Archive | November, 2012

Thanks :)

28 Nov

It’s not often you get a rejection letter with an emoticon at the bottom, but here we are. The letter starts innocuously enough:

We regret that we are not able to place your work in our magazine.

So am I! But then, a heartfelt and candid apology–

We’re sorry to disappoint you, and we than you for submitting to EPOCH.

And now we get down to business:

EPOCH is published three times a year.

(So your chances of placing your work in the journal are about the same as being admitted to Cornell with a 2.9 GPA and a score of 28 on the ACT.)

Unsolicited submissions are reviewed from 15 September to 15 April of each year.

(So don’t get any funny ideas about sending us something in the dead zone of the summer months, dumbass.)

Sample issues are available from the above address at $5.00 per copy, postage paid.

A cool five bucks for sample copies. Postage is on the house.

And here we get to the real gem of this rejection letter, its personal flourish, the maraschino cherry swimming in our Manhattan, its raison d’etre.

Thanks :)

Simple. Elegant. Wistful. Childlike, even.

The human who wrote this brief word of thanks is doubtless a first- or second-year comparative lit major who is looking, smartly, to ingratiate herself to the literary crowd at Cornell. She may be new at this publishing thing, but she understands (as you unfortunately don’t) that stories don’t miraculously appear in literary journals after having arrived from anonymous, forgotten towns like Tucson, Arizona and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; they come from the friends of editors, and the friends of friends of editors; and in the event that she one day makes the uncharacteristically piss-poor decision to try her hand at writing professionally, she wants to attach herself to that inside track. She is a prudent, punctilious, and pragmatic person, aware of the power of the female equivalent of the firm handshake–the handwritten thank-you note. She is not Charlotte Simmons but could pass as her cousin from the city. If necessary, she will destroy you with a withering smile. She is an expert on prepackaged microwavable snacks, celebrity culture, Victorian-era poetry, optimizing her Web presence through social media, and wearing jeans that just fit. She is frequently accused of “leading guys on,” though she herself is mystified by this distinction, and finds the reputation unfair. She sees herself, in five years, being engaged–or better yet, married!–to her high-school swim-jock sweetheart, Robbie Planter, an Olympic-caliber athlete who proposes to her in an elaborate display of beta-male supplication during an ice-skating event at the Rink at Rockefeller Center. She has been given the hallowed title of “slush reader” at Cornell’s flagship literary journal on the strength of her winning smile, can-do spirit, smart business-casual attire, and the fact that she is willing (and, thanks to her considerable dowry: able) to put 15 hours a week towards plodding through clueless cover letters and coffee-stained manuscripts for no pay; but she takes this position seriously, and makes it her business to respond personally to each rejection, even if it’s just a smiley face scribbled in pencil at the bottom of each blue card; she does this in the vain hope that if she ever finds herself in the unenviable position of one day submitting her own purple poetry to a middling academic journal such as EPOCH, the Christian God to whom she prays will reward her karmically and thusly, and her work will shine through the slush, like a grain of glass in a mountain of sand, and she will be spared the indignity of becoming one of Them.

I bet her pussy tastes like strawberry shortcake.

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Speak of the Devil

26 Nov

I’m sort of bored of writing about failure and rejection, so in the spirit of this perfectly nice letter I received from Weird Tales, I’m going to tell you about something extremely weird and scary that happened to me recently.

I had just graduated from nursing school, didn’t have a job, my parents were going on vacation to Maine and needed someone to look after the house. This entailed performing odd, retard-grade chores like feeding the fish, watering the plants, pressing a button on the answering machine every few days, coordinating the care of my grandmother as she transitioned into an assisted living facility–you know, things that I could reasonably be counted on to do while being drunk 100% of the time.

Of course, every time I come home, it’s really all about the fact that my parents have like 6,000 cable channels and a freezer full of meat. The only problem is that the house I grew up in is seriously haunted.

