The Agony of Submissions– One Writer's Rant

I write regularly for Author Magazine, which you should DEFINITELY check out if you’re a writer or if you love reading or if you love to listen/watch writers being interviewed. Here is my most recent piece. It’s about my relationship with submitting my work. Enjoy. Or feel my pain. Either one. I’d love to hear your own angle on the business side of the writing life. yrs. Laura

PIE by Laura Munson

Mostly, I’ve been a back door sort of submitter. I didn’t used to be. I used to march straight through the front door and send my stuff out shotgun. In fact, the very first story I wrote, I sent, wait for it…to the New Yorker. And when I got that first form rejection, I was stunned. I was twenty. I was a dreamer, not really a writer. And dreamers are a bit delusional. So I kept sending out that short story—Harpers, Esquire, every magazine I could think of, every literary review I found in the Harvard Square kiosk (we didn’t have the internet yet). Still rejection after rejection. After rejection. I had a bulletin board over my desk with a chart full of all my submissions written on butcher block paper. In the section which I’d entitled Y/N, there were so many N’s that I did that N some courtesy and elongated it to Nope. To this day it’s still Nope, only now I know how to make a spreadsheet on my computer. I sort of miss that bulletin board. It was so visceral, writing Nope in Sharpie on butcher’s block paper pinned up with thumb tacks.

Then I read somewhere—Hemingway On Writing or something like that, that you just had to write and write and write and stop trying to get published, and so I spent the next half of my life writing. I recoiled from submitting. I wrote some essays and stories, cast them off into the wind from time to time, and got down to work, ignoring the rejections as they came in—well, KIND of ignoring them. I stopped talking about being a writer. And I began living the writing life. I wrote so much that I used to imagine myself putting on a seatbelt at the beginning of my writing day. I’d feel that ghost seatbelt like amputees claim they feel their lost limb. I was obsessed. Novel after novel. Every so often I’d get my nerve up and query an agent but not really give it the old college try. Not if you want a letterman’s sweater and I did. Not if you’re playing to win. If you’re any good. And I even doubted that.

Then a successful published writer friend told me to look at it like a pie chart. Writing was the dream slice. But the rest was necessary if I ever wanted anybody to read what I spent all that time alone in a dark room tapping away about on my keyboard. And especially, if I ever wanted to get paid for it. “You’re getting a flat ass for nothing,” he said. And he was right. My ass was flattening and no one was reading my stuff and I wasn’t getting paid a dime. (And they wonder why writers drink.)

I didn’t think of the writing life as a pie chart. I wanted to write like I wanted to canter on a horse. In other words, I didn’t want to deal with the saddle soap and the de-wormer. Or the training. Or the walking and stopping and doing circles if things got hairy. And then I was in a hot tub in LA one day and it’s a long story but it lead to an agent who signed me on as a client but with one question: Why aren’t you published? I gave her the writer’s answer: I used to write out of anger, but now I write out of gratitude. But that wasn’t the whole story.

It had more to do with pride. Shame. Guilt, even. How could I have worked so hard and not gotten published to wide acclaim? That was my prayer, after all. Please let me be published to wide acclaim. Spoken to so many horizons on so many beaches. I wish a pelican had flown by or a humpback whale would have flapped a fin in my face and said, “You ain’t gonna git published if you don’t send your work out, sister.” And maybe they did. I was too busy begging and crying and kicking sand around to notice.

Oh how we get in our own way. Oh the fences we build. So here I am, with that flotsam-flung prayer answered, trying to imagine my writing life as the pie chart I guess it’s been after all, trying not just to think of the pie. It would be blackberry, by the way. Or maybe strawberry rhubarb. If you asked me what I’m supposed to be doing right now, I’d tell you about the three files that are open in the tool bar below this sentence: Submissions winter 2010, submissions letters, magazines. And what am I doing? Writing about it. I have a huge body of work after all these years and I’m overwhelmed by it. I feel like Old Mother Hubbard with a copy of the Fiske Guide to Colleges in her already full lap. I’ve made six cups of tea this morning. I’ve checked my email approximately—well, a LOT, that’s how much. I’ve researched Italian Rosetta Stone language dvds. I’ve bought a pair of boots.

