The last big one was January 2021, when Danny Denton emailed me to say he was passing on After Omar, a 7,200-word essay I’d submitted to The Stinging Fly. The piece was about my and my husband’s obsession with David Simon’s cult noughties TV series The Wire, refracted through Omar, Baltimore’s avenging angel, played by former dancer, the great Michael Kenneth Williams.
I’d written for the Fly before, but usually by invitation. Omar was a punt, pitched on a spur after the Summer 2020 issue’s online launch. Danny knew the essay’s history. It was old, first written in 2008 for Brendan Barrington, editor of The Dublin Review. At a launch party, a group of us had been getting het up about The Wire around the drinks table, and though I hadn’t read much of the Review, and Brendan and I hadn’t worked together, and he didn’t usually commission essays from pitches, we both got excited and he said yes.
I wrote it, fast, on a residency in the States. I’d intended to do something cool and dispassionate: Omar as archetype, Simon’s world-building, why the series was catching so much zeitgeist. While the essay touched on those ideas, it also got personal—6,935 words tracing the relationship between Omar, my husband and me across the arc of The Wire, from first sighting to final grieving, bashing into themes of attraction, shared addiction, possession and compulsion; secrets, guilt and the difficulty of letting go. Unfortunately, Brendan’s response began. He couldn’t pinpoint why he was rejecting it, beyond a sense that he was missing something.
I don’t remember feeling bad. It was only an essay and he was paying me a kill fee and, I told myself, if it was going to picked up elsewhere, it would be.
In autumn 2020, after Danny agreed to look at a revised version, I opened it up again. Some elements still felt fresh, a testament to the enduring power of The Wire and Michael Kenneth Williams’ performance. Other parts begged for a shift in perspective to acknowledge changes in the world and my life since 2008. One strand, where I’d attempted to tease out ideas about race, recognition and privilege, and my place in that, needed a radical re-working.
I dug in.
Writing this I struggle, trying to name what I felt when Danny rejected the new version of After Omar. His No stung, yes, and—I write—I’m sure I felt the usual. Meaning? Shame, humiliation, not good enough. Also: Jesus there I am Contributing Editor and I can’t even.
I try to connect with it physically. Get a sense of something coming down in front of me. Words: I don’t belong (any more), I’m an outsider (again).
I feel I’m avoiding something. Back to stung. The sting by the Fly. What’s the specific, shameful, stinging moment?
The phrase coils out of my gut into my mind.
Not as good as.
Lisa McInerney. Whose beautiful, blistering, current piece on K-Pop was commissioned by Danny for the Summer 2020 issue, along with an equally beautiful, current piece on migration by Tim McGabhann.
Good art inspires me. I may get a pang, ooh I wish I’d written that, but I never wish the writer hadn’t. It calls. Best-case scenario, I respond. Because Danny had commissioned fan auto/non-fiction by Lisa, and published self-eviscerating meta/auto/non-fiction by Tim, I assumed he’d jump at my essay, which, I prided myself, had ingredients of both. I’d also assumed, because of my connection with the Fly it would be eas-ier this time round.
Now I can name another feeling. The giddy relief that flooded me when Danny wrote me with a question, having stopped his reading because the piece made him really want to see The Wire and he was worried about the spoilers I’d flagged and he was aware I mightn’t be able to answer but he was wondering how… It was a good question, but I was already distracted: He likes it! He likes it! So I wrote back, on a rush, all wet-ass gushy, omg! I am bowled over by your response. I was half-expecting a ‘Nice try Mia but’—then, just in time, realised he hadn’t actually said Yes.
This piece, unlike my Omar essay, has been invited. I was chatting with Tom Morris after The Stinging Fly Summer School, and we got onto fear, shame and rejection, so I told Tom my 2014 Rejection Story. How eight years on from the publication of my debut and following six years of writing, eighteen months of initial submissions to thirteen editors—seven Nos, one manuscript lost, five no-replies—a further year of intensive rewriting and a further fourteen months of submissions to eleven editors—one no-reply and ten Nos, six of which I learnt about on the same day, July 21st 2014—I had to confront my feelings of inadequacy around the rejection of my second novel.
I didn’t do it in July, after my agent got off the phone. I was too busy, filling my diary with to-do notes. Teaching, moderating, mentoring, preparing extracts for anthologies, getting on with my next book. I had to work and I had to save money, because a health issue had surfaced and my insurance wouldn’t cover the procedure. If my second novel was going to be picked up, it would be. As for the editors’ comments—Unbearably slow, Too like something else we’re doing, We like it but we can’t make the numbers work—what could I do with them?
In late October 2014, a week before my medical procedure and nearly four years into the cycle of submission and rejection, I was invited to the launch for a colleague’s own second book. Massive advance, internationally-placed, super-duper agent. A genius, someone said. Everything I’d been pushing down came to a head.
I told Tom how I remembered sitting at the launch party bar during a gap in conversation. No smartphone, so I just sat, me and my shame. I told him about meeting my colleague’s editor later that night, the same editor who’d lost the first draft of my book and never responded to the second. You write? Have you a novel? Will you send it? Oh… Next day, my husband and I went to Cork to stay with friends. I couldn’t speak about work. There wasn’t the space and anyway, I didn’t want to. I got through it, I told Tom, not by talking, or thinking my way out, but by feeling. At one point over that painful weekend, my gut in knots, jolting around in the back of our friends’ car on the way to Kinsale, I realised: if I can feel this, I can get through anything. Would you write something, said Tom.
Omar wasn’t meant to enter the picture. 2014 had a perfect hero’s arc: vulnerability, pain, enlightenment. An upbeat ending—my own publishing deal in 2015 with New Island, great things since. But as I was musing, thinking of ways to enrich, update, drill down, back
slouched into my mind, my great love of 2008, in his long duster coat and dancer’s gait and teardrop scar and his gone, gone, gone, sobbing croak of a drawl. I tried for a draft that would accommodate. All jazz-choppy, 2014 back-and-forthing with earlier slights, happy ending qualified by Omar neatly shoehorned into cautionary coda.
No, he said. What makes you think you can call on something you love, especially out of their grave, and expect them to be a bit-player?
Why don’t I feel disappointment when I remember Brendan’s rejection? Why giddy relief when I remember Danny’s?
Reading the essays, both Brendan and Danny said they were missing something. In Danny’s words, what is this really about? I understand why, because I hadn’t been honest with them. In both essays, I had used Omar and our relationship with him to embed personal experiences that I needed to acknowledge but didn’t want to write about directly. On that residency in the States, I had a crush on a man that almost broke up my marriage. Three weeks before I pitched to Danny, I—
Sometimes I can’t find the right way to say things.
Dance, said my first No, the teacher who became a Government Minister, the one who’d put me in the corner and called me a dunce for not understanding Irish, as I froze, aged four, on a Gaelscoil stage in 1971, with no idea what ‘Irish dancing’ meant. What are you crying for, you big cry-baby. Dance.
For Michael Kenneth Williams (1966–2021)
This essay forms part of a series of reflections on rejection.