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.

Advertisements

25 Science Fiction Tanka and Kyoka at Atlas Poetica

My friend Susan Burch and I co-edited a special feature at Atlas Poetica (thanks, M. Kei!) on science fiction tanka. In the style of previous special features, that allowed for one poem per poet – 25 poems, no more, no less.

Susan and I had a blast working on this. We met for lunch several times to go over the submissions. Her poetic story began with tanka, the five-line poem with Japanese origins, whereas I started my short-form journey with scifaiku, a unique cross of science fiction and haiku. There isn’t much written to define science fiction tanka, so we explored the boundaries of the form. Strong candidates were well-crafted tanka, had a clear voice, and had the immediacy of immersing you in an alien world.

As editors, our goal was to interact with the poets as one voice. Behind closed doors (of Olive Garden), however, we debated the merits of the submissions. I have a stronger science background, so I wanted the poems we published to be scientifically sound. Susan has a much better grasp for the feel of a good tanka, so she made sure the pieces we chose were well-crafted. 

Even though our backgrounds are different, we tended to like the same poets. There are definitely a few “Julie poems” in the mix, as well as a few that I shrugged my shoulders at but Susan felt we should include. My thanks to all of the poets who submitted to this special feature and entrusted us with their odd little poetic children.

 In addition to little poems, I make little wreaths. Some are odder than others. 

I’ve read that reading a good haiku sampler should be a similar experience to trying a box of chocolates – lots of variety, a few favorites, but nothing tastes bad. I think we’ve achieved that here.

25 Science Fiction Tanka and Kyoka can be viewed here. (If you can’t get the link to work, try standard view.)

A Science Fiction Character With A Hidden Visual Disability Changed My Life 

I fell in love with Jason from Battle of the Planets in 1978, when I was nine years old. That year, my friends and I ran around yelling “Transmute!” as we jumped off playground equipment, trying to emulate those brave cartoon orphans battling hostile invaders from foreign worlds. Initially, Mark, the well-behaved leader, and Princess, the only girl, were my role models, as the writers’ intended. But when I saw the episode Strike at Spectra – and realized that the surly second-in-command had a serious vision problem – I became obsessed with Jason. 

In the episode, the character is shown to be suffering from severe double-vision, which he hides from his teammates during a mission. Jason can’t participate in the team’s signature move – the Whirlwind Pyramid – without falling out of formation twice. He is sent back to the spaceship, dejected, where he punches the command console in frustration. Despite his problems, he manages to pull it together in time to prevent the rest of the team from falling to certain death. G-Force saves the day once again. We are assured by the narrator that “Jason has come through a big crisis,” but he will be just fine.

Even at nine years old, I knew that Jason wasn’t fine. I couldn’t wait for the following week to uncover his real issue. A cartoon character with a hidden disability was an unknown in my previously viewed Hanna-Barbera world. I was certain that Jason needed glasses, like me, or maybe he had a hidden vision impairment similar to mine. 

I’m legally blind in one eye but I do use it for peripheral vision. Sometimes, I get migraines with visual auras. Like Jason, I struggle with pretending to be “whole” when I am not. Some of the problem with a hidden disability comes with having needs that aren’t easy to accommodate. For example, I have difficulty parking a car due to my lack of depth perception, but I can do it. I spend an inordinate amount of energy converting a two-dimensional world into a third-dimensional one. When Jason shot that Super Sniper Missile to save the day and nearly crashed the ship, or when the team came back and he dropped his head in relief and exhaustion, I felt such a strong kinship with his character. I latched on to Jason and his undefined visual problems with a fervency bordering on obsession.

But when I watched my favorite show the following week, Jason seemed perfectly fine. It turns out that a prior episode – which I had missed – hand-waved away his double vision as the result of stress. No further explanation was given for its recurrence. When the program disappeared from American television screens, I was crestfallen. The expected outcome – easily resolved in under thirty minutes – never came. What was really wrong with Jason? In my young mind, his troubles continued.

Ongoing, variable visual issues are rarely seen in science fiction. There is an underlying assumption that advanced science has led to improved vision correction, so any deviation from this must solely serve to further the plot. Vision problems we do see usually fall into one of two categories: easy to fix or permanent blindness.

