Saturday, October 30, 2010


Most writing intended for publication is failed in the sense that most of this writing will not be published. (Though the proliferation of online magazines is changing the proportions somewhat.)

Most writers will fail in the sense that they (we) will not be as successful, rich, famous, admired as they (we) hoped, or may not be successful at all at any point in their lives.

I spend most of my day, at school and in Uncanny Valley and at other lit blogs, negotiating the terms under which these writers and writing (and my writing) will fail. For every hundred stories I read for Puerto del Sol, less than one gets in -- and my odds, given my placement in the organizational chart, of seeing any successful prose piece before publication are 100%. Some readers for Puerto very likely see zero published pieces in a given year before we print the magazine. Uncanny Valley has an unusually high acceptance rate mainly because we have been unusually good at getting word out to, and interest from, writers we already admired or have come to admire. In workshop we discuss how best to revise a story with the usually-unstated goal of publication, which most stories we workshop are plainly unlikely to ever achieve, though the number that manage is higher than zero, though not by much. (Poets are a somewhat different story, of course, at least at NMSU.) When I teach I am discussing works with undergraduate students whose odds of ever finding publication are genuinely close to zero.

As an editor I often find myself rejecting a submission from a well-meaning, hard-working person who has probably been rejected hundreds of times already, who will likely spend the rest of his or her life as a writer seeing only rejection.

Even a successful writer (in the sense of publishing a high percentage of one's output in the sort of publications one admires, apart from any financial or career concerns) will spend most of his or her time failing: a piece is usually, but not always, rejected many times before it is taken. Rejection is in any case by far the most common experience to follow a submission. Writers develop the ability to satisfy themselves with kind rejections in lieu of acceptance.

What are the implications of these facts? If you call yourself a writer, how do you live with them?


  1. Hmm, are writers writing to get published? Or are they writing to write and there happens to be a market, so what the hey?

    The days of writers making a living on writing are pretty much over, unless they wish to join the ranks of the academy (but, of course, then they're paid to teach and write).

    If the end goal of a piece is publication, isn't it bound to fail? Shouldn't the end goal be expression, or art? And publication is then gravy. If you sacrifice to fit a journal, aren't you saying that they have it more right than you? Creative writers are unique in that the market is dictated by them. In other academic fields, the market is dictated by tradition and is unlikely to change. If you want to publish in an academic journal, you better learn their style and implement it. Same goes for journalism or main-stream literature (to an extent). But not so much for literary writing. It changes, and if a magazine has tropes and you don't like those tropes, there is another magazine that you can go to (or a hundred) or you can just post it yourself...

    Well, I guess my point is that you are asking about the realities of writing, but I still believe in the romanticism of writing. The romanticism is where things can change, where things are exciting.

  2. I separate the two arenas--the writing and the dissemination of the writing--in my head. I have pasted the serenity prayer (short version) on my desk and try to remind myself of the limited role I play in my writing's reception. The act of selecting one manuscript out of many is a complex and harried one, and the only way I can really influence it is by being professional and producing the best work I can.

    In general I have to be very careful where my happiness-pellets come from, because I fall into feedback loops of self-destruction easily. And even in the most successful writing careers, a single writer never has it "all" (fame, money, popularity, critical respect, etc. etc. etc.), and almost every writer goes through some period where they are no longer the "in thing" among their main audience. So even in the most wildly successful scenario, there's still plenty to be miserable about.

    Plus, I've found that failure and rejection are so endemic to life generally that there's not much point to considering it as anything more than a certain kind of useful feedback. Failure/rejection = "Whoops, that didn't work; move along."