Tag Archives: rejection

Teacher’s Pet

15 Mar


In every classroom I have ever been in, there have been two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Type 1 was the kid who always had to hand in everything first. Whether it was a homework assignment, or a test — this student made sure she was the first to complete her work, believing this signaled to the teacher (and to the rest of the class) that she was the most prepared for the task at hand; that she could breeze through the material like it was second nature; that she was so confident in her studying habits and her natural intelligence that she didn’t even need to check her work.

Type 2 was the kid who always checked his work. This student was often among the last to hand in his test — but not because he was unprepared, or rushing to finish the last few questions. Often, this student was actually the first to finish the test; he just didn’t see the point in running up to the front of the class to slap his bluebook on the teacher’s desk, just to be first across the finish line. To this student, it seemed evident that a certain amount of time had been allocated for the task, and that no bonus points were to be given for using the least amount of that time. At the end of the day, the only metric for academic success was how many questions you answered correctly.

Both types of student were — unfailingly — straight “A” students, academic rock stars. Successful at the game of grades. They just had different ways of going about their success.

*  *  *

I was never a very good student. Neither the first to hand in his paper, nor the one who was furiously scribbling as the clock wound down — I was somewhere in the upper-bottom half of the academic bell curve. Mediocre. Above-average intelligence, yet always falling just short of the level of which I was capable.

This confused and frustrated me, but it absolutely drove my parents nuts. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t keeping up with the other “smart” kids in my class. Was I lazy? Spiteful? Easily distracted? Was I myself a disruption to the class? They would rake over my report card for “clues” to my poor performance, and demand to know what the problem was.

I had no answers. It wasn’t like I was some dumb kid. I didn’t have dyslexia, or A.D.D. I was a precocious reader, who devoured Mark Twain and Conan Doyle; by the time I was 12, I’d read pretty much every Sherlock Holmes and Tom Sawyer story. I was the kid who was reading The New Yorker under some tree while the other kids were playing street hockey. By the end of summer vacation, I actually craved the structure of school, and looked forward to going back. I loved reading, and drawing, and learning—

And school supplies! Every year, it was the same giddy routine: I’d go with my mom to the five-and-dime and fill up a shopping basket with spiral notebooks, looseleaf paper, legal pads; packs of markers and mechanical pencils; “wild-card” items like rulers and protractors; and of course, Trapper Keepers. (The trick was obtaining a Trapper Keeper with a suitably colorful and weirdly psychedelic design, preferably one that broadcast your unique personality to the rest of the class.)

With these gleaming new supplies came the promise of Academic Accomplishment — of being a good student, a good son. Yes, I was going to get it right this year; I was going to get organized; I was going to be the kid who handed his work in early; I was going to hit the books, pound the pavement, keep my eyes on the prize, and bring home First Honors.

But then the school year started, and … well, things happened. The plan fell through; the wheels spun off of the machine. I never could get organized. The binders I’d lovingly labeled, the spaces I’d allocated for each subject, went increasingly unused; my homework assignments and handouts never quite found their way into the proper folders and partitions. I was the kind of student who was always scrambling to find my papers, crumpled and torn, and sometimes soggy, in the bottom of my bookbag. If I could find them at all.

As the year progressed, and I fell further and further behind, it became a matter of academic survival, of wheezing to the finish line. By the end of the year, my parents were relieved if I simply passed all my classes. They rarely even looked at my final report card — just wanted to know if I was being left back. Another summer; another plan to get better. I never did figure it out.

*  *  *

I mention all of this because it’s once again story submitting season, and I’m reminded of all the little ways I underachieved in school. My failure to take encouragement, and criticism, in equal stride; my lifelong inability to get organized. You see, I want to have a system in which I wake up early, make a pot of coffee, sit down at my desk, and use some sort of spreadsheet software to track my submissions, and keep a log of editors’ responses, capitalizing on occasional words of encouragement. But my brain just isn’t wired that way, and no dosage of caffeine or nicotine or ginseng or Aderrall will reprogram me into either of the two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Believe me, I’ve tried.

