Dealing with Rejection when Writing on Sensitive Topics

I’ve been writing and submitting for a number of years now, and I’ve always assumed that rejection would stop stinging after awhile. I’ve finally arrived at that place – mostly – with my short-form poetry, but it took quite a few publications to get there. Unfortunately, this confidence hasn’t transferred over to my fiction and non-fiction essays. I have far fewer publications in these categories, so I find those rejections harder to take.

The worst rejections are the ones where I’ve laid my soul down on the page and it just isn’t enough. There’s no way to edit the piece to make it better or stronger. I’ve had two of these rejections recently and I’m still smarting from one of them.

The first was for a poem I wrote for an anthology callout on the topic of #MeToo. The editor came back with a kind rejection, but stated that my piece wasn’t specific enough because I didn’t identify my attacker. Given that I was so young when the traumatic incident happened, I simply can’t provide those details.

What she was saying was: this piece isn’t a good fit for what I’m trying to explore here. What I heard was: I don’t believe you. This never happened. And you can’t write.

The second rejection came from a callout for an essay about the experience of being disabled within a given community. Again, this is a touchy subject for me. I have a hidden disability – I’m blind in one eye – and I spent most of my childhood trying to blend into the background and pretend that I was the same as everyone else. Talking about this is a new experience for me.

This editor simply sent a short rejection of my essay: this didn’t work for me. There was no clarification as to why, so I was left to draw my own conclusions. Given my frame of mind on the subject, that was not a good thing. I knew I’d captured the topic. Grammatically, the essay was sound. My life experience simply didn’t work for this person. How can I process that?

I’m still stuck on this rejection. I feel invalidated, like my entire point of view doesn’t even matter.

How can writers get past rejections like these that feel so personal?

Logically, I know it’s not personal to the editors. Maybe this editor had several essays on the same or a similar topic, or no pieces that would fit well alongside it. Maybe the length of the piece didn’t work. In the case of my poetry, my poem simply didn’t capture the theme.

With both rejections, it helped to talk about it. Not angrily with the editors – although that was sorely tempting – but with friends and other writers. One of my poetry friends gently pointed out that the anthology editor had done nothing wrong, but that the topic was simply so volatile for me that I was dumping my anger her way. It helped to hear this message from someone I trust.

Given my strong reactions, I had to ask myself a hard question: Am I comfortable with these pieces if they are published? Because if a single rejection by a reader – and that’s all an editor is at this stage – sent me into this deep of a tailspin, how would I react if either of these pieces were published? What if my work went viral and criticism grew exponentially? In today’s digital age, once your work is out there, there are no guarantees that you can ever fully take it back. You only have control over when you release it into the wild.

For both of these pieces, I found that I simply couldn’t let them lie fallow to rewrite later, as I often do with rejected work. I needed to do something to resolve them and move on.

I decided to tweak the poem and sent it right back out to another prospective market. Happily, it has found a home there and should be published soon.

The essay was trickier. Although part was about my disability, it intertwined with the story of a little-known (in the U.S., at least) fictional character. I couldn’t readily see another market for this, plus I wasn’t sure I could face another rejection. I also realized that I was the right person to cross-reference the essay with relevant links. So, I put it on my blog: maximum creative control, and it got the piece out of my head. You can read it here.

As a writer, how do you deal with rejection when the topic is personal? Let me know in the comments.

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Evolution of the Poem: at the barre …

pia04937orig1Recently, I was combing through old poetry, and ran across an early draft of my scifaiku poem “at the barre …”, complete with a list of markets that had rejected it.

Now, I love the completed version of this poem, which reads:

at the barre
the graceful arms
of a spiral galaxy

— first appeared in Rattle‘s Issue 49, Fall 2015, Tribute to Scientists

And I was excited when this scifaiku won an award, placing second in the 2016 Dwarf Stars Award given by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

But the poem didn’t start out that way. In fact, the early versions were downright terrible.

My inspiration for this poem came from my daughter, who was taking dance class at the time. One of the ballet positions – fourth, if I’m remembering correctly – had one arm curved over her head and the other curled around her front. She reminded me of a spiral galaxy.

