Morning Rejection

A quirk of living in the UK and submitting short stories to publications in the US is I tend to get rejected first thing in the morning. Often before I have even got up or had a coffee. The time difference means the rejection emails arrive in the middle of the night and are ready and waiting for me. I wake up, pick up my phone to check the time – because who has bedside clocks any more? – and then instinctively open my emails. You’d think that I’d learn and just put my phone down until later, but I never do.

It can be a pretty galling way to start the day, especially if it was a submission I was feeling particularly hopeful about. Thanks to applications like Duotrope and Submittable it is pretty easy to get a sense of when the response to any particular submission is likely to arrive and so I often find it is in the back of my mind, figuring out roughly when to expect a response, and the absurd hope that comes with a rejection not arriving on the expected day. I know the best way to do it is to submit and then forget about it. But does anyone actually know how to do that?

Getting rejected before getting out of bed has its upsides, I suppose. It is almost certainly the worst thing that will happen that day, so it’s good to get it out of the way. You can spend the day on an upward trajectory of recovering optimism while everyone else passes you, going in the other direction.

A while ago, before I placed any writing with anyone, I had pretty much written off the idea of ever having any success. The plan was to keep writing so that I could organise my own thoughts and figure myself out, and collect rejection slips while I did it. But now, because I’ve had a couple published, the rejections sting a little more than they used to. The hope is a little higher now. Sometimes I compare the stories that have been published to the ones that get rejected over and over and try to work out what the difference is between them. I can’t tell. I have no idea.

Rejection is just a part of this whole process, and it might be the most valuable part. The thing that keeps us humble and doesn’t let us rise too far above ourselves. A steady stream of emails telling you not good enough, not good enough, might be hard to take but it might be building us up in a different way. Like how character is built out of all the hardest things that happen to you. Nothing comes easy and no one owes me anything.

One of the things I tend to do after a rejection is count how many open submissions I still have, like I might have lost that game, but there’s another dozen still in play. I try not to let the rejections get me down, and I have tried for a long time not to write a blog post about it, because I think this is a subject that has been done to death and going on about it doesn’t really do anything especially valuable. It doesn’t help with anything. But it’s part of the writer lifestyle and getting my rejections before I have got out of bed is a pretty stark way to begin a day. A few weeks ago I got one of those first-thing-in-the-morning rejections and it really bummed me out. It ruined my day. I had only made the submission two days previously and I wasn’t expecting a response anywhere near that fast so I didn’t even get to sit with the hope for very long.

So this was how I started my day today, with a rejection from a publication that I was really hopeful about. It didn’t ruin my day quite as badly as it did the last time, but it still stung. Rejections always do. But here is the most consoling thing I ever heard about being rejected. Rejections save you. They save you from showing the world the stories that weren’t good enough, and even if the story was good enough it saves you from putting it somewhere it doesn’t belong, and where people will resent reading it. Every rejection is like a little blessing. Now I just need to find a way to remember that when I’m reading the email.

The tragic saga of the onion chutney

I have been in a doing mood recently. I noticed that if I’m not careful quite large chunks of time can pass by quietly without me even really noticing them. It’s almost November but the year still feels young. Somehow I have nearly been married for a whole year. So, when I noticed that time keeps moving even if I don’t, I decided I needed to do more stuff. It was this doing mood that caused me to enroll in some evening classes. It was the same doing mood that led me to be lying in the mud in a forest wearing full army fatigues while holding a decommissioned assault rifle. It is the same doing mood that inspired me to submit a piece of writing to the excellent McSweeneys website. And it was the same doing mood that got me to thinking that it would be far superior to make some onion chutney rather than just lazily buying some from the supermarket.

It wasn’t my first chutney. I had made some with the excess courgettes from the garden, and it was reasonably well received. But I had a particular chutney in mind. What I wanted was a dark, sticky onion chutney. I assumed it would require balsamic vinegar, and so went looking for recipes that featured that. With a suitable looking recipe in hand I went to the supermarket to buy the ingredients. Making chutney is, essentially, the process of taking lots of food and reducing it into a very small amount of food. I sliced up all the onions, the peppers, weighed out the sugar, measured out the vinegar (both red wine vinegar and balsamic) and all of it took up almost the entire work surface of my relatively small kitchen. I put the onions in the pan for a while and then poured all the vinegar and sugar in and, as instructed, left it on a low heat.

Slowly the house became permeated with the smell of hot vinegar. It’s not an especially nice smell. I stirred it intermittently, and played xbox while I waited for it to be done. Hours went by. I blame the recipes vague instruction of ‘leave on a low heat for an hour and a half’. My idea of a low heat was obviously lower than the recipes. After an hour and a half the chutney was still  much too thin. The vinegar was a long way off of being reduced far enough for the thick chutney I had in mind. It was slowly getting there, but was taking much longer than anticipated. Not deterred I simply left it on the low heat until it was done. Three to four hours later it had the consistency I was after. I spooned it into a jar and put it in the fridge.

The next day I decided to give it a little try. I opened the jar up and the chutney looked good. All sticky and shiny and sweet. Kerry took a spoon and went to try some, but the spoon just thudded against the chutney the way a spoon would thud against a brick wall. I should have realised something was up when my chutney recipe, which stated would be enough to serve 20, ended being able to fit into a single jar. I had reduced six onions, six shallots, one red pepper, three cups sugar, over half a litre of vinegar and a pinch of rosemary into a space of about five-hundred millilitres. It was like a small onion based singularity. You know how most of matter is made up of empty space? Not in my chutney jar. In there all the onions protons and electrons are squashed up against the side of the glass. It is the densest preserve I have ever witnessed.

I was pretty annoyed with myself. I had wasted a lot of time, ingredients, money, and the house still smells faintly of vinegar. I then decided to check my emails to see if McSweeney’s had got back to me about the piece of writing I had submitted to them. I thought maybe some kind of cosmic harmony would balance up my chutney failure with some good news. Perhaps I had earned it. They had got back to me, with a classically polite rejection. I don’t actually believe in cosmic harmony. You can’t get writing accepted by making dreadful chutney.