We encounter “good guys” overcoming visual disabilities and being restored to wholeness, such as Geordi La Forge with his magical visor (and later, artificial eyes) in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Han Solo overcoming temporary blindness due to hibernation sickness in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

We also have completely blind characters who have acquired great wisdom and strength since losing their sight. “Blind and badass” includes Chirrut Îmwe in Star Wars: Rogue One. The website TV Tropes even has a category for this: Blind Weaponmaster is a subtrope of Handicapped Badass.

Rarely do we see partially sighted characters in science fiction. Those that we do encounter are warriors who have lost an eye in battle. Think General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, General Martok of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or Honor Harrington in the book series by David Weber.

Jason’s plight falls outside these tropes. As a child, I’d never seen any storyline like this on daytime cartoons. His lament of “My comrades! They’re all going to fall to their death because I failed them!” while staring at a blurred target array still chills me. Jason fulfilled my childhood desire for a role model. His character was struggling with feelings of inadequacy due to poor vision but still met his duties. I could relate.

As an adult, I learned that Battle of the Planets is actually an Americanized adaptation of the Japanese amine Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. This first revamping of the series – which both removed most of the violence and incorporated themes from Star Wars: A New Hope – introduced unintended gaps in the plot. Only 85 of the 105 episodes were adapted, and rewritten episodes were shown out of order, so the continuity of the original storyline suffered greatly.

My favorite character was developed using footage of Gatchaman’s Joe Asakura. He actually had brain damage due to shrapnel in his head and an unfortunate trip in a human-sized centrifuge to remove it (not recommended). Fortunately for Jason, this particular episode was never adapted and rewritten. Joe ultimately died before being resurrected as a cyborg in Gatchaman II (I did not take this news well.)

The irony, to me, is that if Gatchaman had been translated precisely, my interest in this character would have never become a lifelong obsession. As a young viewer, I needed someone with whom I could empathize. Jason, with his double vision and desperate desire to hide his problems and appear “normal”, spoke to me.

Captivated by the character and his unresolved health issues, I lulled my childhood self to sleep at night writing stories in my head about Jason and the team. Little did I know that I had embarked on a lifelong journey into fan-fiction. 

Many years later, I posted my Battle of the Planets stories online. I gave Jason brain implant failure – “cerebonic” implants give the G-Force team members the ability to transmute – along with glasses to appease my nine-year-old self. I’ve since written about Han Solo’s night blindness (an unfortunate after-effect of his time in carbonite) and penned a series of short stories starring one-eyed monster hunter Dean Winchester, of the television series Supernatural. (Of course, in my world he didn’t lose his eye to a monster. He was born that way and had to work hard to compensate for his lack of depth perception.)

  
My friend Springie drew this picture of Jason in glasses for me to accompany my Battle of the Planets stories. Thanks, Springie! 

Most of my fan-fiction revolves around visual limitations. I’ve generally shrugged it off as a weird quirk of mine. But that’s not the only reason: There simply aren’t enough realistic portrayals of visual disability in fiction, especially in science fiction. I’m eager to see that change.

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.

Four Ways to Outwit Writer’s Block

The key to outwitting writer’s block is to attack when its back is turned. Ironically, when you lull yourself into a safe place in which you don’t expect to produce writing of value, you will make a breakthrough.

How do you accomplish this? It helps to know why you’re stuck. Here are four common types of writer’s block and ways to get around them:

1) You can’t write out of fear of failure.

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Shouldn’t writers be able to produce verbiage 24/7? Don’t worry; this happens to everyone.

Write in a different genre, try a new poetic form, scribble something just for fun. Give yourself permission to take your writing less seriously.

As an undergraduate, my professor stressed the importance of long, narrative poems. I became so obsessed with literary quality that I couldn’t write! I didn’t publish any new poetry for nearly ten years.

Instead, I switched to working on creative nonfiction and magazine articles. I started a family-friendly science blog. While researching topics for my blog, I stumbled onto scifaiku – a curious and oddly specific poetic form. Before my conscious mind could take over – and remind me that I couldn’t write poetry any more – I began to crank out scifaiku. It was so wildly different from narrative free verse that it slipped past my mental filters. That was eight years ago, and I am now a published short-form poet, with awards for both haiku and scifaiku.