*  *  *

This rejection slip from Yemassee offers several “clues” for successfully placing your work in the journal. You can be persistent — submit and submit and submit. You can read the damn magazine (this is what I would suggest) or order a sample copy, if you’re a cheapskate. At the very least, you can look at the writing they feature on their website, and maybe even address your cover letter to the appropriate editor. You can keep your ear to the ground and enter a contest, when one pops up. These are things a successful writer would (and should) do.

But that sort of success seems academic to me. It’s padding for your transcript; a showy, falsely-earned thing; a feather in your fedora. I would actually advise against submitting work to any magazine you don’t read at least semi-regularly. It’s bad form — and possibly bad karma. Worse: it never works.

My point is that it makes no sense to want to place your work in a magazine you’ve never read; to strive for membership in a group you know nothing about. It’s like the kid who scrutinizes the test’s instructions for five whole minutes, looking for some performative edge; who writes a long essay where a short answer will do, leaving no stone unturned, and gets the “A” through sheer force of diligence and drive. Or the girl who turns her work in as early as possible, to earn brownie points from a teacher who is hungover and couldn’t care less. In the end, no one cares about past publications, the editors you’ve worked with, your pedigree — they just want to be knocked out by your writing. (Even George Saunders, I’m pretty sure, has his trunk stories rejected from the big markets, from time to time.)

I also no longer submit stories simply on the virtue of my having completed them — or because they crossed the finish line under a certain word count. There are stories I “finished” ten years ago that still aren’t finished. There are stories I’m really proud of, but are nevertheless imperfect, or structurally fucked — and which I have no interest in un-fucking. Stories I want to salvage but simply can’t. There are stories I’m quite pleased with, but that don’t belong in either academic journals or commercial magazines — that occupy that awkward space between genre and literary — the kind of stuff Saunders and Kelly Link and Dan Chaon write. Stuff that might never find the “right” audience. And that’s okay. Who cares? Maybe I’ll self-publish those stories, or post them to Medium. Maybe I’ll print them out and give them to friends, when the mood strikes me, or leave them in coffee shops for punks and hobos to find. Or maybe they’ll just live on my hard drive until a tree falls on my car while I’m driving to work and my laptop is donated to some underfunded school district and a kid with peanut butter in his teeth pulls one up at random and thinks: “I can do better than this.” Maybe I’ll win a posthumous O. Henry Award. You never can plan these things, can you?


Screaming Demons

11 Mar
"a murder" 11x14  acrylic on canvas

“a murder” 11×14 acrylic on canvas

*  *  *

“Since it seems my mission for the day is to waste your time while you feed the men, I might as well tell you about the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.

“Twelve years ago I was living in Pittsburgh, working odd jobs, just Kerouac-ing around. I was what you might call a ‘jack of all trades.’ But most people — including myself — would probably just call me a junkie.

“I knew all the street people within a twelve-block radius of my crash pad in South Side — most of them were gutter punks, kids from the suburbs — ‘spangers,’ we used to call them — but I also knew all the real street people, people like the Red Hat Lady and Tank Boy and Vinnie the Vet, people with nowhere to go, nothing to do but stand on bridges and scream their demons out into the shapeless grey sky.

“We used to have a soup kitchen on Forbes, just below the 10th Street Bridge, but the churchies complained about the urine on the sidewalk and had the place killed. Shut down the abortion clinic on Penn Ave. too. Gotta love these ‘new Christians.’ Can’t feed a man in the street, but they sure can tell you what to do with your baby cave.

“So one day I’m coming back to my flat with a cup of coffee and I see this woman sitting on my stoop, an old skunk of a woman with black hair down to her feet and a thick stripe of white down the middle. I’d never seen her before. She had a bad stutter. ‘D-d-d-d-do you h-h-have any p-p-p-pennies?’ she said. Now, I knew I didn’t have any change on me. But I had some paper in my pocket. I took out a five-dollar-bill and stuffed it in the old woman’s dress. ‘Here’s five dollars,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup. It’s going to get pretty cold out tonight.’

“It took her a few seconds to register what was happening. ‘Th-th-th-thank y-y-y-you, th-th-th …’ she started to say, and I made a little wave and turned to enter my apartment; and just as I put the key in the lock, I heard, clearly, these three words: ‘Thank you, Johnny.’

