by Pj Holliday
When I submitted my first set of poems in 2014, the rejection letter I received devastated me. It’s not like they ripped my work apart; it was simply not wanted. Rejection stings in every area of life to which we give ourselves, and there’s almost always a long recovery process. I didn't submit my work again for another three years after that initial rejection. I became apathetic, which was easier than feeling the pain of rejection. And when I finally did start submitting again, I remained apathetic — I submitted to just one publication at a time, in six-month intervals, and I received one rejection letter after another.
But being timid about submitting your work is not how you see that glorious word — Accepted — on the other end of your email.
One of my writing mentors talked with me about the publishing process, which helped me let go of the fear of rejection from literary journals. She said, “Ninety percent of the time when you’re just getting started, you will be rejected. After a while, you’ll begin to see the percentage change in your favor, and journals will appreciate seeing the growth of your new work.” I felt released by her words. No one had informed me so honestly about rejection before. I finally realized that accepting rejection was like a muscle I needed to strengthen, and that it would help be to break out of my apathy. It was going to take all my energy to push against this fear and create a habit of acceptance when there was great resistance within myself.
“But if you want to get published, vulnerability is terrifying, but necessary. And you have to build that muscle and make yourself do it.”
Eventually, a writer builds so much “muscle” around submitting that they can easily disregard the thoughts that create submission lethargy. Before we build that muscle, we might have thoughts that devalue our work, perhaps due to a history of harsh criticism or not believing in ourselves enough to begin with. These thoughts can create an apathetic response to putting our work, as we allow ourselves to be pushed back by our fears. Vulnerability is terrifying, but necessary if you want to get published. And you have to build that muscle and make yourself do it.
I find the submission process to be similar to exercise. When I get up in the morning to run, everything in my body is screaming at me not to. But I’ve become like a machine, ignoring the fear and intimidation that hinders the success I know I want. I quiet my mind and put my body in submission to get myself on the treadmill. I visualize the person I desire to look and feel like, which has enabled me to maintain a running habit. I don’t let myself quit and I literally speak to my body out loud saying, "No. You are going running. You love it." That wasn’t true at one point — I hated running. But I spoke what didn't yet exist until it became real. As weird as that sounds, it really works. I also set myself up for success by dressing the part and having workout clothes on long before I’ve scheduled a run. I call a friend to go with me and don't rely on myself alone, or not much exercise will get done.
I’ve finally realized that I can use the same methods in which I conquered physical exercise to create a habit of writing new material and submitting to journals. This is exactly this frame of mind needed to pursue publication of your work: if we anticipate the rejection, and push against resistance, we can build immunity to its sting.
I built my immunity by accepting rejection. It's a given for writers that most will experience it with the majority of inquiries and submissions. Expecting rejection has helped me get over my resistance to it and avoid becoming apathetic for another lengthy amount of time.
In her Netflix special, Brene Brown talks about accepting the fact that “failure is inevitable.” Rejection may be failure, but it’s beneficial as a practice. When we embrace our failures and rejections they don’t remain as painful and scary to experience, and eventually the scale will tip toward us and success becomes a more common theme.
Another thing that helped me build immunity to rejection was knowing I wasn’t alone, and that every other writer shared the rejection experience. I’m a part of a community who aches in the same way and celebrates one another when we finally gain ground in the publishing world. Sometimes, our work just isn’t ready. And that’s a good thing. It means we get to keep reading and writing and evolving as people. Staying in conversation with other writers helps me remember these things.
Finally, during those times when I have a strong sense of completion in my submission piece, I build immunity to rejection by trusting my intuition and knowing that the piece will be received by the right person at the right time. Muriel Spark reflects in her essay “Emerging from Under Your Rejection Slips” on how, in her early writing years, “rejection slips, if they fell out of the envelopes at a rate of more than two a day, depressed me greatly.”* Eventually, because of her great tenacity and love of her work, she saw almost all of the “once-rejected pieces...subsequently published.”
If someone doesn’t think your work is right for their journal, release it by moving on to your next hopeful submission, like moving on to the next push up at the gym. The right time will come. Keep submitting, learning your craft and creating new drafts. Apathy only hinders your hopes for publication. Consider rejection letters to be something to celebrate as you know eventually, someone, somewhere, will recognize your hard work and believe in you as a writer.
*Spark, Muriel. “Emerging from Under Your Rejection Slips.” The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, edited by Marie Arana, The Washington Post, 2003, pages 53-57.
