The Art of Submission
I wrote a short story during the first semester of my MFA program, and my professor said I should submit it. I knew what he meant, of course, but the word “submit” seemed strange to me, and in some ways it still does. Hand it over, the word says, and give yourself over to the process. As if there’s going to be a loss in the end and not a gain.
My professor told me which magazine to submit my story to, and, after a time, I was lucky enough to get a rejection slip with a note of encouragement on it from the magazine’s fiction editor. A definite gain—even I, the neophyte, could see that. I put the rejection slip in a file folder, and I added to that folder for years, fattening it with form rejections, other rejection “pluses,” and acceptances.
Now I’m in a position to encourage my own students to send out their work for publication. It’s a joyous task, even if the students say they aren’t ready. I understand their resistance, but I also know that resistance will end at some point. It’s inevitable, I always think, the publication of my students’ work. I can even see their stories in print, as I’m telling them to submit: In my imagination, someone is fanning the pages of a journal and then the student’s story appears in crisp type, on thick paper, between covers with artwork—permanent.
What do you have to lose? I always want to ask the resisters. I know the answer in all of its permutations (ego, confidence, familiar and comfortable self-doubt, just one more pass at the manuscript), but it’s just not persuasive. I understand the answer to that unspoken question, feel great empathy, have felt the same, but I still think the resistance comes in part from how we think about submission. When we “submit,” perhaps we feel our writer selves are in danger of getting canceled out by the process. It is true that writers take risks when they send their work out, but I think those risks are worth it. If writers don’t send out their work, they’re writing primarily for themselves; their work is unavailable, snagged on their own resistance, and readers miss out on the delight of one more story (or poem, or essay, or hybrid).
These days, I try to watch my language. These days, I try not to use the word “submission” to refer to the process of sending out work for publication. I like “send out” better: it’s active, positive, forward-thinking, strong enough to resist the resistance. “Send out” suggests that someone out there is waiting to receive the work. And someone is.