A series of short essays reflecting on the experience of rejection.
Contributors: Danielle McLaughlin, Jill Crawford, Neil Hegarty, Angelique Tran Van Sang, Anna Walsh, Mia Gallagher, with an introduction by Editor at Large, Thomas Morris.
In recent years, The Stinging Fly has seen a substantial increase in submissions. In 2021, for example, we received over 1,800 stories for consideration for publication—double the amount we received in 2011, when I first started working at the magazine. In 2021, we also heard from 900 poets, many of whom sent two or three poems each.
It was from these submissions, along with a few commissioned pieces, that we filled both the 2021 Summer and Winter issues. Open submissions are absolutely, categorically, at the heart of what we do. Everything we receive is read, sometimes by multiple readers, and every piece is given serious consideration. And yet, beneath all this, there’s a stark fact: we publish only 1 to 2 percent of what we read. Each year—before you even get into the vexed questions of who or what gets accepted—a large number of writers will receive rejections from The Stinging Fly.
As someone who writes as well as edits, I’ve been on both sides of the door. As an editor, I have sent out thousands of “rejections”: template rejections, encouraging rejections, rejections with apologies for the delayed reply, rejections with a little feedback, rejections with a lot of feedback, and rejections with explicit requests to send me further drafts. So far, I have received only one death threat. Meanwhile, as a writer, I’ve had three things rejected in the last three months, including a project I’ve been working on since 2019 and which I’d been told was a “dead cert”. In general, I try to avoid the word “rejection”, preferring instead to think of it as Not yet. But when the I’m-afraid-to-say email lands in your own inbox, the distinction is not always so easy to make.
Working for an organisation dedicated to nurturing new writing, my colleagues and I are in conversation with writers every day; we know how fraught an endeavour writing can be. Since the beginning of the pandemic, especially, the wellbeing of writers—and our duty of care towards them—has been firmly on our minds. Talking to writers, we hear many common concerns and predicaments: How do I get started? How do I find time? Am I wasting my time? How do I get past this stuckness? How do I find flow? How do I keep going? And where the hell am I going to find money? Of course, a question can lead a person anywhere, but in my experience, rejection—and the fear of rejection, and the need/desire/hope for acceptance—has the potential to activate our most vulnerable feelings. Suddenly, the rejection isn’t about my work, it’s about me. If I am not enough, then what am I? If I change who I am, will they accept me? If I tone down this part of me, and emphasise that part, if I omit the reality of my own experiences—and give them something resembling their own—will they finally let me in?
From the outside, it may seem that rejection is something that established artists have graduated out of. They’ve published a book, or put out an album, and maybe they’ve done this multiple times now, so they’re fine, they’re flying. (I incorrectly assume this of so many artists, and most recently I found Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers documentary an inspiring, invigorating, antidote.) Regardless of experience or publishing history, rejection seems to be ever-present in a writer’s life. In the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with a writer who’s trying to get a first story published and has so far received only rejections, and I’ve spoken with a writer twenty years into their career whose latest novel has been rejected by every publisher who’s seen it. Their questions were strikingly similar: What should I do now? How do I move on? Should I move on? What’s the difference between persevering and being an idiot? It’s stupid—I know there are more important things going on in the world, so why does this even matter? Should I change what I’m doing? Am I any good?
This past year, we’ve brought writers together to examine some key non-craft-related questions—and to help us better understand how to support writers off the page. In action groups and seminars, and in workshops and masterclasses, we have held discussions about what a rejection does and doesn’t mean; which parts of feedback to use (the bits that are useful) and which parts to dismiss (the bits that are not). We’ve explored the feelings that can arise following disappointment: the way a knock-back can magically, erroneously, confirm the very worst things we think about ourselves. In these sessions, we’ve heard from writers who’ve never sent out work, and we’ve heard from writers ten books in. One writer told us they weren’t sure they wanted to ever publish their work, that maybe sharing their book with a couple of friends was enough. Another writer told us that being published was more confusing and disorientating than having had their work turned down. Together, we’ve exchanged strategies for keeping going when it all seems shit and pointless; and how to retain a sense of joy, play, and freedom in the process. Throughout, key words reoccur: validation; permission; confidence; authenticity; belief; doubt; entitlement; fear; community; time; perseverance; intuition; hope. And the recurring message, which many of us, myself included, seem to always forget: how can we sustain and nourish our own relationship with our work?
Acting on all that we’ve heard and observed, The Stinging Fly has sought new ways to reframe the way we communicate with the many, many authors who trust us with their writing. We’ve amended the submissions process, and we have tried to make more opportunities for writers to feel seen as people rather than digital entries on the Submittable platform. We’ve dedicated a new issue entirely to showcasing work by writers we have not published before; and we’ve partnered with Skein Press to launch the Play It Forward Fellowships, a programme aimed at nurturing and amplifying writers whose voices and stories have long been underrepresented in Irish literature. We have run information sessions on ‘Getting Started’ and hosted Q&A sessions with hundreds of writers in the hope of further demystifying publishing and clarifying what we do when we receive your work. In May, we asked Anne Tannam to host two free seminars on ‘Building Resilience’ to a Zoomful of writers, while Olivia Fitzsimons wrote for us a gorgeous essay on the subject. All the while, I’ve continually wondered why we still haven’t found a better word for Submissions (with its connotations of yielding and supplication)?
To help us think further—and deeper—about writing and rejection, we have invited six Stinging Fly contributors to share reflections and experiences. What follows here is a series of short essays by established writers, “emerging writers”, and a former editor, now literary agent. Thinking about these essays in the last few weeks, I’ve found myself heartened and reassured. When I received my most recent rejection, I drew on a number of things I’d read in these pieces, and allowed myself time and space to process the disappointment. More prosaically: after I got the news, I closed my laptop, then bought the largest cookie I could find. It tasted really good.
‘Rejection, back when I’d just started sending out stories, felt crushing. It sat upon me like a physical thing, squat and heavy.’
‘I am the person and writer I am because I failed at a previous incarnation of life. Like most actors, I accumulated countless rejections and humiliations, surpassing in number my accomplishments.’
‘Writers have an advantage in this process: vulnerable as we are to the judgment of the world, we are also instinctively aware of the strength of an inner place, from which our best work always comes.’
‘There were times when I loved a book and felt in my bones that I could publish it well, only to bring it to a meeting and find that my colleagues didn’t feel the same.’
‘I received detailed rejections last year from editors who had requested over ten pages of my work. I have rewritten a specific story for a journal on the editor’s advice and it was still not accepted. None of this means I am a failure, or a bad writer.’
‘I got through it, not by talking, or thinking my way out, but by feeling. At one point over that painful weekend, my gut in knots, I realised: if I can feel this, I can get through anything.’
Submissions for the Summer 2023 issue of The Stinging Fly will open on November 15.