“I heard it clear as anything. The stutter was gone, but there was something else, too. It wasn’t the same voice. It had a deeper register, there was this creepy certainty to it. I turned around to face her. The cataracts had cleared from her eyes. She was looking right at me. And she said it again, in that same lucid voice: ‘Thank … you … Johnny.’

“It was my mother. It was my mother. My goddamn dead mother was speaking to me through this homeless woman who’d appeared on my doorstep out of the blue, and suddenly I was sure of it. The old woman shambled off down the street, but I didn’t go into my building — not then.

“Instead, I took what was left of my coffee and walked twelve blocks — that’s how long it took me to shake off this feeling of dread. And during that mile-long hike through the rougher parts of the city, I tried to reconcile what had just happened with my sense of reason, to make sense of it within the context of objective reality. And what I came up with, in the end, was that the woman had said, ‘Thank you, honey,’ and I’d simply misheard her. Sound travels in funny ways through the fog of human perception, and when you factor in all the interference from microwaves and radio towers and cell phone signals, when you think about all those poor, confused birds and their erratic flight patterns, all the aborted thoughts and miscarried prayers that are floating around up there, taking all of this into account, it’s a wonder we are able to communicate with each other at all.

“Maybe I did hear her right. Johnny’s a pretty common name; maybe she called everyone Johnny. But that doesn’t explain the cleared-up cataracts … or how she lost the stutter … or why her voice changed

“You know, this other time back in Pittsburgh, I’m at this party tripping on acid and I couldn’t handle it and I went into the basement to drink a beer and be alone. And as I’m sipping on my beer, the basement door opens, and two feet start coming down the stairs. Boots. Patent leather. Laces all the way up the side. And I think to myself: ‘Those are the devil’s shoes …’ And just as I completed the thought, literally as I thought the word shoes, the two feet turned and trotted right back up the stairs. As if the person who was wearing the shoes had heard me. Which of course was impossible, as I hadn’t actually said anything. And when I went back up to the party there were squatters and buskers and spangers and junkies and all manner of pipefitting riffraff, but no one with shoes matching the ones I’d seen clomping down those squealing wooden steps. Not even close, bub.

“I’ve heard it said that every horrible and charitable thing you’ve ever done in your life, you’ve done it to yourself. I don’t really think that is true, but sometimes, when I’m within shouting distance of sober, I can see it.

“But then it goes away. Nothing lasts forever, I guess.

“Thank you for the soup.”


Cowboys and Astronauts

24 Jan


I used to collect butterflies. It was just something I did for a couple of summers, when I was nine or ten years old. I had a blue butterfly net, a few dozen jars, a cork board, some pins. I’d go out early in the morning, when it was still foggy and cool, and catch not just butterflies but beetles, sawflies, grasshoppers, ladybugs, and even bees.

As far as I know or can tell, I was the last American child to collect butterflies as a hobby. It’s one of those things you hear about kids doing, or read about in books, but never actually see in real life. Like helping old ladies cross the street; or obtaining merit badges in archery. Or reading.

*  *  *

When people tell me they don’t read books–better still, that they “hate reading”–I don’t understand what the fuck they are talking about. How can you hate reading? That’s like hating air.

For one thing, reading is one of the most relaxing things a person can do. In this age of nonstop stress and stimulation, when it seems like life is just a series of panic attacks, or one giant, prolonged panic attack, reading is one of the few activities you can engage in independent of family, work, or other horrific and loud distractions. It’s so relaxing, in fact, that it puts you to sleep. I know I can’t personally lay down on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book, even a great book, without winking off in less than an hour.

The other thing about reading is that it’s an aggressive, and even a competitive, activity. There are very few books that can keep your attention the whole way through. At some point–usually after the first 140 pages or so–there is always a temptation to put the book down and never pick it back up. The book may begin with an intriguing premise, but then the author makes a questionable decision, goes off on an ill-advised tangent, fails to properly braid the strands of his story into a cohesive, suspenseful whole–and then you have a decision to make. The author has challenged you; and now it’s you against the author. So you power through. The book will not defeat you. You finish the book, you put it on your bookshelf, and you say: “I read that.” It’s a mini-accomplishment. You did that shit. It’s hard to read a book. It takes time. Time–the one commodity that all of us have, and don’t have, in spades.

