The first time I sent submissions out after completing my MFA, I sent out six packets of poems to higher-tier journals. Then I waited. If the feedback of my classmates and professors was any indication, I assumed the responses would be positive (either acceptances or personalized rejection letters). As it turned out, the feedback of my classmates and professors was not any indication. Six months later, I had received form rejections for all six of my submissions. I took those rejections fairly hard, but also knew that rejection is part of the process, so I decided to work harder.
The following January, I set a goal to get 100 rejections in a year (an idea that I had seen circulating among writers on social media). A rejection goal, I thought, might soften the gut-punch of each rejection, and make it easier to keep going. I sent submissions to over 20 journals that January, and made it a policy to work on submissions every day. This turned out to be more work than I had anticipated. In order to get a feel for the aesthetic of the journals to which I was submitting, I spent hours reading through journals’ online archives, and I spent hours reading through journals at local bookstores and libraries. I also began compiling a calendar of open reading periods. By June, I had submissions out to over 50 journals, I had received over 35 rejections (and only one acceptance), and I was beginning to lose hope. Each new rejection set off my anxiety and imposter syndrome. I was obsessively checking my Submittable account ten or twenty times a day, hoping for the slightest bit of encouragement. I saw friends and acquaintances getting work published. A couple of my former classmates from The MFA at EWU had chapbooks published. A couple won prizes. Another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by a journal that had featured poems by both of us (this was my one accepted piece for the year). I wanted desperately to be happy for my friends. I wanted to congratulate them on their success, and promote their work on social media. Though I forced myself to do the latter, I was faking my enthusiasm. I was praising their work and success, but I felt miserable, and I became overwhelmingly jealous. I began to resent these writers—excellent writers who are friends, and whose work I thoroughly enjoy—because I saw their successes as a measure of the (low) value of my work, a measure of my own (low) value as a writer. I kept my submissions calendar private, and never told others about open reading periods. People would ask me which book prizes I was submitting to, and I would lie, telling them that I wasn’t really submitting to book prizes yet. I felt as though their submitting to the same journal or contest would reduce my own chances of acceptance. In other words, I began to see myself as being in competition with other poets, especially those in my immediate circle, and I was losing.
It was nearing the end of June when I decided to post about my experience on social media. I wrote a long, depressing post about my feelings of incompetence, which included a breakdown of my numbers for the year. I expressed doubt that I could keep going. The tone of the post was cynical and angry. Looking back, it is clear that I had been expecting quick success in publishing. I had put in the work, other poets had frequently told me that my work was good, and I reached a point where I felt entitled to acceptance. By the time I wrote that post, I had lost so much self confidence that I expected people to either not comment, or to comment negatively. Instead, people responded with overwhelming positivity. Not only did several people encourage me to keep going, but several thanked me for my openness about the number of rejections I had received. Many commenters expressed relief in seeing that someone else was going through similar struggles. The general consensus was that most people post only about their acceptances and successes, leaving the impression that acceptance and success is the norm. Seeing my post about rejection, failure, and feelings of inadequacy seemed to give people hope. It showed them that they were far from alone in their struggle. It helped people realize that rejection was probably not an indication of the value of their work, or their value as writers. These responses brought me to the same realization, and gave me a new purpose in my poetry community. I felt like I was sharing an experience with other writers, something I hadn’t really felt since completing my MFA. I decided that, from then on, I would be open and honest about my submitting process, no matter how dismal my numbers.
I began posting a monthly count of my submissions, rejections, and acceptances. Each time I made one of those posts, several people expressed gratitude and encouraged me to continue submitting. At local literary events, people would thank me for my posts. They told me that my posts had encouraged them to send out their own submissions, and decreased their fear of rejection. I felt less and less like I was in competition with other poets. Instead, I felt like I was in competition with myself, and in a community with other poets. This change in outlook helped me to keep producing new poems, and to continue sending out submissions.
After a couple of these monthly posts, people started asking me how I was able to keep so many submissions in circulation at once, and how I kept track of open reading periods. I would tell them about the hours of work looking through archives and reading print copies of journals, the hours of time I spent compiling submissions and writing a personalized cover letter with each one. People often told me how impressed they were with my dedication. What they didn’t realize, was that I had so much time to do the research and send out submissions because of my job. I was—and still am— a writing tutor at a local community college. This job allows me a significant amount of time to work on my own projects between responding to students. The money is not good, and the hours are low, but the amount of time I’m able to spend on my own writing and submitting more than makes up for it. Very few people have such a luxury. Most of my poet friends work regular 8 to 5 jobs, and have no energy to send out submissions when they get home from work. They don’t have the time to search for journals with open reading periods. They don’t have time to read 50 journals in a week. They don’t have time to work on submissions every day. Some of them barely have time to eat three meals in a day. So, in the interest of helping the people in my poetry community, I built a simple little WordPress website, and opened access to my submissions calendar. There are now a couple hundred reading periods listed on the calendar, and it has helped many of my friends and acquaintances (and people I don’t even know) submit to journals without as much of a time commitment.
Being open about my failures, and encouraging others to submit their work, has made really positive impact on my writing life. I still get jealous of others’ success occasionally, and I still suffer from imposter syndrome some of the time, but not nearly as often. I no longer worry about competing with other poets. I can genuinely encourage people to submit, and I can enthusiastically promote the work of my poet friends and acquaintances. Most importantly, I no longer see rejection and acceptance as accurate measures of the value of my work, and I don’t feel like there’s any chance I might give up on writing poetry, regardless of whether or not I’m well published.
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Derek Annis is a poet from Spokane, Washington, who holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Their poems have appeared in The Account, Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Crab Creek Review, Fugue, The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review: Poem of the Week, Spillway, and The Summerset Review, among others. You can find their submissions calendar and links to some of their work at https://derekannis.wordpress.com/.