Thursday, June 16, 2011

An Eye-Opener For Writing Students

It's so nice when you all send me the juicy stuff. Maybe I should have a rejection contest. You can send in your most notable one. Anyway, a reader sent this note in with the above rejection:

Dear WR: Above a rejection I received in 1978 from a magazine called Samisdat. I'd just gotten out of grad school and was submitting my work for the first time. The original rejection was written in red ink, which added extra punch to the impact of the note. I was so stunned and deflated by the brutality of the rejection that I stopped writing for several months. I probably would have stopped writing permanently if I had any choice in the matter, but I think writers write no matter what -- we can't stop ourselves (or be stopped by others). And most of us also feel compelled to send our writing to magazines in hopes that it will be published (Emily D. being a notable exception). 

While the letter devastated me when I got it, what strikes me most about it now is the odd shifts in tone, from sympathetic understanding (he only read my poems because I must be sincere) to belligerent attack (my poems were the kind of shit that would get written in a detox ward) to folksy comaraderie (say "howdy" to David) to full-on crazy (piss on Kennedy's eternal flame). Not to mention the part where he justifies his attack in the name of honesty.
I often show the letter to my creative writing students, who are understandably eager to submit their writing and see it in print. It never fails to make an impression. In the stunned silence after I finish reading the letter aloud, I tell them that the first rule of submitting your work is to know your audience -- to become familiar with the magazine before you submit to it, not after. And I tell them to ask themselves if they're ready to receive a letter like this one.
Here's a transcript of the rejection, which is a little hard to read: 
I customarily don't read photocopied submissions. Made an exception in your case because you did order a sample copy, an indication of either wealth or sincerity, and I've not met a rich poet yet.  But, truth to tell, I'm inclined to wish I hadn't read these.  There's not a damned thing positive or encouraging I can say.  They're adjective-heavy, _____, trite, self-conscious, borderline incoherant (sic), the sort of shit I'd expect from a beginning writing class held in a de-tox ward. Miscarriage is best of the lot, but the person gets lost in your effort to be poetic. What you really need is a good dose of The Pillory Poetics RSV; your sample order was short 50 cents and so wouldn't normally get it, but I'm tossing it in anyway, trusting you'll either pay up or return it, preferable after careful reading.

Now I know I'm five kinds of bastard, six of motherfucker. You don't need to tell me--but I need to be what I am to tell you the above, giving you (hopefully) some new perspective, either constructive or destructive or what you make of it. Arlington, eh? Say howdy to David Greisman of Abbey for me, if you know him, and piss on Kennedy's eternal flame for me if you get the chance. (I hold the bastard responsible for Vietnam, detaching the CIA from direct Congressional supervision, and miscellaneous other crimes against humanity based on Happy Days! idealism.  Regards, _____________, (Editor of Samisdat) 

Here's the flyer, on the back of which the above note was scrawled:

Would be hard to believe it weren't posted here in living color/black-and-white, wouldn't it?


Anonymous said...

some editors think their tirades will serve as some kind of "a ha!" moment and the writer's work will be forever changed for the better by brutally candid critique.

it rarely works out that way, the message gets lost in the rude tone. a far more effective rejection would have been curt and to the point about using too many adjectives. no cussing, no man-on-his-period bitchy rage.

not sure about the editors objection to clean photocopies, back in the day, that's what we had. all in all, that's one of those rejections that reveals more about the editor than about the submission. :/

Anonymous said...

Damn. Well, it's honest alright - and reveals as much about the rejector as it does the rejected poem.

lil jimmy said...

They based the show 'House' on this guy...just changed it to a doctor.