*  *  *

More and more it occurs to me that people simply don’t give a fuck what I’m doing with my writing. I tell them about a conversation I had with my agent, or the revisions I’m making to a story, or an idea I have germinating in my head, or a magazine I am thinking of sending my work to, or this blog, and they politely nod their heads and try to think of a way to steer the conversation down a more fruitful, less conflicted path. They never know what to say. I might as well be talking about ET tubes and CVP waveforms and indwelling catheters and runs of v-tach. There are a few people who I would call friends who know, more or less, what it means to have a story accepted by a magazine; but from the rest, even from the most well-meaning of friends, the best you can hope for is that polite, uncomfortable head-bobbing, a kind of grim acknowledgement of semi-success.

Used to be, someone would introduce me to a group of people, and begin by saying: “This is Ernesto, he is a writer.” What it meant to them, I dare not say, but it would mean something. These days I’m almost embarrassed to tell people I write–and downright mortified to describe myself as a writer. I might as well say I’m a cowboy, or an astronaut; it’s a carved-out area of the American jobspace that doesn’t really exist anymore; at once too specific and too vague to count for anything. I’m sure there are people on this planet who earn their livings wrangling cattle, or getting shot into space, or dreaming up stories and poems and plays out of thin air, but I don’t know them, you don’t know them, and so, do they really exist? Are they real?

*  *  *

There was this little weird guy who used to come into the Beehive, who I was always kind of afraid of. He was even shorter than me, and waifishly thin, and he always wore a three-piece suit with a pocket watch and a tie, and he had a pencil-thin mustache that looked like it was drawn on, and I think he would walk with a cane. I was afraid of him because it always seemed like one day he would walk into the Hive, with his beta-male rage, and instead of a cane he would have an automatic weapon, and just open fire on the place, just wipe us all out.

I mention this freak because, at the time when he was coming around, I had just gotten a story accepted by Morpheus Tales, a little UK horror magazine that is actually one of the bigger horror markets. He came in one day, I gave him his coffee, and he said, almost as an afterthought, “Congrats on Morpheus Tales, man, that’s really cool.” It was so out-of-the-blue that for a few seconds I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. I hadn’t told anyone about the acceptance, after all. (Adding an extra layer to my confusion is the fact that I write under a pen name.) Yet somehow he had seen my story–it was about a vampire masquerading as a tattoo artist, who uses a special tattoo gun to collect blood from his clients–and he’d kind of put two and two together and realized that the writer who worked behind the counter at his favorite coffee shop had published a story overseas; and we had a moment, him and me, a moment of understanding between readers. And the moment conveyed: I got you, man.

Few weeks later, I banned him from the Beehive. I had to. He was running around the back room, goosed on acid, hitting girls in the legs with his cane.

*  *  *

One day I went out to the garage to retrieve my blue butterfly net and it wasn’t there. It was the first day of summer vacation, and I wanted to get a head start on all the glorious insects that had descended on our humid enclave of Philly. I asked my parents where my butterfly net was, and my mom handed me a brand new basketball, and my Dad said coldly: “You’re too old to be running around chasing butterflies like a fairy.”

And the thing is … he was right! I was too old to be prancing around in some meadow, swinging my faggy blue net around. He didn’t have to be such a giant dick about it, but even then, I knew what he meant. It was developmentally inappropriate.

Many years later I came home from San Francisco to announce my intention to write fiction for a living, and it was as if I was coming out of the closet to them. I am lucky my dad didn’t throw me out of a window. I think my mother cried. “You were always so happy running after bugs in the yard, with your little net,” she said into her tea. “You could have been an entomologist.”

Tiny Letter

21 Dec


You can’t tell from the picture, but this is the tiniest rejection letter I’ve ever received, quite possibly the tiniest the world has ever produced.

Things that are bigger than, and can thus physically dominate, this rejection letter:

  • Playing card
  • Bar of soap
  • iPod Nano
  • Pack of cigarettes
  • Zippo lighter
  • Monopoly money
  • Micropenis (flaccid)

For reference, here is Pembroke’s standard rejection form, aside an American quarter.


I feel silly having provided the postage for this seafoam-green scrap of paper. I feel like it could have been delivered to me via insect.

Character Development

14 Dec


Every now and then I take a break from killing myself with alcohol to reflect upon my transition from professional rejectee to published, agented author.

