I use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to track rejections I’ve received from editors to whom I’ve sent short stories. Since 2004, when I started using this system, I have received 181 rejection letters. (There were many more, before I started this meticulous tracking.) My rough math tells me that I’ve earned approximately 23 rejections per year for the past eight years, or about two per month. So every two weeks, basically, an editor has turned down my work.
But really. I’m pretty proud of my Excel file, the little cells lining up like soldiers on a march. I fill in the “response” column with either a red “R” for “rejected” or a fat green “A” for “accepted.” The R’s outnumber the A’s in a landslide. A tsunami. To review one eighteen-month stretch I have to scroll my mouse wheel until my finger hurts, searching for a lonely A.
The first one came from the late Jeanne Leiby, a beautiful woman who edited UCF’s The Florida Review before moving to Louisiana to take on the editorship of the venerable Southern Review. She called from Orlando to tell me she liked my story and wanted to publish it, but that she thought the title was a little lame. Would I consider changing it? Yes, I would. I hung up the phone, hyperventilated a bit, poured a drink and opened my Excel file to record my first “A”. And then I wrote more stories, spent a ton of money on postage, rewrote everything, bought more stamps, revised again, and waited fifteen months for another acceptance.
The point here, of course, is one every published writer makes—persistence pays. But the persistence must apply not just to the act of submitting stories, but also to the act of persistently making your writing better. Bullish resubmission of the same flawed story to editor after editor is not persistence—it’s arrogance. Better is the persistent willingness to open the rejected story up, look at it with a new perspective and consider ways to improve it. Rejection is a gift—it provides an opportunity to make your writing better and an emotional challenge to prove your mettle. It is a good story, you tell yourself. But maybe it needs to be a bit better. So you sit down. And you make it better.
Each publication credit is hard won but each comes with reach and power you may underestimate. Nearly a year after a story of mine appeared in a small literary magazine, an agent wrote to tell me he’d read the story, liked it, and was putting out feelers for a novel. It was the beginning, as Bogie would have said, of a beautiful friendship. My first novel will be published sometime in the next year.
Meanwhile, more writing, more revising, more money on stamps. Email submissions and rejections are more common now, of course, but I still make a habit of sending out snail mail submissions whenever I can. Here’s why: I live in a small town and our neighborhood is the type of old city-ish place where mailboxes are affixed to the houses next to their front doors. When I round the corner of my street and approach my house from two blocks away, I can see my mailbox—a solid black rectangle against the faded green of my home. Most days I see protruding from the box only the long white envelopes of bills or the ruffled cheap newsprint of advertising circulars. But some days I see—from two hundred yards away—the bright brown of a 9 x 12 envelope, and I know it’s a manuscript I submitted some months before, coming back to me now with a small slip of a rejection tucked inside. And I smile. Because seeing the rejection in my mailbox reminds me of something that’s become very important to me over the years. I’m in the game. I’m playing the odds. Sometimes, I win.
There’s an old runner’s adage I think of almost daily: “no matter how slow you’re going, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch.” 181 rejections. By the time you read this, that number will surely have increased. And that’s a good thing.
Laura Lee Smith’s first novel, Hearts of Palm, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. Her short fiction was selected by guest editor Amy Hempel for inclusion in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2010. Her work has also appeared in The Florida Review, Natural Bridge, Bayou and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Flagler College and works as an advertising copywriter. www.lauraleesmith.com
This Trembling Earth
The baby was a little different to begin with. Hard to love. He had a strange high-pitched cry and dark circles under eyes that were neither blue nor brown, but rather an indiscriminate muddy grey. Long limbs, a brittle appearance. His name was Ethan.
I was there for the delivery. Kristen, my daughter, thrashed in the hospital bed and cried for the epidural long before it was time. She was eighteen. In the delivery room, she held my hand and begged me to make the pain stop, but I only said, “I can’t make it stop, baby. The only way out of it is through it.”
Outside, the air was thick and salty with smoke. “Look at that,” I said, pointing to the window, where billows of smoke trailed through the hospital’s parking lot. “I swear, I think all of Georgia’s burning,” though it was only a wildfire in the Okefenokee, some ten miles away.
Kristen wept. She vomited in a little plastic tray, and then the doctor came in and gave her the epidural. An hour later, Ethan was born. “It’s a boy,” the doctor said, and I couldn’t help it, I thought of Ty, my boy, my almost-man. Once, he was a baby, too. Now he was twenty, which made me forty, which was something I had yet to get my head around.