Jonathan Franzen said at the recent Miami Book Fair where I had the honor of reading, that no good novel comes out of a computer attached to the internet. People smugly laughed, outing themselves. I smugly crossed my legs and arms: I don’t have this problem. I have trained myself in discipline. I can write under any conditions. I have never made excuses. I’ve completed 14 frigging novels, two memoirs, and I don’t know how many essays and short stories. Too many to count, though I’m considering giving it a whirl right now just to put off having to submit my work. I ABHOR submitting my work.

Even now, why? It’s not the probable rejection. It’s not the actual writing of the query letters—it’s writing after all and we all know how I feel about writing by now. It has something to do with why I never got above a B+ in math. I don’t like numbers. I don’t like pie charts. I don’t like doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t want to BE a business person. In other words, I’m completely immature. And I still believe that the rebel is free. I’m here to tell you, it’s not.

The artist can be and even must be, a business-person too. And that doesn’t mean you’re selling out. You’re creating the possibility of having your work be received by people. And that’s part of it. Still…it’s a pill I haven’t quite swallowed. I don’t have any problem submitting my books to my agent. But my little babies to glossy magazine editors and terrifying places like Granta or the Paris Review or…uck. I’d rather get a cavity filled. I’m not kidding. I want to get on my cow pony and canter. No, gallop. Instead, Dear editor. I have a few essays which I feel to be a match for your zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

And those old questions clamor in my mind: why would they want to publish MY work in the first place? Haven’t I had enough therapy to know that I have self-worth issues? Doesn’t a New York Times bestselling book make me immune to these inner saboteur-esque questions? Apparently not.

Two cups of tea later: an epiphany occurs:

I find myself chortling. Fully entranced in my essay file on my computer, playing a game of cat and mouse. Or curser and mouse, if you will. (Aren’t I hysterical?) Asking a different kind of question– as if to a palm reader: where should this one go, oh wise curser? And then I start talking to my actual Word document files. Tell me where you want to go. Tell me where home is, little girl. I’ll give you a ride and a sandwich. Fly. Be free.

And shit starts happening. I start making a list. A fast one. The one about dog-sledding—Outside magazine of course. And…the one about the funeral in the forest, how ‘bout Tin House. And the one about the firefighter and the grizzly bear, what about Orion? And the one about my first child and the day she wanted to move her dollhouse out of her room…why not Parenting magazine? Or Ladies Home Journal. Or Woman’s Day? Or Redbook? Suddenly, no glossy mag seems too grandiose. What’s a magazine without its writers? As my literary hero once told me, “Someone has to get published and why can’t it be you?” Yeah. Like Harrison said. Why not me?

So after seven hours of diddling around like a child doing chores, in a half an hour, I’d submitted eleven pieces. All by listening to my work and its voice—picturing the blow of its cannon and watching its trajectory in the sky, falling as it might.

And truth told, I want more. I think I’ll dedicate the whole week to this game, in fact. To this slice of pie. And when I’m through, I’ll have irons in the fire, while I tuck into the winter of 2010, and get back to work on the reason for the slices in the first place: the writing.

13 Comments

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13 Responses to The Agony of Submissions– One Writer's Rant

  1. I really like your idea of turning submissions into a game. The learning curve of being a “writer as business person” is a long one for me, too. Something Richard Russo wrote in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2010 has helped recently:

    “[W]riters may have begun by writing for themselves… but in the end they turned outward, offering us the gift of what they’d crafted with such care, hoping we’d be pleased.”

    That’s what you are doing with your week of submitting, offering your craft as a gift. We can think of it as an act of generosity. :)

    • Funny thing about submitting. Once we do it, we find we’re more succesful than we think we’d be. Once I got my act together and started submitting (not so much to literary magazines — but ones — the ones that really have to make a profit and serve reader’s needs more than just literary enjoyment) I have had a pretty good track record. But then I get lazy. As you said, getting paid for your work and seeing it in print — is a business. The artistic side is great, but no photographer, film-maker, dancer, artist of any kind– got his work out there by just fiddling with it. You gotta market. Now to follow what I know to be true!

  2. Emma

    I cannot tell you how much I related to this. In lots of ways, this has been my path, though I’m just at the beginning.