Oh, I could tell you about the time I sat down at the piano to play a song and literally a thousand tiny black spiders crawled out from between the keys. I could tell you about the time I was going through photo albums and a picture of my grandfather–a man I have never met, who died when my father was only nine–fell off the mantle and onto the floor. Or the time when I was staring at the grandfather clock for no real reason and the pendulum suddenly stopped swinging, and the hands started moving backwards. The time I was taking a shower and distinctly felt a woman’s breath on the back of my neck, followed by the sudden, painful twisting of my nipple. The half dozen times I woke up in the middle of the night with sleep paralysis. The endless unexplained slamming of doors.

Beyond these lame attempts at a haunting–staggered over the course of 17 years, so that each is conveniently forgotten in time for the next to occur–there’s just the sense that there’s a presence in the house. Note that I did not say “malevolent presence.” It’s just a presence. There’s nothing inherently evil about spiders in an old piano; nothing supernatural about a malfunctioning clock. It’s just a feeling the house exudes–that I’m never alone there. And that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Anyway, I’m home for a week in this big empty house, and my parents invite me to sleep in their beautiful king-size bed, and to enjoy their wonderful flatscreen TV with surround sound and aforementioned endless catalog of premium channels. But I can’t bring myself to sleep upstairs. I feel like something might happen up there, a demon will possess me, the windows will fog up, the door will slam permanently shut, and I’ll be trapped in my parents’ floral-print bedroom, pissing and shitting myself until some good-natured UPS carrier hears my screams and decides to break a window and bravely intervene.

I decide to sleep in my dad’s library–a small, dark, comfortable room fortified with painted wooden birds and leather-bound tomes of Twain and Poe and Dickens and Conan Doyle; and sometime around four in the morning I manage to fall asleep. I do this by taking 6mg of Melatonin, 2mg Xanax, and half a box of wine to my head. And I have this dream that is deeply, primally disturbing. In the dream, I am sleeping in my parents’ library–just as I am, in objective reality, outside of the dream. My cell phone beeps; it’s sitting on a small table next to the sofa–just as it is outside of the dream. I pick up my iPhone, in its battered red case, and see a text message from a contact I am sure to have never added:

DEVIL

–and the text message, appearing in the iconic green Apple cloud, reads:

I’m in the house with you.

–and that’s when I wake up, on the small sofa in the library, drenched in sweat. My cell phone is on the end table exactly where it was in the dream. I pick up the phone, just hold it there in my palpitating hands, not turning it on, not wanting to ratify the horrible truth of the dream … and just then another text message comes through–

Buh duh-duh boop!

I throw the fucking cell phone across the room without even reading the message. It’s instinct. I’m alone in the dark and the BAD THING I’m holding in my hand just vibrated and made a noise and I need to get it AWAY from my body, away from my reality. After a few seconds I marshall the courage to gather the pieces of my phone–I still haven’t turned on the lights–and when I put the phone back together and turn it on I see that the message is not from the Devil but from my friend Rhiannon. It reads:

I don’t want to be a nurse anymore.

Now let’s just think about this. It’s like six in the morning, still dark. What are the chances that, mere seconds after waking from a terrifying dream about being taunted with a text message from the Devil, my friend Rhiannon from nursing school would text me at six in the morning?

I don’t know what the fuck is going on here, whether this is real of part of another dream–I just know I’m not going back to bed. So I turn on the TV. The TV just happens to have been left on channel 4, a local ABC News affiliate. The newscaster is seated behind her news desk, wearing a worried look. And, to my shock and horror, my own face, a picture I use on my Facebook and Twitter profiles, is superimposed behind her, as she reads from the morning news report:

A gruesome discovery this morning, as the badly mutilated body of a writer from Pittsburgh was found in his parents’ suburban Philadel–

I LEAP up off the sofa, throwing the blankets and remote control clear across the room. I stand there in the middle of the room for what seems like whole minutes, afraid to make a move. The first thing I notice is that the TV is off. Another dream. Had to be. Didn’t matter. I gathered the blankets and grabbed a book at random and went into the living room–a large, open room with lots of windows. I sat there with a copy of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense and the Rights of Man” and absently thumbed through the dusty, moth-eaten pages, absorbing nothing. I was nearly on the verge of tears. I considered calling the police. I stayed like this, eyes wide open, wrapped in blankets, shivering, pacifying myself by pretending to read, until finally I fell asleep, sometime after 8A.M., sitting up in a chair.