About the Art: “Barbed” by Pj Holliday, 12”x 12”, Acrylic on canvas, 2016
“The painting represents the way I centered myself in a solidified circle as rejections and insecurities grew around me, acting as barbed wires would encircling us in desperate times. The art speaks to how we need to work through difficulties because these painful entanglements are inevitable and the trick is centering ourselves.”
by Pj Holliday
When I began writing poetry, I had the tendency to fill the lines with abstractions that left my classmates with the difficult task of understanding the poem. We’ve all heard numerous times how an overuse of abstractions does not allow the reader to grasp your meaning. We’ve heard how concepts such as love, freedom, and hope have meanings that are too subjective and should be avoided when writing poetry. But for me, being able to use abstract concepts in my writing has allowed me to come closer to shaping the expression I want readers to experience. That is, an impression of the visceral through language. And yet I know there aren’t words that can ever deliver the true elements of my experiences. For years, I did not understand how to write from the perspective of the reader -- my poetry would consist solely of abstractions, and the responses were always the same: that I needed to anchor the feelings to something concrete. I was told that it wasn’t realistic to envision that any human would be able to understand terms like grief without an image of what grief looks like to me. Language is flawed when it comes to sharing experience, but for me, through the use of abstraction in poetry, I think it comes close as possible.
As an artist inspired by cubists, expressionists, and impressionists, I enjoy looking at ways I can let my imagination artistically capture the mood, the light, and the shape of a thing, a person, or a place. In abstract art, the concrete is broken and image is distorted. It’s as if you’ve peeled an apple, which has then lost the security of its coating. The core of the apple is vulnerable both to the way in which it was peeled and to the perspective of the person who took its skin.
As a poet, I feel similarly about letting my mind create a world from my subconscious. Ezra Pound famously said to “go in fear of abstractions,” arguing instead that the image should be described in its purest state. As in visual art, when I abstract lines in my poetry, my imagination feels free to create a world outside the expected frame. Abstracting lines means that I can come up with the wildest metaphors, then rework them into the thing I am creating.
Still, abstraction without imagery, I am told, is not enough -- especially when it presents a unique challenge for the reader to interpret meaning. I often find myself being pulled back to address meaning and from where the meaning is derived. When that happens, I ask myself: Am I allowed to create something that makes the reader work for the so-called meaning? How do we define what is undefinable? It’s as though there must be a reward at the end of writing an abstract piece of work. Are abstractions then most powerful when they are earned? That is, when the poet has reached deep enough to connect it to something concrete, allowing the reader to better experience the visceral through language?
This experience of the concrete through the abstract -- this “taste of earned fruit,” as I like to call it -- is what I now strive to work toward in my poems. It is a term derived from a moment in my favorite professor’s office. She said, “PJ, what you wrote here is not concrete enough, but because of the line above it, you’ve earned the use of this abstraction.” It is delivering my interpretation of an open-ended concept. If the reader can experience that hard-to-define abstraction from my perspective as a writer, then I have earned the satisfaction that comes with using abstraction to allow the reader to come close to connecting to my experience.
Typically, when the meaning of a line is elusive to the reader, it tends to be described as abstract. But meaning is a subjective and wandering thing that appears at different times in different minds and changes all the time. Why then should it matter how abstraction is used, when not everyone will receive the meaning in the same way? But it is possible, I have discovered, to bring a sense of satisfaction to the reader with an elusive abstracted line by anchoring the abstraction to something specific.
While what I wish to express cannot always be captured in words, words are how I convey my deepest pains and joys. And I have learned that if I want to bring my pains and joys to the world, then I have to create them in a way which allows others to access them. I have often heard that if I am the only one able to experience my work, then I have not dug deep enough to create a good poem. “The English language would be without some of its most memorable poets,” writes Rabi Shankar, if abstractions were written off completely (In Praise of Abstraction). Using Wallace Stevens’s poem, “On This Beautiful World,” Shankar helps us explore abstraction. In this poem, we witness Stevens’ effective use of the abstract because he associates it with the concrete:
On This Beautiful World Of Ours composes himself
and hems the planet rose
The poem attempts to promote the sensation of abstraction of beauty. While the language choices initially create abstraction through what feels like syntactic confusion, the specificity of the color, rose, the character of the lecturer, and the verb to hem all work together for a full visceral experience for the reader. We often think when an abstraction occurs in a thing of beauty, or is associated with a thing of beauty, the beauty of the thing is lost. Beauty as an abstract concept is one which does not hold finite meaning. The poem that attempts to define “A beautiful world” through concrete image is one where poet and reader discover this beautiful world through abstraction. And the poet has earned the fruit of his effort. “Because at the middle, if only in sense and in that enormous sense, merely enjoy.”
Because the thing that makes a beautiful world is subjective. It’s just as subjective as identifying the thing that makes a beautiful poem. Without abstraction, we would never be able to discover those to-be-avoided cliché truths about beauty, love, and freedom for ourselves. With abstractions we can instead be conduits, completely disappearing as the subconscious takes over to bring the writer's world to light. Within those spaces, where the abstraction and concrete meet to create the metaphysical, the reader can finally know how to experience my interpretation of grief, love or beauty. Without definite or fixed meaning, the reader can still experience the blood-pumping sensation that comes when allowed access to the taste of the poem; that is, the taste of earned fruits.
Ravi Shankar’s In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery“
The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract” by Wallace Stevens