  3. Making the publishing company our “mommy full of praises and acceptance” is sad and reminds me of strangulation. I too relate to your words above.
    There are the words written out of lust, the creator, the audience, and if we allow, the third party “producer.” Being the creator, at each moment, we get to choose how we define success and acceptance. Do we fight, growl and gnash our teeth for The Publisher or do we bend over and Self-publish…Eeeew, Yuck. Never thought I would stoop to this “level.” Wow, was i ever full of judgment and resistance. AHA – first clue…!
    I too believe it is just about the writing…not about being the “author.” You can publish/self-publish a book and still just be the writer. Truth be told, it’s about that feeling of writing because you can’t NOT write. It’s about channeling a heartfelt message or building a bucking broncho mystery that throws you to the gound with a “hurt so good” thud. It’s about honoring your soul and not the ego. It’s about getting the “balls” to just listen and stop projecting. It is about diving into the portal of self-worth self-acceptance no matter what the future holds. BECAUSE if we can do this,

  4. Making the publishing company our “mommy full of praises and acceptance” is sad and reminds me of strangulation. I too relate to your words above.
    There are words written out of lust, the creator, the audience, and if we allow, the third party “producer.” Being the creator of those words, at each moment, we get to choose how we define success and acceptance. Do we fight, growl, and gnash our teeth for The Publisher, or do we bend over and Self-publish…Eeeew, Yuck. Never thought I would stoop to this “level.” Wow, was I ever full of judgment and resistance. AHA – first clue…!
    I too believe it is just about the writing…not about being the “author.” You can publish/self-publish a book and still just be the writer. ‘Cause it’s about that feeling of writing because you can’t NOT write. It’s about channeling a heartfelt message or building a bucking broncho mystery that throws you to the gound with a “hurt so good” thud. It’s about honoring your soul and not the ego. It’s about getting the “balls” to just listen and stop projecting. It is about diving into the portal of instinctive self-worth and self-acceptance no matter what the future holds. BECAUSE if we can do this, our writing will present itself at just the right time, to just the right person, for just the WRITE reason. And hopefully it touches them like it touched you during those alchemical moments. Ah-ho-

  5. And so…
    As i zoom in, it is all about the writing. But zoom out, isn’t the process about Karma, self-awareness and evolution? When I take a break to stretch and do butt tightening excerises, THIS bigger picture deserves my undivided attention. And then, I sit back down and write some more…
    Okay, now I can sleep. Goodnight :) .

  6. I completely understand your feelings, Laura! And I think your work is stunning, my dear. Good luck with everything. xoxox

  7. Caron Dann

    I just read an inspiring book on the business side of writing (the one we try to ignore but in the end, are dragged, kicking and screaming, into). It’s called Booklife: Digital Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer, by Jeff VanderMeer. I wish I’d read this BEFORE my last book was published.

  8. As always, words to live by. I’m always grateful that you share yourself so willingly. My resolution for the new year includes NO FLAT ASS! ;-)
    Enjoy the snow!

  9. Pingback: Give the Gift of Your Writing in 2011 | Lisa Rivero

  10. I am so glad that you sliced up a piece of the pie called “writing about writing.” As always, your wisdom and honesty about writing is greatly appreciated. Thanks for sharing those questions that clamor your mind…gee, I think you stole the very questions I hear..at least the first two since I don’t (yet) have a NY Times bestselling book! Okay, time to stop diddling and do what you heard Jonathan Franzen say–cut the cord, close all those Firefox tabs and write!

  11. Finding this blog is truly a gift. Thank you for your inspiring words, and thank you for your prolific writing.
    With each passing day it seems that I become increasingly passionate about writing. I started writing a blog in October and have found that it is a tremendous tool for sharpening my writing skills. I never thought that blogging would make me a better writer, but it has. Surprisingly enough a large part of my passion for writing is expressing itself through the maintenance of my blog. New blog posts are constantly running through my mind. I feel that I am making little to no progress with anything else, because I am so addicted to my blog.
    Thank you for working so hard at what you do and for sharing your knowledge and experience with other writers.
    With gratitude, Davida Goldberg, M.S.

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