*  *  *

I have heard it said that in the whole of human history there has never been a single case where the supernatural explanation turns out to be the correct one. I will counter that wisdom by declaring that for the rest of my stay at my parents’ house–four days in all–I did not sleep at all. I switched from my regular regimen of alcohol and benzos to a more rigorous and sensible cocktail of downmarket CNS stimulants. When my parents returned from their trip, bearing gifts of lobster magnets and “Cool As a Moose” sweatshirts, my bags were already packed. Returning to Pittsburgh through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel was like sliding into a warm, exotic oil. I slept for whole days.

Great!

21 Nov

From Crab Creek Review:

As writers ourselves, we understand the considerable undertaking involved in preparing a submission. Please know we read your work with great care but found it just wasn’t a good fit for Crab Creek Review at this time. We wish you great success placing your work elsewhere.

~ The Editors

Great!

Nancy Canyon

If there’s one thing you learn from cluster-bombing good-natured lit rags with unwanted manuscripts, it’s that there are only so many ways to express the same dreadful sentiment. Open enough S.A.S.E.’s and you start seeing the same themes, the same turns of phrase. After awhile, “We have decided to go in another direction” bleeds into, “Your story was not quite right for the journal,” and eventually becomes, “Good stuff, but no.”

What I like about this rejection is its attempt to emotionally align with the author in the struggle for publication. “As writers ourselves” is a beautiful, humane way to set the writer up for the sharp, rusty coup de grace of, “it just wasn’t a good fit.” That the people preparing the guillotine are in the same doomed position softens the blow of defeat just a bit.

But then the rejection takes a turn for the eerily jubilant. As if it weren’t enough that the word “great” was used in two straight sentences, the editor tacks an extra “Great!” onto the end of the letter. From this I may reasonably infer that my work, while bearing some merit, did not quite mesh with the style and tone of Crab Creek Review, probably due to some excess of gore or profanity or descent into pop-culture minutiae that is the hallmark of my fiction. In any case, the oddly cheerful annotation scribbled at the bottom of this rejection makes for a welcome, if jarring, boost of adrenaline after the drop of the blade.

Man Power Constraints

19 Nov

I don’t often talk shit on the magazines that reject my work–that isn’t the point of this blog–but here I will make an exception.

Seriously, Playboy, get it the fuck together.

From the half-assed letterhead to the weatherbeaten text to the cheap sheet of computer paper it’s printed on, everything about this letter screams: SINKING SHIP.

Every single person I show this rejection letter to says the same thing: “That came from Playboy?

Because, the truth is, Playboy has a rich history of publishing the most exciting and important fiction writers alive, from Joseph Heller to Roald Dahl to Margaret Atwood to Kurt Vonnegut to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and on and on and on. That old saw about “just reading Playboy for the articles” is not entirely facetious. I’d like to think that with the accessibility and normalization of hardcore pornography–when it’s instantly possible to stream a video of a pregnant woman getting rammed in the ass by an Irish Wolfhound while servicing a fleet of Dominican refugees with her hands and mouth–it would be in Playboy’s best interests to double down on the one thing it has been able to do better than every men’s magazine than perhaps Esquire … but what do I know, I’m just a guy with a blog, and I wouldn’t even begin to be able to tell you the ideal breast-to-hip ratio of a bottle-blond would-be actress with a dossier of discount glamour photos, a bottomless thirst for attention, and a gaping dearth of self-respect.

