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.


Evolution of the Poem: charcoal landscape …

If you’ve read my poetry, or follow my Instagram account, you’ll notice that I have an obsession with clouds (see photo above!). Last December, this poem of mine was published in the new Autumn Moon Haiku Journal:

charcoal landscape
a smudge of nimbostratus
on the horizon

I like this poem because it captures the ephemeral nature of clouds. I can almost visualize the artist at the easel, trying to get the effect just right before the cloud changes shape again.

When I was very small, I took an art class and used charcoal pencils. Over the years, I’ve taken more of a liking to pencil sketches, but the technique of shading – or attempting to capture a moment through shading – is similar. For me, this reminds me of smudging and erasing and smudging again, coupled with watching clouds and trying to capture their beauty in words or by photograph.

Now, similar to other poems I’ve explored through Evolution of the Poem, this one didn’t start out this way. An early draft read:

shaded charcoal lines
smudged slightly at the edges …
nimbostratus clouds

In retrospect, there’s a lot wrong with this picture. First of all, there is no picture. What are we even looking at? L1 doesn’t tell us.

L2 doesn’t fare much better. The phrase “slightly at the edges” is wordy and doesn’t add anything to the image.

L3 is redundant. I remember thinking that it was a heavy line, ponderous like a dark cloud ready to rain, but in reality, it just weighs down the poem.

I played around with this haiku for at over three years – and it was rejected at least twice – before it found a home.

The Bad Poem

Recently, I stumbled into some old poetry of mine. This one, written April 6, 2009 as part of the Poetic Asides Poem-A-Day Challenge, made me smile. I made a few changes to the formatting, but it’s essentially the same bad poem …

(Like a ring without a stone, this poem lacks shine.)

The Bad Poem

My words were
carefully manicured
into neat and
orderly prose.

Line-breaks were
all logically placed
at the end
of every row.

Pacing was slow
and rhythmic,
rocking back
on every clause.

One could almost
drift to sleep
with each
reliable pause.

The syntax was tidy
and error free,
but the poem refused
to speak to me.

Where was
the whimsy
and marvel
and wonder?

Where was
the dancing
and flatbread**
and thunder?

I tried to force the poem
but it refused to go.

I stirred in jazz
and funk
and zydeco rhythms
but the poem held on so.







but it refused to die.

It seemed to cling
ever tighter to form
with each technique
I’d try.

So, though this poem
is rather far
from one I would call
my best,

I’m pulling it out
from my misery
and laying it
down to rest.

** – Note to 2009 self: flatbread? Flatbread?! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!

Thoughts on Mindfulness

I was sitting in the doctor’s office yesterday, scrolling through an app on my iPhone, when a television commercial caught my eye.

“Is that lady orange?” I asked the woman sitting next to me.

Her eyes moved from the mounted television to my face. “Oh,” she said, as though I’d woken her from a dream, “I wasn’t paying any attention.”

It occurred to me then that mindfulness in this age of media saturation is truly a challenge. On one hand, in order to experience some semblance of internal peace, you need to be able to ignore the constant barrage of “Pay attention to me!” screaming from a wide range of electronic devices. Even pumping your gas or grabbing a burger, there’s a constant stream of “news” blaring from nearby screens, demanding your attention.

On the other hand, mindfulness requires that we sit in the present moment and experience what is going on around us. It’s the main reason that I write haiku poetry – it forces me to stop and pay attention to my surroundings. What do I see when I look at this acorn? How does the air smell right before a thunderstorm? How does this chili taste?

I don’t have any answers for maintaining a balance between tuning out what I am starting to think of as the rage machine of today’s media, and focusing on what truly matters to us. I suspect that the answers lie with folks who have grown up in the digital age – people who don’t remember four TV stations (CBS, NBC, ABC, and a pixelated version of PBS) or the excitement of playing that new game, Pong. I need to ask my kids for advice.

How do you retain your mindfulness in the digital age without getting overwhelmed? Let me know in the comments.  

  My cousin took this great picture of me last summer at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I was so intent on taking a picture of the dragonflies circling the lily pads that I almost missed the one on my phone!

Supernatural Tanka

Recently, I saw a call-out for poetry based on the TV show Supernatural. Given that I am a fan of the Winchester brothers, I thought I’d try my hand at penning a few. Sadly, haiku were not eligible for this project, since the poems had to be at least five lines. (You can read some of my Supernatural haiku here.) So, I decided to write tanka (or, at least, modified tanka). Two of my poems are still under consideration for this book  – yay! – so I thought I’d post my rejected poems here. Only, let’s not call them rejected. How about under-appreciated?


beside a devil’s trap
painted with blood sigils
dusted in rock salt
the Winchester brothers
and endure


If I could
I would bake you
a lattice-topped cherry pie –
pit-free, sweet, with no lingering aftertaste –
just the safety and comfort of home.

Have you written poetry based on a favorite book or TV show? Let me know in the comments!

Ten Signs You Were Raised in the Desert

 A few years ago, I saw a call for haiku about the desert experience. Having been raised in California and Utah, I was eager to submit to this anthology. My poem appears in Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga (Dos Gatos Press, 2013):

thermals rising
all across the valley
prayers for rain

When I was working on the submission, I found myself slipping back into my childhood and I wrote up this list. If you are also a desert flower, I’m sure you’ll relate. 

Ten signs you were raised in the desert:

1) You don’t own a raincoat or umbrella, or if you do, you bought them for a special occasion.

2) When you step out of the shower, you expect to be dry before your hand hits the bath towel. Sometimes, you don’t even use a towel.

3) There was a cactus in your yard when you were growing up, or you knew someone who grew them.

4) Your mother worried that you would fall into the cactus and poke your eye out.

5) If you hear the weather forecast calling for any chance of rain, you expect to get damp, but never drenched.

6) You’ve lived through several rounds of water rationing.

7) It seems weird when servers bring out water at a restaurant without anyone asking for it.

8) You can tell the difference between smoke from a wildfire versus a fireplace by smell alone.

9) You’ve been evacuated during a wildfire or know someone who has. 

10) Every place in the U.S. east of Colorado looks too green.

If you can relate, like this post & share it! 

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.