By winter of 2009 I owned maybe two pairs of jeans, a pair of Doc Martens boots, and a laptop that threw off smoke if I used it for fifteen consecutive minutes. But I was moving up in the world–literally, from basement to attic. Once again I found myself relying upon a certain friend who, perhaps more than anyone else, understood the struggle I was facing; the compulsion to foolishly cling to a foul-smelling dream, long past its date of expiration.

Two years prior, I had written thirty pages of what had started out as a short story and had metastasized, as these things do, into a full-fledged crappy horror novel. It was basically the story of a Marine with PTSD who moves into a haunted house. I was calling the story “It Lives Upstairs,” which is a bad, bad title for the kind of book I was attempting. The writing wasn’t any great shakes either.

But it was words on a page, the prose was there, the story made a kind of nonlinear sense, and it was something to work on, to distract me from the flaming helicopter accident that had become of my life. At the end of the day I had a roof over my head, a quiet space to write, a snow-swept window with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Pittsburgh … but I couldn’t take advantage of it. I could not conceive of trundling home after work, to my little attic with its dust mites and beer-soaked carpets, to sit in front of a blank Word document into which I would theoretically insert literary content. I was terrified of being alone. I’d sit at my laptop, and five minutes later I’d be texting some girl I’d met on the street, making plans to meet up at Dee’s, that charmless, hipster-strewn den of apathy and unearned narcissism.

In those days, I fancied myself a bit of a player. I thought I had “game”–but in retrospect, I was really just an asshole. I would just walk up to the prettiest girl in the bar, say the most random, bizarre shit I could think of, then walk away without hearing a response. I was charming and repulsive to the extreme. Sometimes I would intentionally double-book dates, then let them fight it out as I ignored them both. I’d leave the bar without telling anyone–what’s referred to as an “Irish goodbye”–and later, at around 4AM, already lying in bed with another girl, I’d shoot them a text that read: “Who won?”

It was around this time that some of my friends started suggesting I buy a gun, carry a knife, or at least learn how to fight. But I had no need for such radical, preemptive solutions; I had my brain; I could talk myself out of, and into, anything. Often I’d find myself walking home from the bar with a bag of potato chips, and I’d stop under a bridge to catch my breath and light a cigarette, and just pass out from sheer asshole exhaustion. Just sleep there under the bridge, as if that were the most natural thing in the world to do! In the morning I would pick myself up, dust the dirt and snow and other detritus off of me, vomit in some bushes, and walk three blocks to the coffee shop where I worked. Looking back, it’s a miracle I was never robbed by police, raped by homeless psychopaths, or set on fire by steroidal teenage marauders.

To say I was a little depressed would be a bit like saying a late-stage drug addict with a brain tumor and failing kidneys and full-blown AIDS is just a little bit sick. I was gravely, immeasurably depressed. Depression consumed me. I COULD NOT shake my depression. Couldn’t face the fact that the endless parade of stoners and whores that passed in and out of that crumbling house was the extent of my social involvement. Were it not for my general laziness, aversion to planning, and pathetic inability to obtain a firearm, I would surely have ended my life that same winter.

People who knew me back then will sometimes ask me how I defeated my demons and pulled myself up by my bootstraps to become the upstanding, super high-functioning white guy I am today. Well, I’ll tell you. One day, while walking along some train tracks, I had what you might call an epiphany. I figured there were three things I could do to beat back my depression. One, I had to stop drinking–at least until such a time when I could string together two coherent thoughts. Two, I had to get some exercise–ideally something more rigorous and vigorous than walking from bar to bar. And three, I had to make a concerted attempt to write. To sit at my computer and make myself available to the Muse. Whether I got any work done, or sat there all night staring at a glowing computer screen: I had to put the time in.

Eight months later, I had a 90,000-word novel that was better than it had any right to be, considering I was so fucked up on vodka and pills that to this day I do not remember writing vast stretches of it.

I gave the book a quick edit, and went out on the usual rounds of submitting the work to indifferent, high-powered literary agents, with predictably bad results. Some agents expressed interest, but after reading the first few chapters, sagely brushed off my query, washed their hands clean of me. Most agents simply didn’t respond.

Precisely one agent, from the Maria Carvainis Literary Agency, requested to read the full novel.