I also find it amusing that Playboy’s editorial staff considers the tedious process of reading and rejecting slush to be an effort necessitating “man power.”

A Small Yellow Card

14 Nov

I first became aware of Conjunctions at about the same time as I was getting into David Foster Wallace. The official literary publication of Bard College, Conjunctions is perhaps the finest American literary journal that no one has ever heard of.

The most famous issue of Conjunctions is probably Issue #39. Guest-edited by Peter Straub, Conjunctions:39 (titled “The New Wave Fabulists”) is an attempt to bridge the gap between high and low art; between Literature and genre fiction. Other literary journals have tried this idea–most notably McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2003) and Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004), both edited by Michael Chabon–but Conjunctions did it first, did it bravest, and did it best.

“The New Wave Fabulists” inspired and empowered me to step away from my slow-moving, character-driven, “sensitive” style of writing and to explore new avenues of storytelling–even if that meant inserting a ghost, a monster, or a time-travel machine into an otherwise “literary” tale. If there is a single issue of any magazine in which I could have my work appear, it would be Conjunctions:39.

Printed on good yellow card stock, and about the size of an index card, this is one of the crown jewels of my collection.

Locked Room Mystery

12 Nov

A perfectly fine rejection letter, notable if only for its complimentary closing:

Cordially,

As a quasi-professional writer of cover letters, I have struggled mightily with the delicate matter of the closing salutation. One must strike an impossible pose of quirkiness, casual solicitation, and deferential gratitude … but how best to sign off on a correspondence in which the author is essentially offering himself up for near-certain artistic immolation? How to gracefully leave a room that one never should have entered in the first place?

I had never considered using “Cordially,” but here, in response to my submission, and in the spirit of the somewhat pompous and erudite detective after which Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is named, it works splendidly.

From Mirriam-Webster:

cor dial  adjective  \’kor jel\

3 b: warmly and genially affable <cordial relations>

A boilerplate rejection letter is, if nothing else, a cordial affair.

Ring Tone

9 Nov

Something about this form rejection just clicks for people. The clinical, not-gonna-bullshit-you tone of: “We’re sorry to report that we are not going to publish your story.” The distant ring of: “Good luck placing it elsewhere.” Personally I can appreciate a response like this–almost as much as if The Editors had addressed me personally.

The bluntness of this letter–its total mastery of detachment; its abdication of any responsibility to ease the writer’s witless mind or stroke his talentless ego–is just exquisite.

Cosmic Boner

7 Nov

By the time you read this, we will know the results of the 2012 presidential election. Depending on the way you choose to view the world, you are either elated, inconsolable, or merely relieved. You are doubtless nursing a murderous hangover.

In the event that Obama has won–as is being widely though tentatively predicted at the time of this writing–we can read the victory as a kind of stopgap solution to some very serious problems we have created for ourselves over the last fifty years. This time around, there will have been no clear, compelling mandate for Change; no irrational, starry-eyed Hope that one man can redraw the landscape of global politics. In the absence of these loony, half-baked ideals, there will be only a cynical, lowercase-h hope that we have elected a leader who can keep the evangelist crazies at bay, improve the unemployment numbers, and maybe not embarrass us too badly on the world stage. We will have forfeited real change and an aspiration to greatness for stability and competence. And maybe that’s a good thing.

In the event that Romney has pulled off the upset, the narrative will shift from the old saw of “staying the course” to a referendum on states’ rights and small government, hitched to prosaic, meaningless slogans like “fiscal responsibility” and “energy independence.” Corporate greed, corporate personhood, religious pandering, veiled racism, fear and revulsion of women, and what I consider to be a perverse and spiritually destructive form of social conservatism, will have carried the day.