2) You can’t write because you don’t know where to begin. You have too many ideas!

The best way to escape this block is to write outside of your comfort zone. Tailor your work to a specific market. Search for “poetry contest” or “fiction contest” on Twitter and hit up calls for submissions in places like NewPages.

I made my first speculative flash fiction sale (apart from microfiction) to Mad Scientist Journal, a publication that seeks stories about – you guessed it – mad scientists. I wrote about a sweat sock researcher who got arrested for hiding in a communal dryer. Quirky? Sure. But it helped me to get past my writer’s block AND I made a sale.

3) You’re out of ideas.

Take a writing break. Don’t write anything – not even a shopping list – for a few days. Muses hate to be ignored. Similar to not chasing after a promising date, running will scare your muse away. Ignoring them has a way of making them return to woo you with flowery words.

4) Your writing career has suffered a setback that causes you to doubt yourself.

If this is your situation, you have my sympathies. Writing is a solitary business and nothing is harder than facing a word shortage when you have doubts about your ability to produce quality work.

If steps 1-3 fail, start another creative endeavor, one entirely outside the field of writing.

In 2015, I finally broke into a paying poetry market that I had been trying to crack for months. But by the time my work was set for publication, the editor was embroiled in controversy and some poets boycotted the journal. I found the whole situation so uncomfortable that I couldn’t write poetry. Again!

So, I turned to crafting. Instead of writing small poems, I made tiny wreaths, hanging adornments instead of adjectives. It took a few months – and over 100 ornaments – but finally, the shock wore off and the lure of writing called again. Only now, I also have to keep track of an Etsy shop too!

Do you have a technique for outwitting writer’s block? Let’s talk about it. Tell me in the comments or tag me on Twitter (@MamaJoules).

Have you painted your rock today?

  When my daughter was about two, she was invited to a party with the big girls up the block. She was so excited! One of the craft projects led to the girls decorating a rock.
Now, there’s nothing exciting or special about this rock. It is plain, smooth-faced gray stone, the kind you might find all over your neighborhood, especially if you live near me. I happen to like rocks, and this one has done little to pique my geologic interest over the years.

But I was wrong about it. This stone is special to my daughter. Princess brought the whole force of her creative self upon this rock. She painted it, spread glitter on it, and glued gems to it. For five years now, I have kept this craft masterpiece in my kitchen, on the window ledge by the sink, so I can look at it when I am doing the dishes. It reminds me that things aren’t always what they seem – and that my perspective might be quite different than someone else’s.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think we all have a plain grey rock in our lives. Something that you – and maybe only you – are excited about. Maybe it’s your new fuzzy socks or a song you like. Perhaps it’s an art technique or an artificial intelligence algorithm. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes your heart sing. Something that makes you feel creative and alive and special and chosen.

Too often, I think, we let other people’s views of what we should or shouldn’t like or do color our actions. Others see our passions or interests as plain grey rocks instead of the fine igneous masterpieces that they truly are. And instead of fearlessly throwing ourselves into our passions like only a toddler can do, we walk away, a little sadder, the world less bright than before.

Now is the time to reclaim your passion. Have you painted your rock today? 

Coming to my Senses

I write a monthly naturalist column as part of my volunteer work at a local nature sanctuary. These mini essays are posted near the trailhead to help visitors enjoy their experiences at the nature center. January is kind of a tricky month, because, at first glance, there’s not much to see. The trees are lifeless, the ground is muddy, and the animals are all holed up because it’s cold.

So, I decided to write about using your four senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch – to really experience nature. (You can’t use taste – it’s a nature sanctuary and you aren’t supposed to eat anything!)

I also thought I’d include a haiku poem of mine to illustrate this point, so I scoured my files for a winter-themed poem that focused on sound.

What a rude awakening! Not only do I have very few haiku written about winter, I have just a handful of haiku written about sound, and most of those are spring-themed. I am partial to frogs and woodpeckers, so frog calls and rat-a-tat-tatting show up with some frequency in my poetry. But I am seriously lacking in sensory imagery apart from visual.

I think, for the next month, I am going to focus on sound in my haiku. Care to join me? What sense are you ignoring in your poetry? If you write haiku, does a certain season dominate your work?

20150103-003708-2228911.jpg