Reimagining Writers’ Responses to Rejections: Merely Paper Cuts

written by Bryan Hutchinson

There is always room for your writing in the world. If you seek it out with determination, your work will reach places beyond your wildest dreams.

In July 2020, I had a poem published by Independent Catholic News. I think of myself as both a poet and a prose writer, but I am more experienced with publishing nonfiction prose. This was my first time attempting to publish poetry professionally.

Through the lens of faith, my poem, “A Prayer to Shine Through,” responds to the monumental issues our world has been facing this year. Following Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Examen prayer, the first part acknowledges that people are profoundly struggling. Inspired by the Ignatian idea of finding God in all things, the second part highlights how faith and God can still be found. The piece concludes with a prayer that we continue to see signs of hope.

Though I plan to further my study of poetry as I pursue my MFA in Creative Writing, I have only taken one undergraduate poetry course. I knew that my work required more revision and craft elements to be a literary piece. I wanted to publish it anyway as it may be a source of hope for others. I also knew that literary publications typically release new issues quite some time after the work is submitted.

My poem seemed like it would help people if printed during these times, not months after. News outlets appeared to be the best option. I submitted to local and national publications that printed pieces addressing faith and current events. Most depicted faith positively but hinted at struggles—a major factor influencing my decision to submit.

I remember reading through the submission guidelines and cringing at the maximum accepted length—twenty lines for one magazine, forty for another. As my piece was over one hundred lines, I decided against attempting to condense to twenty—too much would be lost.  I did, however, condense to forty lines. The magazine that I was submitting to is one that I admire. I knew that, if I did not submit it, I would always wonder whether it would have been accepted.

Trying to cut and move over eighty lines was a major challenge. Reading some articles helped. One discussed how line breaks emphasize ideas. I had learned this in class, but having a reminder gave a fresh perspective. Did I really need certain articles like ‘the’ and ‘a’ on their own lines? No, it seemed more effective to break a line on actual keywords, so I revised accordingly. Some stanzas mirrored others, depicting the same idea in different wording. I cut the duplicates and reworked those remaining to have the keen details of the discarded ones.

Although I was pleased with my submission, I felt a faint tug of disappointment afterwards. Many revisions were for the best, but some did not do the piece justice. The editors would not see the power of the unique line breaks and repetition that had originally been there. Part of me felt like I sent a synopsis rather than the poem itself.

When the rejections came, it was naturally disappointing, but it was not the end of the world. In my twenty-three years, I have seen my father die of cancer and my mother overcome the obstacles of single parenthood. I am physically disabled and rely on a motorized wheelchair and an Assistive and Augmentative Communication device. Looking at our struggles and at the world now, the rejections do not even compare.

Rejections are just like paper cuts. We all must endure them regardless of age or level of experience. They appear when the writer is finally seeing the rhythm of the work—when the thought comes that this piece could actually be a page-turner. As soon as the writer moves in a direction that goes against the angle sought by editors, the rejections appear, tearing the skin of the writer.

It is important to note the size and magnitude of the paper cut of rejection. It is tiny. The cut stings at first, but the sensation lasts for a matter of moments. Pain may remain in the following days, but the cut will heal, dissipating into nothing but tough skin.

Too many writers mistake rejections as a sign that they do not have what it takes to succeed. Rejections do not mean that the writing is bad. Editors may love the piece and see its potential to touch readers. If its content or style is beyond the publication’s scope, they are simply not at liberty to take it.

I knew I needed to keep pursuing the poem’s publication. The words, raw and honest, had flowed just right, braiding together emotion, hard truths, and bright insights. This was a piece to be shared widely. I just had to find the right avenue. I began to think more strategically than I had in previous submissions.

Remembering my undergraduate publishing courses at Fairfield University, it dawned on me that it may not be a piece for mainstream publications. I knew that my poetry was not yet at that polished, literary quality that editors seek—I just did not have enough background in craft yet. I knew, too, that mainstream publications look for very specific angles and that mine did not quite fit.

At Fairfield, I learned that independent publications are typically more willing to accept work that is from emerging writers and unconventional in its content, style, and form. I began researching faith-based and Catholic-based independent news outlets and discovered Independent Catholic News, a global outlet based in London, England. Its website features a poetry section showcasing the work of famous poets—Seamus Heaney, to name a personal favorite—along with emerging or lesser-known poets. The poetry focuses on celebrating faith as well as depicting the trials faced by saints, martyrs, and believers.

I decided to write to the editor, sending my poem and asking if she would consider publishing it. I revised my poem so that it was the version that I would like the world to read, taking my original version and working in new wording that the condensed versions helped me discover.

The site did not display submission guidelines, though, and I had no idea if the editor was seeking new works. I decided to take a risk, choosing not to write the typical query letter. I instead wrote an email explaining who I was, what had inspired the work, and my hope that it would help people. My email seemed to adequately explain my poem in a way that query letters had not.

I admit that I paused quite a few times before I finished and sent it. I could not help but ponder what on Earth I thought I was doing. I was a twenty-three-year-old new college graduate and incoming graduate student in the United States, and here I was asking some editor on another continent to consider publishing my amateur poem. The chances that she would even read and respond to my note, I thought, were almost nonexistent. Yet something inside me made me continue, and I sent the email as soon as it was finished. It only took the editor a day to respond with an acceptance and a week for the poem to be published.

Following its publication, I spent many days writing and responding to loved ones and acquaintances who had read the poem. I could not believe how it was spreading—just when I thought I had replied to all who had written to me, more conversations began. What strikes me is not the quantity of people. It is the words that they have shared on how the poem has brightened their days and how they have shared the piece with others. These are just the people that I know. It is astonishing to think that people across the world could be reading and reacting to my poem.

When reflecting on the poem’s journey, I am astounded. I had hoped that the poem would be printed in a local or national publication. If I had not been rejected, it never would have reached the international publication. The rejections gave me an opportunity to discover and fine-tune the poem’s most effective wording and form. If I had not pursued publication after the rejection, the poem would not be where it is today.

I will not urge other writers to follow the same steps I took. Every writer must have their own unique process. I will simply offer this advice: be bold. Be brave. Be fearless in your writing. Dare to explore that unfamiliar genre. Dare to use unconventional forms and themes to illustrate what the world needs to hear. Dare to seek out new avenues to get your work out there, even if it means writing to an editor on another side of the planet. Dare to manipulate the pages even after the paper cuts of rejection attempt to derail your plans.


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