Oh sure, as I write this, on the eve of the election, as my hometown Philadelphia Eagles are being systematically dismantled by the New Orleans Saints, I do hope the black guy wins–not because I am particularly inspired by the policies of the Obama administration, but for the simple reason that if we gave two terms to a simian court jester like George W. Bush and his cabal of wealthy, world-class fuck-ups, then surely we can find it in our hearts (if not our brains) to give the Constitutional law scholar with the impossibly uplifting backstory another four years to set things sorta-right.

But that’s all water under the bridge as of this morning, and my purpose here is not to wax political about things I can neither fathom nor clearly elucidate, but to revisit the specific set of circumstances that allowed Obama to take office in the first place, which is also the year that I published my first story.

Remember 2008? I do. I remember it being winter and having to ask my parents for money to buy a new coat. I remember one night sitting on the floor of the apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend, surrounded by manuscripts and cigarettes and faulty, mismatched electronics, like some kind of crazy person, and cradling my head in my hands and wondering aloud: “Am I for real?” The same night this charming photograph of a man on top of the world was taken:

But then, as I have often found happens when life kicks just enough shit in your face that you say, “OK, that’s it, I’m cashing out my chips and moving to Maine and joining a hippie commune,” the Universe throws you a bone–not a big bone, not like the turkey drumsticks you get at the state fair, but a bone with just enough meat on it to keep you going. The very next day I received this letter in the mail. I read that first paragraph–

Thank you for offering your work to Kennesaw Review. We would like to publish your story “Fiends.”

–and didn’t quite know how to react. I had become so inured to failure and rejection that I lacked the wherewithal to properly celebrate a victory, however small. I didn’t do anything as drastic as scream from the rooftops or chug a bottle of wine; I paced around the kitchen for a few minutes, put the letter carefully back into the envelope, and put the envelope in a drawer, as if it were a thing of great power or magic that I didn’t wish to upset. I think I might have called my friend Melissa. Then I went right back to working on whatever silly thing I was working on at the moment.

That was a good year for me. I had a job I had not yet begun to hate, an office overlooking Carson Street where I was able to write without constantly having a glass in my hand, a girlfriend who I genuinely liked but probably did not love, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was part of a community, like I belonged somewhere. The out-of-left-field Obama campaign, with its unprecedented grassroots support and impressive ability to speak to Americans as if they were actual high-functioning adults, provided for me an apparatus of faith, of sorts, something I could root for besides the God-damned Philadelphia Eagles, and which enhanced this feeling of belonging, of hope.

On the night of the election, I finished work early, went home, drank a beer in the shower, and walked a block and a half to Tiki Lounge, the Hawaiian-themed bar where, in coming months, I would begin to spend just a bit too much time. My girlfriend had just turned 21; I found her in a booth with a couple of mutual friends, and I slid in beside her, never knowing that she was already hatching her escape plan from me, drawing up secret strategies to get me the fuck out of her life and apartment. As I gleefully watched the returns roll in (He took Indiana! Iowa! Ohio!) I rubbed my girlfriend’s bald head for luck. “Remember this moment,” said I, the wizened, weathered 28-year-old barista who had voted in all of one election in his life, “because you are probably never going to see anything like this again.”

And I stand by that statement. Because–and I may just be seeing this through a gauzy film of alcohol and Aderrall–that shit was fucking crazy. People were driving around Southside blaring their car horns, dancing in the streets like the Steelers had just won the AFC. Later that night, as Obama was preparing to take the stage in Chicago, a fight broke out between two of my friends with, shall we say, grossly disparate political views. The bartender came out from behind the bar, got between them and said: “Not here, not tonight. We’re all family here.” And as sickeningly corny as this sounds, I really did feel that way–not just about the people in the bar, or on the streets, or in Pittsburgh or America at large, but about the whole world: we were family–a feeling that was at once purely insane and eminently, elementally sane. The seemingly endless stream of pictures I saw on The Huffington Post the next day–of people from far-out, theoretical places like Bolivia and New Zealand waving American flags in celebration of an election result that had nothing and everything to do with them–confirmed this view.

