Introducing Callie Armstrong. She will be joining us on alternating Fridays. Please give her a big Writeonsisters welcome!
When I decided to get serious about writing I began to study short stories and read them more than I read anything else, feeding my increasing desire to create whole worlds in a few thousand words. I didn’t know much about what went into getting short stories published, but I’d read enough literary magazines over the course of my life to know that it was possible for an amateur to do and a good place to start for someone who wanted to get published. I went to Barnes and Noble and bought the Writers Guide to Short Stories, a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, and a new notebook. I cleared the desk in my library that was piled with books to make way for a writing space, and I wrote.
I didn’t write everyday, and sometimes I didn’t write for a week, I meant to but there was something about deciding to take my writing seriously that made it harder than it was when I just wrote because I loved it. Ideas in my head were safe, even something I cherished, but once I wrote them I opened the door for the probability of scrutiny. That wasn’t something I thought I could handle, no matter how many people assured me that rejection was a necessary part of the journey. I read about writers papering the walls with all the rejection slips they received, and I winced at the thought of my stories being met with furrowed brows. The idea was almost as terrifying as saying “I’m a writer” out loud.
The fear of failing kept me from finishing stories for years and slowly I transformed from someone who wrote into someone who wanted to write. Friends told me to keep writing and to keep the stories to myself for awhile, but even doing that made me feel like a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s clothes. I felt ridiculous and knew without reading what I wrote that it was bad. I was immobilized by fear.
“It doesn’t have to be long,” a friend told me once and handed me a pen and napkin, “just tell me a story.”
After I took the pen and wrote a few sentences I can’t even remember now, my friend pulled the napkin across the table toward him and balled it up without taking a minute to read the words.
“See,” he told me, “the world didn’t end.” He laughed then told me that he had his own secret stash of “no” slips from some of the best magazines there are. He added that it would take a lot of ink and rejection for me to write anything anyone wanted to publish. I believed him and feared that rejection as much as I feared being a bad writer.
For awhile I was a secret writer, scribbling on scraps of paper and notebooks I’d fill then throw into the garbage before rereading, until one day I found the Writer’s Guide to Short Stories collecting dust on a shelf and I had an uncommon surge of confidence. I wondered how many rejection slips it would take for me to get published and I felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t even collected one.
Like a true amateur I wrote a story and sent it away. It came back to me in a yellow envelope with a pink slip thanking, but rejecting, my submission and encouraging me in my future endeavors.
When I was writing the story, imagining the “no” I would probably get in exchange for my efforts, I thought I’d probably cry, but when I held the pink slip of paper in my hands I was happy. I remembered my friend telling me about all his failures. I remembered reading about Stephen King’s and I felt like I’d passed the first step in my initiation as a real writer. I’d been rejected and I was still able to hold a pen in my hand and write another story.
The cliched advice about rejection being part of the process is true, and I know I’m not alone in it. It stings a little but doesn’t bother me as much as all the days that went by where I didn’t write a word and only dreamed of the progress I wanted to make.
Now when I send a story away, I seal it in its envelope and pray to forget all about it as I slip it into the mailbox. When weeks pass by, and sometimes months, and it comes back to me with a polite no, I add it to the stack and try to see it as one more mile walked on the journey to publication.