I was ecstatic, terrified. I couldn’t believe it. This little horror novel I had written, from my little attic in the Southside Slopes, this thing I had almost drunk myself to death while writing, was going on a BIG TRIP to Rockefeller Plaza in NYC. I couldn’t have been more proud.

I printed out the manuscript, slapped together a cover letter, wrote a brief message on a piece of stationery with a picture of Edgar Allen Poe on it, and packed the materials into a FedEx box just before my shift at the Beehive started.

As I was doing this, my friend Ted Moses, a 64-year-old degenerate gambler affectionately and provincially known as “The Mayor of Southside,” came over to my table.

“You’re gonna get picked up,” he casually said, while crunching on an apple. As if telling me it was going to rain in five minutes.

“How do you know?”

“I just know. I can see it. What you’ve done here, it’s beautiful. I know it in my balls.

With the exception of the outcome of horse races, I’ve never known Ted to be wrong about anything. So it was not without a measure of hope, and dumb delusion, that I waited for the response to roll in.

About a month later I was lying in bed in with my then-girlfriend Serena, and I got this email on my phone:

Dear Mr. Barbieri,

The impressive amount of detail and chill-inducing descriptions of this horrid house really made my skin crawl. Unfortunately the characters in the story did not have any particularly lasting effect; their lack of substance and seemingly arbitrary relationship with the protagonist was off-putting. Moreover, the fact that Abe has PTSD does not compensate for the often confusing sense of time and perspective in the narrative. For these reasons, I am very sorry that I cannot be the enthusiastic representative any author deserves and I demand of myself.

I wish you much pleasure and success with your writing career.

Best regards,

And that was that. There would be no clearly delineated moment of victory, convincing me that I was on a course to success; the Gods of Publishing would not swoop in and rescue me from obscurity, from a life of wiping asses and hanging bags of blood. In one month I would start nursing school, and I knew I wouldn’t have the time to lovingly perfect my query letter and send out a new batch of submissions. It was over. The dream was over. The novel did not get “picked up,” as Ted had predicted. The book did not “find a home.”

Instead, I did.

And I’m kind of glad it happened that way. I’m glad Ted was wrong. I’m glad I went another ten months before finding the exact perfect agent to represent my book. Because if, by some providence, I had gotten signed by that agent, knowing myself as I do, I would have taken it as a sign to keep going, keep drinking, and I never would have had the guts to follow through with the best decision I ever made, to do something for someone other than myself for a change, to become a nurse–a decidedly non-writerly exploit that changed my life in ways too wonderful and strange to write about now with any clarity or insight.

*  *  *

As I write this somewhat scatterbrained blog post, it occurs to me that I still don’t know what the fuck I am doing. Why am I putting this all out there? What do I hope to gain? Do I hope to gain anything? Who do I think will read, or care about, this bullshit?

I think, deep down, I just want to be adored. I just want to be naked–stripped of the bitterness and misery that piles up with year upon year of hilarious failure. I’m clearly an angry person, and maybe this blog is my way of reconciling the euphoric high of the creative process with the perpetual hell and disappointment engendered by that same process. I think there is a tendency to romanticize and embellish that period of my life–as if, at my core, I am the kind of person who thinks nothing of walking out on a tab or asking random girls if they fart or eating potato chips under a bridge; who can exist, as a child or a psychopath exists, without morals or responsibility. But I will never be that person again. I just don’t have time for that person.


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


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.

Bygone Era

31 Oct


There was a time when I lived on two eggs and a baked potato a day. It was a real loser time for me, a time of roach clips and resin and shivering and sweating and discount grain alcohol and unspeakable depression. My girlfriend of two years had broken up with me over a can of Pepsi while swinging from a swing set in her mother’s backyard. “You can’t love me like I need to be loved,” she had said, and the next day she drove me to Pittsburgh and unceremoniously deposited me on my best friend’s doorstep, like an animal she wished to abandon, and that was that.

I was 26 years old and working in a grocery store for minimum wage–at that time, five-fifteen an hour. In an act of charity which I am still paying off, my best friend had invited me to sleep and write in his basement, providing I help with some of the bills. It was not a nice basement. It was a bunker, a hovel. There was a drain in the floor that I pissed in. A single hanging light bulb. Cockroaches crawled on me as I slept. I will go to my grave believing that the two years I spent swatting spiders and gulping Radon in that rancid basement shaved at least ten years off the tail end of my life.