When Kristen’s baby cried out, his small voice was abrasive, and the rest of the room fell silent. Even when the nurse brought him to Kristen and she put him awkwardly to her breast, no one spoke.
I took a week’s vacation to help Kristen with the baby. I’m a bailiff for the Charlton County courts, which means that, among other things, I’m the one to hold the Bible up in front of the defendants and witnesses when they take the stand, ask them if they’re ready to tell the whole truth, so help them God. Almost always they look at me, scared, and they sort of mumble when they say “I will,” and you know they will, damn straight, because that’s a pretty powerful thing, a woman standing with a Bible in her hands calling on the power of God. But sometimes they’re calm, and don’t seem afraid, and they stand a little to the side and don’t look straight at me when they answer, and those are the ones I know are fixing to lie. There’s nothing I can do about that. I’m an honest woman myself, but there’s nothing I can do about a person who’s destined to be a liar.
There was no father, in case you are wondering. The man who impregnated my daughter, the married, middle-aged discount grocer in Folkston who saw an easy mark and went for it, denied the baby was his. He actually sat in my living room and denied it, with Kristen sitting on the couch across from him weeping and shaking her head. “You got the wrong man, sister,” he said. “You are sadly mistaken.” He drove a Dodge Magnum past our house every day on his way to work. Of course there are DNA tests now, but Kristen said to leave him alone, so we did. I thought very seriously about killing him, but I did not know how to go about it, and I was very busy, because I had other people to look after.
We had to leave the hospital the day after Ethan was born. Kristen cried again and said she wasn’t ready. “Tell it to the government, honey,” the nurse said. “That’s Medicaid for you.” She patted both of us on the arms. “You’ll be OK, darlin’. Ya’ll got each other.” She leaned close to me and whispered loudly. “Sometimes they ain’t got nobody. No husband, no mama, nobody to help. At least she’s got you.”
I helped Kristen into the front seat of the car. She was slow and sluggish and walked gingerly. She was still wearing maternity jeans and a pilled cotton top with yellowish stains under the arms. Even before the pregnancy, she’d been stout, mulish. Now she was bloated and doughy, her face resembling a quilted, overstuffed pillow. She had a raised brown mole at the corner of her mouth. On some girls, it might have been considered attractive.
I buckled the baby seat into the back of the car. Ethan started screaming as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot, but Kristen sat silently, slumped against the passenger door, biting her nails.
We drove into the smoke. In Folkston, we stopped at the Krystal. I leaned over the seat and bobbled a pacifier against Ethan’s lips, but he would not take it, so I carried him into the restaurant, wrapped tight in a blue-and-pink hospital receiving blanket and still crying. I bought a sack of burgers and three orders of fries. I was thinking of Ty at home, how he would be hungry.
“That’s a little one,” said a fat man with no teeth. “Look at that bitty one.” He reached out a dirty finger to touch Ethan’s face. “Whatchoo cryin’ about, little one?” he said. I jerked the baby back before the man could touch him. “He’s sick,” I said, which was not true, of course, but I wanted the man to leave us alone. “You could catch it.” The man backed away. Then we drove on, the afternoon sky darkening through the haze. When we pulled up in front of the house—a bruised thing, damp cedar shingles and a spindly wooden deck all around—I saw a quick movement at the window, Ty, as though he’d been watching for us.
My house is on the eastern lip of the Okefenokee Swamp, the place the Seminoles called “trembling earth” for the way the dry land, what little there is, will yield to the pressure of natural gasses, shift and dislodge into thick islands, which float like massive lily pads through the tannin water. The swamp is a national preserve, but that doesn’t mean much to those of us who have always lived here, like Ty, who can wander in and out of the preserve’s boundaries without a thought, the way you wander from one room of your house to another when you’re feeling restless. Ty grew up in the swamp. He knows its secrets. I always thought he should have been a park ranger. They make money. Ty could have been anything. He just chose not to. Or maybe he didn’t. I don’t know.
Ty’s seen foxfire in the swamp, probably a dozen times or more. He used to tell me about it—the way the light glows through the palmetto scrub, faint at first so you think you’re seeing just a reflection of the moon, then stronger, so you think you’ve lost your bearings and you’re coming out on a road and catching sight of some car’s headlights, then so bright and blinding and beautiful that you know it’s foxfire—swamp gas, some call it. Ty said it was like a gift, to be allowed to see it. I’d never seen it, not in all my years near the swamp. But I looked for it—I looked for it all the time.
The above excerpt is from “This Trembling Earth,” New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2010. Algonquin Books.