The first of what will probably be a torrent of rejections arrived today, beginning with the inevitable, “Thank you for . . . .” Unlike some rejections I have gotten in the past and will surely receive this time, this one was curt, only two crisp sentences. It was cold, as if my query left such a sour taste in the email writer’s mouth that she couldn’t rid herself of it fast enough.
If you haven’t yet figured this out, I am in the process of querying literary agents about the book I spent countless hours writing and revising, revising, revising. With decades of writing and publishing under my belt, I have been down this road before. It’s a journey I don’t recommend to anyone.
But here I am.
The Start of My Creative Writing Career
I stumbled through the now-vanishing world of journalism way-back-then, as both a staff reporter and editor, and in some periods, a freelancer. At one point, I came up with the crazy idea that I wanted to pursue more creative writing. In the beginning, that meant poetry. So, I signed up for several undergraduate poetry classes at my then-local college, San Francisco State University.
One fateful day, a poetry professor of mine asked me to come to his office. I felt anxious, of course, wondering what he might say.
When I dropped into the hard, wooden guest chair in Mr. Stefanopoulos’s cramped office, I noticed my poems sitting on his desk. Before he said anything, Mr. Stefanopoulos picked up the poems in his right hand. Then he asked, “Why aren’t you in the creative writing program?”
Amazed and relieved that he hadn’t asked what I thought I was doing in a poetry class, given how bad my writing happened to be, I swallowed hard. Then I mumbled something about knowing I would never be accepted because my writing wasn’t good enough.
He said he didn’t agree. In fact, he practically ordered me to apply, saying he would make sure to be one of the three readers of my poetry submission, so I would only need two more yeses.
I gotaccepted to the master’s program, in which I eventually shifted from poetry to short fiction, working quietly, usually feeling too shy to ask for help from any of my kind professors, thinking my work was hopeless. I learned to revise. And revise. And revise. And, over time, my writing improved.
The Sting of Rejection
I quickly learned that rejection is an inevitable part of the game. No matter how many times my words appear in print, no matter how many award nominations I receive or times I’ve been a finalist in a writing contest, I have never stopped getting those letters that begin, “Thank you for . . . ” and then go on to say, “sorry.”
Reading the submissions guidelines for literary agents feels like walking into a room where all the women are dressed in the most cutting-edge, flattering fashions, and I am wearing gray sweatpants and a stretched-out tee-shirt.
The agents usually start off saying how much they loved reading as a child. Yet I always feel like they probably won’t have the slightest interest in my writing. Terms like “upmarket” get bandied about, something I need to consult Wikipedia to understand. It just feels like a world I’ve long yearned to enter, but in which I will never belong.
Who does belong? Someone with “an established platform.” In other words, the writers who are already famous, who already have social media followers and devoted fans. The agents sometimes even describe their wish lists using examples of mega-sellers.
In every agent profile, I search for the one interested in a writer like me, and I don’t find her.
I have loved every one of the small book publishers with whom I have had the great good fortune to work. But after four published books, I still yearn for a big publisher and everything that might bring — reviews in mass-market newspapers and magazines, book tours, and central placement in stores. Unfortunately, agents act like gatekeepers of that world. And I may not be the bright shiny object they are looking for. It only takes one, though.
The Struggle Continues
And as a veteran writer, I am accustomed to being rejected, feeling disappointed, and then moving on. Sending out a ton of queries to literary agents. Experiencing the inevitable fallout is like the scene in Akira Kurosawa’s film, Throne of Blood, in which the actor, Toshiro Mifune, gets repeatedly shot with arrows but refuses to die.
That, unfortunately, is the writer’s life. In my case, the urge to write, with all the joy and struggle it brings, outweighs the pain of rejection. It has to, or I wouldn’t be able to call myself a writer, as I am pleased and proud to do nearly every day.
Patty Somlo is a member of the San Francisco chapter of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA). Her book, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Her previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Reader Views Literary Awards. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. Her most recent book, From Here to There (Adelaide Books), was published in August 2019.
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