So we return to the basis of this post, my acceptance letter from the Kennesaw Review. Life didn’t really change for me after that acceptance–I was still the same miserable, ridiculous, perfectionist person as before, disappointed with the aesthetic presentation of the story, and the prose wasn’t edited at all–but at least now I had something to hang my hat on, something of substance to write in my cover letters; I had a publication credit. Later that year I would publish a story with the much-higher-pedigree Berkeley Fiction Review, who would go on to nominate my work for a Pushcart Prize, and I would publish a few more stories, and write a couple of novels, all of it culminating in the fulfillment of a decade-long goal, the signing of a contract with a bona fide literary agent. And yet, as I write this, four years later, there remains a disappointing emptiness, a sense of ambition unfulfilled; a feeling that things might have gone a bit differently, a bit better for me, if maybe I’d had a little more balls; pushed harder, read a few more books; if maybe I’d put down the wine glass every now and then.

And that’s kind of how I feel about Obama’s first term. Tomorrow I will cast my vote for a guy who has continuously–and at times, it seems, spitefully–let me down with drone strikes and bailouts and watered-down legislation and withering silence and battles left unfought. But I think there’s enough there in the tank–student loan forgiveness and health-care reform leap to mind–to justify a second term, a chance to make good on whatever ridiculous promises he somehow hoodwinked us into believing…just as I feel that as a writer I’ve done enough, and just enough, to keep plugging away at this stupid dream. In the final assessment, that’s really all anyone can ask for, what it’s All About: the gift of a little more time.

Or it could go the other way. No matter what has already happened, I can’t help but think everyone will go on drinking and fighting as before, keep hoping for that next cosmic bone.

Suckeye State

5 Nov

As a Penn State alum, I can’t even begin to describe the shame and horror of being rejected from The Journal of Ohio State University.

You see, while matriculating at Penn State, we were taught to view our cross-state, Big Ten rivals as deranged primates that had somehow learned to cogitate at a third-grade level and to feed themselves with metal utensils. To this day, the average Ohio State student looks to me like someone sharted into a petrie dish containing the sperm of an inbred baboon cross-spliced with a ringworm’s DNA. I don’t even know what that means, but I believe it’s in the Penn State student handbook somewhere.

Complicating matters is that I don’t feel any special allegiance to my alma mater and am actually kind of sickened by the culture of “Happy Valley.” As my best friend Stan likes to quip: “All I got out of Penn State was twenty thousand dollars of debt and a drinking problem.” But to a disinterested outsider, the two universities are largely indistinguishable. Both are football schools that happen to dish out degrees. Both are hellholes overrun with psychotic date rapists who are one Saturday-afternoon last-second field goal away from stripping naked, flipping police cars and burning down their dorms.

The last time I was in Ohio was for my friend Drew’s wedding. Stan, my friend Jason, his then-fiancee Rochelle, and me, were tooling around downtown Columbus looking for something to do that didn’t involve the age-old college pastime of “beating up on queers.” We ended up in the basement of a tattoo parlor in the midst of a nightmarish jam session with a bunch of Juggalos who were smoking angel dust and playing electric guitars using beer tabs as picks. That was the high point of the evening. The night ended with a coked-up jock throwing a full can of beer at our windshield and trying to lure Jason out of the car and into a fight. Ohio sucks.

I should pause here to remind my pretend readership that Ohio was largely responsible for putting the cretinous war criminal George W. Bush into office for a second term. I don’t mean to connect The Journal’s rejection of my story with the carpet-bombing of huge swaths of desert cities for no good reason, the bursting of the housing and tech bubbles, the eradication of the American middle class, and the subsequent decline of America as a world superpower, but the writing’s on the wall, you draw your own conclusions, what do I look like, the Nate Silver of unpopular literary blogs?