Throwing Your Heart into The Fire, or How to Win at the Publication Game by Elya Braden

Picture of a white handprint with red words No behind it on black background.

Now that Gyroscope Review is open again for submissions, I’ve been thinking about rejections. As I read poem after poem, noting yes, no, or maybe, commenting online to the other editors and reading their comments, I’ve been thinking about the responsibility every editor has to the writers who are brave enough to risk rejection by putting their work out there for judgment. I just went through a nine-month wasteland of nothing but “No’s,” so believe me when I tell you that I feel for every writer to whom we say, “No, not this time.”

While this is only my third submission period as an Assistant Editor for Gyroscope Review, it seems like we’re receiving more than our usual stream of submissions. Perhaps, with all this social distancing, writers are having more time alone to write/submit, or perhaps our need to connect with our poetic tribe is intensified now that writing classes and poetry readings have disappeared IRL. Forget about dressing up for a night of free boxed wine, cheese and crackers, a tray of Costco brownie bites and assorted cookies, and lots of hugs and handshakes. This is the new world of Facebook Live readings and Zoom open mics. Our visual contact with other writers now squeezed into checkerboard boxes on our laptop screen or a single face on a smartphone. Now is a time for gratitude that the ease of creating websites and online publishing has enabled the proliferation of so many new and exciting literary journals.

About eight years ago, a couple of years into my exploration of the literary publishing world, a classmate from my ongoing writing class asked if I would consider offering a workshop on “How to Get Published.” So, I did. During the next seven years, I talked over 200 writers through the process of sending their writing out for publication.

Every workshop began the same way—I asked the attendees: Why do you want to get published? I wrote their answers in rainbow markers on a flip chart. Here are the most popular answers:

  • Fame
  • Money (Ha!)
  • Validation
  • I am a “Writer”
  • Community/connection/find your tribe
  • Audience
  • Growth/challenge
  • To make it “real”
  • To inform
  • To be part of the “literary conversation”

Next, I asked: What keeps you from submitting? And this is what they said in every class:

  • FEAR (of course!) – of rejection, of being vulnerable/revealing too much, of being “not good enough,” of backlash, of hurting people, of negative feedback, of making others jealous, of friends’ disapproval
  • Laziness (personally, I think that’s just one of Fear’s favorite excuses)
  • Not enough time (another one of Fear’s excuses)
  • Lack of discipline (a fancy way of saying “lazy”!)
  • Perfectionism: my poems should be “better.” I’m not ready yet (Fear, again!)
  • Don’t know how/where to submit (And that’s why we’re here!)

Then, I flipped back to first list and kept it visible for the rest of our time together to remind them why we, as writers, are willing to put our hearts and souls on the line, risking rejection, every time we submit our precious poems and stories for publication.

About a third of the remaining time was spent talking about rejection, or as I prefer to think of it—feedback.

I’ve read that, at one point in his writing life, the famous poet Charles Bukowski became so overwhelmed by literary rejection that he stopped writing, or perhaps just submitting, for ten years. Ten years! That sounds like an eternity, right? Well, I had him beat. I started writing “journal poems” when I was 11, began reading poetry in earnest and studying the craft of poetry in high school, and was even accepted into a “by submission only” poetry seminar at Harvard University summer school when I was 17. I thought I had it going on as a poet.

Then, in my first year of college, I submitted a few of my poems to our school literary journal. I received what I know now to be a “very nice” hand-written rejection letter. Okay, this was in the days before personal computers, but they did have typewriters. The editors wrote that they had enjoyed reading my poems. While they weren’t a fit for the current issue, would I please submit again.

I not only did not submit my poetry to that journal again, I did not submit any poetry anywhere for almost 30 years! That’s right, 30 years. As I used to say in my workshops: Don’t be me! I mostly stopped writing poetry, except for a journal poem now and then, when I was overcome with emotion. You know those poems—brittle with heartache, stinking of sulphur and brine, the ink swampy with tears, definitely not for public consumption.

And then my life changed in dramatic ways: I retired from practicing law, returned to my love of singing and acting, got divorced, moved back to my hometown. Along the way, as Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem, “Poetry”:

                        ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I began taking writing classes, attending poetry readings, traveling to workshops with acclaimed poets, writing, writing, writing, and, just as important: reading, reading, reading. Reading poetry, classic and contemporary, narrative and lyric, formal and free form, and many, many books and essays about the craft.

After a couple of years, I began submitting to journals. I was clueless. I often didn’t bother to read them first, and I was too new to writing to understand the chasm between the poetry they were publishing and my own elementary efforts. Rejections poured in. But then, one acceptance. Another. A handwritten note added to a form rejection letter praising some element of what I’d written. A request to: “please submit again.” And this time I did. Sometimes three or four or five or six times to some of my favorite journals until an email arrived with “We would love to publish x poem.” And I’m still waiting for that “yes” from certain journals. Or, I’ve turned my attention to other journals now that I’ve read and written enough to understand their different flavors, colors, and textures.

Before I get back to how to see rejection as feedback, I’d like to share my top 10 Do’s and Don’ts for submitting:

  1. DO edit and revise your work and DO have experienced writers read your work and give you feedback.
  2. DO proof and format your work (and cover letter) carefully.
  3. DO read and follow each journal’s submission guidelines.
  4. DO read sample pieces from the journals or magazines to which you want to submit before you submit.
  5. DO track your submissions so you DON’T send a piece to the same place or same editor twice.
  6. DON’T post unpublished work that’s fit for journals or magazines on your website or blog.
  7. DO diversify!
  8. DO learn something from every response.
  9. DON’T be discouraged by rejection.
  10. DO celebrate every submission!

Here’s how I open my talk about Rejection: I invite one of the participants to stand across the room from me (with a clear space between us). I tell the class that I’m going to walk, with my eyes closed, toward that participant, and I ask them to call out hot if I’m on the right track and cold if I’m heading in the wrong direction. They are always stumped when I stand still, but believe me, that’s another form of cold. Afterwards, I ask: When you were shouting out “cold,” did you think you were rejecting me? Or trying to help me towards my goal? It’s always the latter.

The more I can remind myself that the submission process is a conversation between myself and the editors, the more I’m likely to go back to those “rejected” poems and see if they need editing—perhaps I overwrote the ending, had a stanza of throat clearing at the beginning or perhaps I could go deeper in the middle. Or maybe my poem is perfect as it is, but in the casting call that is each submission, maybe that editor wanted someone 5’10”, blonde and slim, while that poem is short, brunette and curvy. And maybe that poem’s tribe lives in another city, in another journal, and it’s time for me to sit down with Duotrope and Submittable and give it another shot at finding its ideal home.