Sunday, April 18, 2010

Let Me Down Easy

Had an excellent reading this afternoon at The Merchants of Green Coffee as part of the Draft Reading Series. The theme was "rejection", and my fellow readers - Michael Bryson, Dani Couture, Ellen Jaffe and Ian Burgham - were all excellent. I strongly recommend you go and seek out their books. The good people at Draft also put together a small anthology for every event, and they asked me for an essay to go in the one for this one. I thought I'd also share what I wrote here on the blog. You can find it below. Enjoy!

Let Me Down Easy
By Mark Sampson

So four pages on rejection, then. Why four? Why not forty? Or four hundred? Four hundred pages on rejection, and I’ll bundle it up and mail it to a small but prestigious literary press in Toronto. And six months later I’ll get a form letter back, telling me my four hundred pages on rejection have been rejected. Then, a year after that, I will attend a literary event in Toronto and I will spot that small but prestigious literary press’s acquisitions editor sitting at the bar. She will be wearing an inexpensive denim frock and a necklace made of turquoise stones. I will be wearing tweed that I bought at Value Village. I will sidle up to her during the break and introduce myself. We have, after all, already shared a queer intimacy – I have addressed a cover letter to you. She will smile politely and perhaps even pretend to remember my manuscript, one of eighty-five that no doubt crossed her desk that month. But all the while there will be that look behind her thin-lipped smile, the look I’ve seen from countless women in countless bars, the look that says: Buddy, won’t you please just go away.


Actually, I’m not. There are numerous similarities one can draw between literary and romantic rejection. Both require a thick skin and an unwavering sense of yourself in the face of constant rebuffs. Both require perseverance and a commitment to self improvement, to learn from each let down and make yourself a little bit better for next time. And both come, alas, with their own Pavlovian trappings. In the world of romance, it’s those dreaded words, I just want to be friends. In the literary world, it’s opening your mailbox to find a manila envelope with your address written in your own handwriting. You cannot control your knee-jerk response to either of these soul-crushing events.

I received my first rejection letter when I was seventeen. I was living in Charlottetown at the time and had submitted a short story to the local literary publisher, Ragweed Press. This was, thinking back now, the literary equivalent of asking out an older woman. I don’t know what I expected Ragweed to do with my 20-page story – perhaps be so bowled over by my genius that its editors would order me to write ten more so they could publish them in a book. Anyway, in the rejection letter, dated April 26, 1993, editor Lynn Henry compliments me on the quality of my writing, the authenticity of my manuscript’s “voice” and my use of “realistic details and language”. But she also, in the gentlest terms possible, tells me she finds my story’s ending contrived – a bit too neat, a bit too much of a “wrap up”. And even though my submission is “not suitable for our publication program at this time”, she encourages me to continuing working on this and other short stories. Then, in a handwritten p.s. at the bottom, she chides me – again, ever so gently – for forgetting to include a S.A.S.E. with my submission.

Oh, if only the girls I went to high school with had taken such care in turning me down!

I once received an oral rejection – literary, of course. I was a couple of years into undergraduate at this point, living in Halifax, and had submitted a story to a literary journal in Winnipeg. The editor turned it down, but was impressed enough by what I submitted to call me, all the way in Halifax, to deliver this news. I was stunned, and immensely flattered. His call is especially surprising in retrospect, considering the kind of doggerel I was writing and submitting at the time – populist junk full of vampires and teenage romance (no market in that, obviously). The editor went so far as to say that he might be in Halifax in the coming year for some Writers Union meeting or other, and wanted to meet me and take me out for a drink. For whatever reason, we never hooked up. I consider him the one that got away.

I don’t know if this is true for other authors, but I have found that my rejection letters followed a discernable pattern as I crept, ever so slowly, toward acceptance and publication. That first note from Ragweed notwithstanding, the vast majority of my early rejections arrived with no commentary whatsoever; most were merely an unsigned photocopy of a form letter. Then I would occasionally get one that included a hastily scratched sentence at the bottom, something like, “Plenty of promise here – keep submitting!”, the editorial equivalent of a pat on the butt. Then came more detailed notes about exactly why I was being rejected: problems with character motivation, a bland beginning, an unconvincing ending, too much description in one place, not enough in another, etc etc.