So, I began to research spiral galaxies, and discovered that their arm positions determine whether they are classified as spiral galaxies or barred spiral galaxies. The shape that reminded me most of my daughter was barred – an SBc.

I thought this was a nifty comparison, and conjured a row of little galaxies standing in front of a ballet barre. Such a lovely image should be easy to put into words, no?

This is an early draft of my poem (yes, I actually sent this out):

spiral galaxies —
intergalactic dance troupe
in “b” position

Um, yeah. It’s my poem, and it doesn’t even make sense to me.

But I knew I liked the concept, so I hung in there and kept editing. Barre was a lovely word to use because it both evoked the ballet and gave a nod to barred spiral galaxies. Once I put that word in there, I could take out the line about “b” position (the “b” stood for barred anyway), and I didn’t need to use the word dance. Elimating that clunky verbiage allowed the poem to flow from there.

So, please, my poet friends, hang on to your poems that speak to you, even if they start out rough. Haiku or scifaiku, in particular, can be deceptively tricky to write. Some short poems practically write themselves, but not this one. “At the barre …” needed distance, perspective, and research to come together.

Photo credit: That’s spiral galaxy Messier 81 above, as imaged by NASA/JPL/Caltech/University of Arizona/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Culling

My main poetry goal for the year is to put together a manuscript of scifaiku. In looking over my poems, it has been interesting to see a theme of extra-terrestrial romance flowing through the images. So, I am trying to line up my poems so that they tell a sort of love story while writing new ones to fill in the gaps. It is a challenging process because it is so new for me. I feel like I have a handle on submitting individual poems to contests or magazines, but a collection is a different animal – it has a different feel and it requires a different skill set.
When I was a little girl, my mom and I used to garden. One of our favorite things to plant was carrots. I think they intrigued me because they looked so different below the surface. A big leafy top didn’t necessarily equate to a big root. And every year, when it was time to thin the carrots so that the remaining ones could grow larger, we had a hard time doing it. My mom used to say that the carrots worked so hard to be born, she didn’t want to stop them now. Often, we just left all of the carrots in the garden to fend for themselves. So none of them ever grew very large.

Preparing a poetry manuscript is a lot like weeding carrots. If you want individual poems to flourish and be successful, you need to retain the best and remove the rest. But culling is hard. These poems are all my poetic children, so to speak, and I worked hard for them to be born. How can I choose?

Evolution of the Poem: Faded Memories

Earlier this year, I read a wonderful post at Kelli Russell Agodon’s Book of Kells blog entitled “What You Don’t See Behind the Poem”. Using Fuzzmail, she gave a glimpse of the evolution of a poem from start to finish. Hers is a humorous tale, and I found myself laughing as I read, and re-read, the post.

I’ve been thinking about haiku and editing. Short poems look deceptively simple to write. Most of the time, they go through numerous revisions from start to finish. I usually compose on the computer, deleting and rewording as I go, and I tend to forget just how many stages one poem can undergo. I thought it might be fun to work up a poem from start to finish.

Here’s the finished product:

FADED MEMORIES

blue linen ribbon
wrapped around a seashell wreath
the scent of sea foam

And here’s the messy, ugly, evolution of the poem:

That blue ribbon on my seashell wreath is looking kind of worn and faded … it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the beach …

faded blue ribbon
ties seashells and sand together
faded memories

faded blue ribbon
wrapped around moss and seashells
memories of the sea

strip of blue linen
ties seashells and moss
into faded memories

blue linen ribbon
tied around a seashell wreath
the smell of the ocean

blue linen ribbon
tied around a seashell wreath
faded scent of moss

blue linen ribbon
wrapped around a seashell wreath
the taste of sea foam

blue linen ribbon
wrapped around a seashell wreath
the smell of sea foam

blue linen ribbon
wrapped around a seashell wreath
the scent of sea foam

Then I had to think up a title:

The Wreath?
Seaside Memories?
Found Treasure?
Faded Memories

Is this poem really finished? I tend to edit my poems every time I look at them, until I finally get to a point where I don’t think I can add or change any more without losing the essence of the poem. Since I just wrote this tonight, I don’t have enough perspective yet to know if it’s finished. Only time will tell.

Photo credit & wreath-maker: Mama Joules