Two years ago, I got my first ever acceptance to a writing contest to have my story included in an anthology of stories, centered around the idea of The Lonely Whale (who, it turns out, might not be so lonely after all).
The story I wrote was the first one I’d ever written, inspired by the idea of this lonely whale. It was a story about a couple that had lost the ability to communicate with each other, and about a healing moment in a therapist’s office where they worked to find each other again.
This acceptance felt like a discovery. I could write, fiction, just me and my computer, me and my journal. I could write stories about anything, and someone, somewhere, might think they were good. I could submit them and they could be published. They could be enjoyed by others, make them feel what I felt when I wrote them.
I hadn’t wanted to be a fiction writer. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but mostly about what was happening to me and what I felt about it. Fiction was an avenue I’d hardly explored. I had been more interested in writing articles for newspapers, but newspaper articles required subjects, interviews, transcription, time, and a newspaper who needed you. Fiction needed just me, and whatever came to mind. And, I found, I enjoyed writing stories.
Maybe without that acceptance, I would have kept writing. I’m not sure. But getting that acceptance definitely spurred me on. I spent the next year writing fiction when I could, forcing myself to sit down and type stories. Stories about war, though I’d never been to war. Stories about wandering around in snowstorms and falling in love. Stories about a depressed and animated rock contemplating suicide (or something like it). Stories about anything and everything that came to mind. The more I wrote, the more that came.
I searched for writing contests and I entered them as often as I could afford, until figuring out that this wasn’t the way to be published. (In case you’re wondering why, it’s because contests generally have much higher reading or entry fees, only have one winner and the editor can’t work with you on the piece if they want edits — they take the piece as it is right then, or not. Lots of contests are also accused of being rigged, of being overly expensive, and of being biased. Moreover, there are more than enough literary journals out there that read stories for free or have $3ish reading fees to cover operating costs and while they may not all offer payment, they are generally a better bet to get your foot in the door. But I digress…).
I paused in my furious contest search then, and I researched how writers generally get their start. I found they generally get lucky enough to get published a few times, then use those successes to find an agent who can help manage the submissions so the writer can focus on writing. You can chug along like that for a long time, enjoying the craft of writing if not making a lot of money on it. There are writers whose work explodes, of course, the JKRowling’s and John Green’s and Rainbow Rowell’s of the world. But in large part the writing world and these literary journals exist for and support themselves (or at least that’s what I’ve found).
While part of the reason I quit my job last year was to go to try Kilimanjaro and travel around Scotland, the other part was I wanted to explore what it was like to have writing be my primary function, to not have other responsibilities or things to do while I wrote. So I spent November of last year working on a novel. I loved the process, I loved the story. I loved everything about it. Even just writing a small amount a day, I met my goal of writing a first draft of a novel, and I also showed myself that writing could co-exist along the other things in my life.
After that, I was submitting writing everywhere, scouring literary journals online for authors biographies to see where they’d been published. I sent my work out into the world over and over again, hoping someone would be interested.
But no one bit. Rejections filled my inbox. They were all very nice rejections, even if most were form letters telling me that the biggest factor in not publishing my piece was space, on which they were short.
This wasn’t surprising, really, these rejections. Any article you read about being a writer will tell you that your life is basically one rejection after another and you better get used to it. Acceptances are not the norm, unless you are so well-known in the writing field that people come to you and ask you to write for them so they can have your name on their journal. Rejections come everyday, from all sides, for all sorts of reasons: no space, wrong length, wrong editor, wrong theme, same kind of story as someone else’s, too long, too short, too few characters, not enough dialogue, too much dialogue, or the wrong vibe, or any other number of reasons.
I knew that one editor reading one piece of mine and rejecting it doesn’t mean it that story was necessarily bad. It means they didn’t like it or have room for it or something. Which is so normal.
But having one after another tell you one after another story can’t fit, isn’t what they need, so sorry — it does take a toll, as much as I didn’t want it to. It was hard not to be discouraged as journal after journal said no to my stories. As time marched by, it started to feel a little like my first acceptance was a fluke. Like it was kind of pathetic or embarrassing or not worthwhile to continue submitting stories to literary journals. I would still work on my novel, since the goal was just to finish it, but I started to question whether I was any good at all. Whether I was wasting everyone’s time. I still enjoyed writing, still wanted to do it, but thought maybe it would just be for me, and maybe that would be okay.
And then, just a few days ago, two years after my first acceptance, I got my second acceptance. Fluttering into my email was an editor of The Citron Review saying they loved my story and wanted to publish it in their summer issue.
It’s only one yes. I know that. I know there’s a huge road ahead if I want to make writing a career, or at least a side career. But it’s nice to have someone, somewhere, say ‘hey you, this is good. this was worth reading.’
And maybe, one day, for whatever reason, I will decide to write, just for me, because I really love it, and it doesn’t really matter if anyone reads it but me, in the end. It’s nice to write for me.
But right now, it’s also nice to write for you. To write something that might get read by someone else, that might touch someone’s heart, or make them feel what I felt, or feel something else entirely different, for a moment. There’s something amazing about a book and its ideas and its characters living in someone else’s mind, about growing there, staying there, taking hold, even for just the short time it takes to read a paragraph, or a story, or a book.
So, when it get’s published, I’ll share it here, so you all can see it if you’d like. I hope you enjoy it.