And finally came letters – and here I began to feel that actual acceptance was nigh – where the editors couldn’t really articulate why they were turning me down. There was lots to love about whatever I had submitted and nothing technically wrong with it. It was, in essence, publishable. But so was an entire stack of other submissions on their desks, and they had to make some tough decisions. Of course, I can easily compare the tone of these letters to what one might encounter out there in the dating world: “It’s not you, it’s me … You’re wonderful, you are … I just know that you’re going to make some (other) publisher very happy one day …”


There are those who believe that if you keep submitting enough stories to enough publishers that eventually you’ll get something accepted. I am not one of these people. Just as I don’t necessary believe that there is “someone out there for everyone”. It’s a sad fact of life that there are just some people who are bound to encounter rejection at every turn. Sure, they might get a brief, occasional taste of success in their romantic lives, but will ultimately find themselves banished again and again to the cold grey bed sheets of singledom, what Mark Anthony Jarman calls a “sexual Nebraska”. And professionally, some people may keep writing (as they have been instructed to do), may keep submitting (as they have been instructed to do) but will never get to touch that brass ring of acceptance. It happens. It might be happening to you right now. You may even know this about yourself. Or you may be in denial about it and coming up with creative ways to lie to yourself. You may go out and buy yourself a tweed coat, grow a beard and cut your hair short to mitigate insipient baldness. You may even show up at literary events in Toronto and ingratiate yourself upon strangers who find you pleasant enough but have absolutely no interest in anything you have to say. It happens.

I’m kidding, of course. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Because I’ll tell you this, there is nothing quite like having something you’re created accepted for publication, nothing quite like a stranger getting so excited by something you wrote, and wanting to support it. Actually, I’m wrong. There is something like it. Falling in love is like it, and having someone fall in love with you. To know that that everything you’ve worked for has prepared you for this moment, that every trial you have endured as been to make you worthy of this person.

It’s definitely worth the wait.


  1. Hi Mark,

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your Draft reading on Sunday and the essay in rejection you copied here.



  2. Thanks, José. Glad to hear you enjoyed them both.

  3. I think I'm in the minority here, but I VASTLY prefer getting form letter rejections. Actually, remember those notes from grade school

    Do you like me? (Check one)

    with the little check boxes beside them? That's what I want to start sending with my submissions. Well, I guess I could reword it, maybe:

    Do you want to publish me?

    At this point, I don't care why you're rejecting me. I've heard IT ALL already. I've had one editor rip a story apart and then another editor say it was amazing. I've had a reader send back a story basically saying it was crap (mostly, it seemed, because I hadn't used quotation marks--something I used to do, for whatever reason) and explaining to me how to use them ("quotation marks are used to indicate when dialogue begins and ends!") and then that story won the CBC prize. So, whatever, editors, I'm OVER IT.

    (Apologies to all the editors who have said nice things about my stories. I'm obviously not talking about you. Keep saying those things, please.)

  4. Amy,

    That's hilarious. I definitely DO remember those little notes. Ahh, the simple binaries of Grade Six romance.

    But you raise an excellent point for any would-be writers out there reading this, which is that editors are not some homogeneous blob all passing the same judgements on the same works. (The same could be said about book reviewers, in fact.) A short story, or especially a poem, can be quantifiably brilliant and still be rejected, and still be rejected in the coldest, most callous way. It's not that you're not a fabulous writer; it's simply that that particular editor is, as the saying goes, just not that into you. But you can always move on and find someone who does dig what you do. The trick is, as with romance, to find a good fit for what you've got goin' on.

    And of course, there is that little bit of vindication that one feels when a piece you've written and are extremely proud of, which had been rejected over and over again, finally finds a home. Most published authors I know have gone through this, and it truly is a moment worth savouring.