Submissions. Rejections. Acceptance.
During the final year of my undergraduate degree, my Great-Aunt Irene suffered a massive stroke. I remember visiting her at the Kingston General Hospital; an aunt and a cousin were at her bedside, attempting to feed her some chicken soup, while she lay rigid and unresponsive in the bed, her eyes glaring at a fixed point high up in the corner of the ceiling. The soup dribbled from her mouth and down her chin as my relatives dabbed at the excess with a tissue. They laughed and talked and dabbed, acting as if this situation was completely normal, which in retrospect I suppose it was, but at the time all I felt was fury. Aunt Irene died three days later. After the funeral, I channeled all of my anger and sadness into writing a short story told from my great-aunt’s perspective, and when it was finished I mailed the piece off to The Atlantic Monthly, certain that I’d written a modern classic. Three or four months later, my manuscript was returned to me in the brown envelope that I’d provided, along with a form rejection letter. It hurt. I wasn’t a writer after all, it seemed. What I didn’t’ realize, at the tender age of twenty-three, was that I wasn’t a writer yet.
I didn’t submit another short story to a magazine until my mid-thirties, spending those intervening years as a stay-at-home mom of four, but words continued to whisper from the wings. When our youngest son entered Kindergarten, I resolved to take two years to see what sort of writing I could produce and then try to publish it. If, after that time, I had no luck finding homes for my work, I’d accept that maybe writing wasn’t for me, and I’d pursue a teaching career. I crafted five or six short stories over the next twenty-four months, while methodically researching the types of magazines that would be open to my subject matter and style. As soon as a story was finished, I sent it out into the world, and I began another. When a story returned to me, I’d read the rejection letter, file it in my rejection folder, go back inside the piece and make any adjustments I deemed necessary, and then mail it back out to another magazine.
I was a rejection-making factory in those first two years. Everything came back, multiple times, my rejection folder thickening at an alarming rate, but what gave me hope were the hand-written comments that I’d occasionally receive from a few dedicated, kind and over-worked literary magazine editors. I’d read somewhere that hand-written comments on a rejection letter meant you were close, and you should send that editor something else as soon as possible. So I did. Still, the envelopes returned. A couple of months before the expiry of my self-imposed deadline, I won a fiction contest and had my winning story published in Kingston This Week. Shortly afterwards, a story was accepted by The Antigonish Review, and then another was taken by The New Quarterly. These successes convinced me to put my teaching career on hold.
Seventeen years on, with two books published, I’ll admit that rejection still stings in whatever form it takes. As writers, we must find ways to cope. Me? I take great comfort from a quote of Elizabeth Hay’s, which is taped to the bottom of my computer screen:
“I have one fortunate trait that helps me with rejection. I take my kneecapped self to my bed and I lie down, and after a spell of sinking to the bottom, I find my bloody-minded essence. I can live without that reviewer’s approval. I can live without that publisher’s yes. I can live without that award. And I feel much stronger for the rejection. I always think of Tommy Douglas. When I was about twelve, I heard him on the radio after another disastrous NDP defeat saying he was ‘bloodied but unbowed.’ Me too, bloodied but unbowed. Unlike Tommy Douglas, I curse like a sailor. I bury my rejectors under a mountain of foul language. That helps a lot.
I’m also perfectly aware that my books aren’t perfect. I don’t expect everyone to like what I write, or to like me. I don’t like myself half the time, and I wish my books were better.” -- Elizabeth Hay/ The New Quarterly #110.
Bloody-minded essence, a few select cuss words, and a realistic attitude. Check, check, and check.
Colette Maitland has published widely in literary magazines: The Antigonish Review, Potterfield Portfolio, Descant, Room of One’s Own, The Nashwaak Review, Wascana Review, The Prairie Journal, Freefall, The Puritan, The Fiddlehead, Event, and frequently in The New Quarterly.Her first book, a collection of short stories called Keeping the Peace, and published by Biblioasis (Spring 2013), was long-listed for the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and short-listed for the 2014 Re-Lit Award. Frontenac House published her first novel, Riel Street, in June of 2014.