Stephen Lewis: Weathering rejections takes thick skin, self-belief

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael StumpStephen Lewis.

The football seemed a speck in the sky. Then it was coming down. I stretched my hands out. It hit my fingertips and fell to the ground. A moment of redemption for me and my team fell with it. There would be no touchdown to salve the humiliation of being thoroughly beaten by a better team.

A note from the “The Atlantic Monthly” arrived, signed by its fiction editor, his eminence himself. C. Michael Curtis. But there would be no rise to national prominence. The story was fine, he said, but just “too dark” for him, by which he no doubt meant, his readers.

Since my days playing football were brief and long ago, that one play works better as a metaphorical exemplar of snatching for the gold ring just beyond reach than as a representation of life experience. The “Atlantic Monthly” rejection, however, is part of a pattern that pretty much illustrates my writing career, and perhaps can serve as a generalization applicable to other contexts.

Writers, like people engaged in other activities for which there are far more applicants than there are seats at the table, face daunting odds. Absent some agency to promote their work, they submit and hope the gods smile. In the case of periodical publication, at every level there are far more submissions than can be accepted. I know this cold, hard fact from both ends, having been both a reader for a publication as well as a submitter to others. The more prominent the publication, the greater the number of competing submissions.

Those unsolicited submissions, to contrast with the handful that have been requested by the publication, enter what has been termed the “slush pile.” Not a very positive descriptor, but accurate enough. These submissions work their way up to the actual decision makers with the possibility of being rejected at every step of the way. This is true even at low profile publications. In the case of “The Atlantic Monthly,” that process no doubt involves a number of readers approving a submission and passing it up to the next level of the acceptance process. That is the only way such a periodical, which is open to unsolicited submission, can possibly handle the volume it receives.

That is why my story making it all the way up to the editor’s desk is noteworthy. Of course, besides being noteworthy it is extraordinarily frustrating. So close, but so far. And over my career I have experienced other near misses. In fact, I have a folder full of such rejections from major commercial publications, such as “Esquire,” to limited-circulation, university sponsored literary magazines such as “MSS,” sponsored by SUNY Binghamton and edited by then famous author and critic John Gardner, as well as from literary agents to whom I have pitched novels. What they all have in common is an introductory complimentary comment stressing the good qualities of the writing, followed by a “but not for me” statement, with or without additional explanation.

Every once in a while, a serious editor will write more than a brief explanation. I have two rejections from Gardner, no doubt having been encouraged to send to him again after his first “almost” note. The second was a single-spaced series of detailed suggestions as to how he would revise the story. I don’t recall now whether I took his advice, as I might well have kept my own counsel.

I never did catch a touchdown pass such as the one that bounced off my fingertips. But that story that Mr. Curtis found to be too dark was published last year in “Rosebud,” a nationally circulated magazine, as was a much revised version of the one Gardner did not take in the same periodical this year. Both had been rejected countless times over the years.

All that is necessary is a stubborn belief in your own work, a thick skin, and maybe just a bit of luck in finding just the right recipient.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan.

Recommended for you