I had an interesting experience of rejection this summer which changed my opinion slightly of the whole submission and rejection process. That’s not to say it wasn’t a kicker though. It happened something like this:
I had a piece accepted for a themed issue of a magazine at the beginning of the year, and I was especially thrilled as the piece centred on a personal story that I really, really wanted to get off my chest. It wasn’t that I was particularly smug about it; rather, that it was one of those personal pieces where you talk about a life point or a specific, perhaps unhappy, experience, so seeing it in print feels monumental, and uniquely cathartic.
However, several months went by, and there was no sign of my issue of the magazine.
Several more passed and I started digging around on the website, seeing what was actually available to buy at that point.
Eventually, one day I saw in my Facebook feed that the issue after mine had been published, together with a link to the place that it was sold; I followed that to find my issue there also, only without me. I even bought the issue to check, but no, I was not there.
It’s always the most personal pieces that lead to the most personal rejections.
I was livid, humiliated and, frankly, crushed. I sent off a fairly emotionally charged email to the Editor-in-Chief before I had time to talk myself out of it, and then sat wallowing quite despondently in a little pit of despair.
The following day, an email came back with a sincere, thoughtful apology, full of remorse for the hurt that had been caused. Their explanation was simple: they’d forgotten to put it in. They’d forgotten. To put it in. The magazine’s team was small enough and spread out enough that my piece had fallen through the organisational cracks, and my email had prompted a search that found my piece instantaneously, languishing in their inbox, patiently waiting for a print run already past. They were the ones who were embarrassed, it said.
Upon reading this, my mood changed. Contrary to my immediate, wounded conclusion, I hadn’t had my little heartfelt tale crushed under the wheel of some impersonal literary behemoth, too arrogant and busy to email the poor contributor who gets dropped from an issue; rather, a miniscule team of people, exhausted by the complex quarterly orchestration of a magazine, on top of managing families, education and jobs, of course, had been too tired one evening to maybe remember to move one file to a particular folder, or add one more name to a list.
It had not been a rejection; it was a simple, extraordinarily human, mistake.
Having experienced my fair share of closed door in the past, it was a surprise almost to find real people, and human error, there when I knocked.
Over the emails that followed, apologies were accepted, mistakes were rectified and a relationship was actually constructed from the ashes of embarrassment. In fact, several positive outcomes and shows of support have blossomed as a result of it, and I learnt a key, if obvious, writerly lesson: magazines and competitions are not, in the large part, unfeeling machines hell-bent on picking any contribution other than yours.
Rejection isn’t always personal: sometimes things happen, and sometimes you’re just not right for the space.
Now, I’m not going to say that realisation has made it any easier not stare endlessly at my Submittable statuses, or to actually enjoy receiving rejection emails (I’d be lying, as you well know), but for me at least, the thought that the pickers and choosers are actually people has made the rejection merry-go-round a little friendlier and more personable, if no less exhausting to ride.