Friday, April 13, 2012

Rejections: A view from the other side of the desk

First and foremost, I am a writer. But I have also been Editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y. for about a year and a half now. It's been a wonderful, enriching, exhausting, eye-opening experience. So much so, that I thought it might be valuable to share some of what I've learned from my time spent on the other side of the desk.

I took on the challenge of editing the journal for three main reasons. First, I had been published by r.kv.r.y. in the past and I liked their mission (literary work on the theme of recovery) and I respected their founding editor Victoria Pynchon a great deal.She loved her journal but found that she didn't have time anymore to give it the attention she would have liked, so in the summer of 2010 she put out a call on Facebook for someone to take it over. I hate to see good work die out, so I volunteered.

Secondly, I have always wanted to be part of the side of publishing that helps authors get their work out into the world. I didn't want to only be an author clamoring for space herself. I think it's important for writers to give back to the literary community they belong to, and I saw this as an opportunity to do that.

Lastly, and most importantly, I wanted to understand what it was like to be in charge of reading, evaluating, and selecting work and putting together and publishing a final product. In some perverse way, I felt I needed to understand what it was like not only to give authors the good news, but also to give them rejections. By that time in my career I had received thousands of rejections myself, so I knew what it felt like to receive them. Many of my rejections had made me grumble and grouse about editors and their lofty decisions handed down from on high, but intellectually I knew editors couldn't be so different from me--they were people, many underpaid or volunteers, who were passionate about language, and in it for love rather than money.

Well, guess what? I learned that it's tough to be an editor, mainly (in my case) because I WANT to be open and excited by every single piece of writing I receive. I want to find value in everything that comes across my desk. I believe in nurturing writers and giving them a vehicle for their voices. I wish I had the time and energy to say yes to everyone.

But man alive, is that ever an exhausting position to take. I never fully appreciated the side of editing that meant saying no. As a writer sending out work, I imagined the editor's job to be an easy one. You get to sit and read good work all day long. From those you read, you simply pick your favorites, and voila! What could be more simple and enjoyable than that?

Well, it turns out that a lot of things can be more simple and enjoyable: cooking dinner, cleaning bathrooms, having a tooth filled. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but when you really, really want everything you read to be good...and you simultaneously have only enough space for what averages out to one story a month for the whole year, it gets frustrating. It gets overwhelming...even disheartening. And I know there are people who would respond with some version of, "So quit. Nobody's making you do this. The last thing writers need is a frustrated editor."

But the thing I want to say is that I'm not frustrated with the writing. I may occasionally get cranky about work on a micro-level, but the big picture is, I'm cranky because of the exhaustion that sets in when I am constantly evaluating work and most of it is good, solid work. That was a revelation to me. When you want to love everything, choosing who gets to play and who doesn't takes a heck of a lot of mental energy. It takes a certain amount of ego and it takes a lot out of you. No wonder agents and editors so often talk about "needing to fall in love" with a project. I get it. It's so darned easy to like everything (hello Facebook!), and yet you can't possibly give everything you like the same fair shot or you'd never get anything done.So yes, you have to fall in love.

And by "you," of course I mean "me."

In spite of the frustrations, though, working on the other side of the publishing equation has taught me a lot. And it has helped me...helped me to feel not quite so downtrodden when I get rejections. It has helped me to understand one of the most important (and simple) rules of writing and publishing. That rejection isn't personal.

Or... as I prefer to abbreviate the concept: R.I.P.

It isn't personal. It feels personal, you're sure it's personal, how could be anything BUT personal...but it isn't. The work is simply a widget, and this particular widget didn't fit.

So try again. If it comes back, re-examine your widget and edit as needed. Then try again.

Trust me on this one. Writing is a game of attrition. If you want to succeed, if you want to be published...don't attrish.