed onto a pew, and sobbed.

Whatever unlikely hope we may have held out for Susie’s recovery, it soon eroded.  Aside from small and uncoordinated movements in her hands, she was paralyzed from the neck down.  A younger person might have been able to regain some function through therapy, but Susie was sixty-one, and her condition did not improve.

Susie, the vibrant dancer

Susie, in her dancing days

My sister, who had loved horseback riding, dancing and gardening, now lived in a motorized wheelchair and took thirty pills a day.  Her weak hand movements could not steer her wheelchair well, and there was nothing she could manage without help.  She tried doing her technical editing job with voice recognition software, but her work was clumsy and misspelled, useless to her employer.  For my sister, long accustomed to hard work and productivity, this sudden helplessness was unbearable.  She understood beyond doubt how extensive and permanent her injury was, and it tormented her to see the strain this was placing on her family.

Early on in my visits with her, I wanted to do things for her: vacuum the house, wash dishes, weed her neglected flower beds.  I began to see, however, that what she wanted most was conversation, the kind we’d always had before she was paralyzed.  She wanted to discuss books and swap news of our kids; and in spite of all her problems, she wanted to hear my small worries.  She had not lost her sharp intellect and her sympathetic heart.

One day when I needed information for something I was writing, I sat down across from her wheelchair and interviewed her about the care of horses.  She welcomed the discussion, so I asked her question after question.  Susie answered thoughtfully with stories and examples, telling me in detail how to calm a flighty horse or treat its sore muscles.  When I later wrote a scene based on her comments, the scene was strong and vivid—not because of my words, but because of Susie’s.  As I think back on that interview now, I realize how much it meant to her to share her knowledge and to use her communication gifts.  After all her powerless frustration, in this interview she felt useful.

Before Susie’s injury I assumed that disabled people wanted either help or independence.  But Susie wanted interdependence.  She depended on her family, and she wanted us to depend on her as well.  We did that, more than we realized.  Though Susie could no longer help with the dishes or the bills, she still gave us her insight, her warmth, and every now and then, even her laugh.  These were irreplaceable gifts.

My sister died in January of 2011, twenty-one months after her paralysis.  It took me until after her death to realize what a giver Susie had been, even when she thought she had nothing left to offer.  I am grateful for the gifts she didn’t know she gave me.