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.

For Those of Us Who Have Never Stopped Thirsting to Learn

My article that appeared in the Tacoma News-Tribune on Sept. 7, 2015

Today is Labor Day, which in America means the start of school.  I spent years on a school schedule, first as a student, then as a mother of students, then as a teacher.  Now that my first grandchild is about to start kindergarten, my eye is on the academic calendar again, but not only because of her.  A year-and-a-half ago I began graduate school, studying creative writing.

Whidbey Island, near where my graduate residency meets

Whidbey Island, near where my graduate residency meets

I am not alone in starting back to school later in life.  Some of my classmates did, too.  My program with the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) is low-residency: each semester begins with an intensive (read, exhausting) session on Whidbey Island, but the rest of the term’s work is done on line.  Since the program doesn’t necessitate moving or giving up a job, some of the students live as far away as central Canada, Georgia and even Dubai, and most are older than the traditional college age.

Some are much older.  At our most recent commencement, half of the graduates had gray hair; and one diploma, sadly, was awarded posthumously.  These people studied with NILA not so much to advance their futures but to fulfill a creative longing that had been with them for years.  As I listened to them read from the impressive novels and poetry collections they wrote as thesis projects, I was thankful to be part of a learning community that knows no age barrier.

I know from my own experience that the decision to return to school in the autumn stage of life can feel awkward and out-of-sync.  When I applied to graduate school in my late fifties, my family and friends were very supportive.  My own impulse, however, was to be self-deprecating, to say I should have done this years ago, to joke that if I had got things right earlier in life, maybe I wouldn’t have to do all this cramming now.

But I as I began my studies, I realized there were advantages to being an older student.  Although my memory is not as quick as it used to be, some kinds of thinking are actually easier for me now.  I make mental connections by drawing on years of reading, going places, talking with people, and watching the world.  Years of living.  These days, when I read about Vladimir Putin, I think of conversations I’ve had with Eastern Europeans, and then I am unsurprised by Putin’s Russia-über-alles stance.  When I hear about urban crowding, I remember seeing the endless apartments and hopelessly clogged traffic of Manila.  When I try to understand ineffective governments, forgive me, but I think of fruitless meetings I’ve sat through.  Perhaps most significantly for a fiction writer, when I need to create young male characters for my stories, I think of the teenage boys I taught and especially the sons I raised.  There is a kind of understanding that comes only with having cared so deeply that you’ve lost sleep, cried, worked, yelled, prayed, and felt an impossible joy.

Perhaps that’s why I and especially my classmates in their sixties and seventies have undertaken such huge writing projects.  By this point, all that we have absorbed in life is aching to be expressed.  Call such writing a bucket list venture if you want, and in some ways perhaps it is.  But it is also a love effort, creating an opus magnum from a lifetime of the soul.

Yet I also understand as never before that thought and creativity don’t have to spend decades waiting.  Some of my most talented classmates are young.  What will they accomplish in the many years ahead of them?  And my little granddaughter, so enthusiastically beginning school—what will be her greatest work?  It’s exciting to ponder what can happen in a life of eager learning.