I mention this not to be cute or to prove my street cred as a starving artist–although, if anyone wants to throw down on a better claim to poverty, I will see your Ramen noodles and raise you a baked potato–but to make a larger point about the process of publishing stories in 2012. You see, back then, if I wanted to submit work to a magazine, I had to walk to the Post Office, pull on the door, and convince a human to sell me a coil of stamps. I had to draft personalized cover letters, do research as to which editors were working where, the sorts of stories they favored. I had to allocate my funds judiciously and draconianly, and make decisions between envelopes and food.

Third Coast, and many journals like it, no longer accept “snail mail” submissions. Nifty electronic submission managers like Submittable, once a taboo concept in publishing, are the norm. Now all you have to do is upload a document into a database and press Send. The process takes no longer than a minute and a half. Cover letters are optional. So is crossing your fingers. You can log into the system and monitor the status of your submission at your leisure. And when the inevitable rejection arrives, it comes via email, and is often detected as spam; and the whole experience seems weightless and somehow machinelike to me, a correspondence dreamed up out of the ether.

A nice family lives in that house now–young professionals with kids and dogs and flower boxes in the windows. I imagine them putting their children to sleep, reading them stories in rooms lit by Ikea lamps and draped in roller-coaster wallpaper, never knowing the caliber of riffraff that once crept around in their house after midnight; the things I did, and ate, to survive. Sometimes, while walking home from the bar, I will pass by the house and peer in through the basement windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of something I might have left behind, a relic to connect me with that part of myself, but the house is always dark, and the flowers obscure my view.

Santa Classy

24 Oct

A very classy rejection letter. Speaks for itself:

January 10, 2009

Dear Martin Slag,

Thank you for submitting to the Santa Clara Review. After much consideration, we regret to inform you that your piece, “Jevon’s Paradox,” has not been accepted in the upcoming issue. Inundated with so many incredible stories, poems, and art, we are forced to select only a handful of pieces each round. We acknowledge and respect the courage it takes to send out your work and are grateful to you for considering the Santa Clara Review. Know that though your piece will not be in the next issue, our staff always welcomes your submissions and hopes to continue to receive your work.

Thank you for your support of the Santa Clara Review.



Cantie Nguyen

Fiction Editor

Nice letterhead, too.

good work tho

19 Oct

The first thing you will notice, when holding this rejection letter in your hands, is the quality of paper it’s printed on–good, heavy white bond paper, the kind you use for a resume.

And then, the vivid crimson color of the iconic Esquire logo, soaked into the paper like blood.

Then the blue ink, straight from an editor’s pen, which reads:

good work tho not right for us. good luck placing it.

Re: Revolver

“Revolver” is the name of the story I submitted.

“Though” has been unnecessarily truncated.

Words that should be capitalized, have not been capitalized.

I remember distinctly the day I received this. It was raining, and I was walking to the liquor store to get my breakfast, and there was a letter in the mail from Esquire. The envelope contained weight–a good sign. I stuffed the envelope with its potentially life-altering contents in my jacket pocket and kept it there as I browsed the aisles for the finest vodka not bottled in plastic. Then I returned home with my purchase and ripped open the letter.

Ordinarily I would be thrilled to receive a personalized response (from an editor at Esquire, no less!) with a generous note of encouragement: good work. But on this occasion, all I felt was dread and despair. Because at the end of the day, I did not make the sale. I was 28 years old, probably an alcoholic, I was losing my girlfriend, losing my hair, losing my life, and what I really needed right now was a sale. I had been writing and submitting stories for ten years, and it seemed to me that I should be farther along than this. That I should be giving interviews to bloggers; doing local readings; making a name for myself. And it struck me how silly the whole enterprise was, this whole insufferable pageantry of honors and awards and obscure accolades and publication credits and Twitter followers and Google hits. I was too old to want these things and too old not to have them. I felt, in the end, like the worst kind of fuck-up–one who did not even have the courage, the drive, the integrity to establish himself as a world-class fuck-up.

“Revolver” was eventually published by Suspense Magazine.