It’s been raining since midnight and the gray morning moved without notice into a darker afternoon. Cool temperatures slowly pushed this front across the mountains, past the piedmont, then over us, until eventually, tomorrow morning maybe, the clouds will move out to sea. In a short while I’ll don my black Columbia raincoat and walk to the river. I don’t mind rain when it’s still warm like today, but once the temperatures drop, the frost which has already appeared in the Shenandoah will sweep down to the Chesapeake. I’d rather the warm sun. I always prefer the sun.

One thing though: the rain keeps me present, like a cold wind, like a hot day, it becomes part of the conversation, sets the tone, determines the diction of small moments. When the weather is extreme, we wear it like a new garment, and everyone has something to say about how it looks. But any normal day of mild temperatures and indifferent atmosphere will usually pass in some pleasant fashion, just outside our consciousness; days, even weeks, can drift by this way, lost.

There are times the weather can be overwhelming and we long for that forgetfulness, such welcome irrelevance. But when it rains like this and I walk to the river, slightly uncomfortable and quite mindful of the moment, it feels as if I can manipulate time, slow the whole thing down, dismiss the anxiety and mood swings that come before and after the predictable deluge of ordinary life.

Czech writer Ivan Klima once wrote that when a society is working well, the mechanisms which keep it going also remain just outside the consciousness of the citizens. It is only when things are radically wrong or uncharacteristically fine that we take notice of who’s doing what and criticize or praise, unite or dissolve. We long for the quiet, but with such peace comes the risk of hijack. We have learned in a most difficult fashion the dangers of non-participation, of letting our guard down, of such dark indifference. No, people on the inside know for certain that peace takes trust; consistency demands patience, and order, above all else, needs truth.

And so in life. And the truth is, for me, here along a deceptively calm river, I would rather remain within the walls of my own consciousness despite the storms—both real and metaphorical—and remain aware of the highs and lows, awake to my failures and second chances, than walk some placid path of self-deception, pretending all will be fine. Such a mundane existence would steer this vessel directly into depression. I’m well aware of my place here, conscious of my need to navigate without hitting too many reefs. Oh, I’ve hit the rocks before, hard, and I’m certain to hit them again, but between such travesties I would rather not fall asleep at the helm. I’m okay with extremes. I’ve made my peace with my often-random life.

The rain is beautiful today, almost blue against the steel-grey sky. The maples are turning, and all along the road to the river wooly caterpillars head for the cover of the brush. Along the path which runs through the northeast side of the property, two deer stop to drink from a birdbath. They spot me and their ears turn toward me, their tail up. After a moment they return to their relaxed state as I move along the path to the driveway, down under the row of crepe myrtles, and finally to the patio, wet and alive.

Vulnerable Memories

Inside the Science of Memory | Johns Hopkins Medicine

First of all, early this morning I posted on Facebook a picture I like of my father; he died five years ago today. When I did I remembered a quote from Friedrich Schiller, “It is not flesh and blood, but the heart that makes us fathers and sons.” So I added that to the post.

I’ll come back to this.

When I’m at the river I like to remember places I’ve been, or people I’ve known, or people I’ve been for that matter—who I was when I lived in New England, or when I traveled across the country after living in Arizona, so many more versions through the years. So I try and save any remembering for when I’m walking along the river alone. I should say I don’t do a lot of looking back, only that when I do I prefer to do it in a peaceful setting.

Here’s the science behind that:

I read an article some years ago by a neurologist and psychologist from NYU or UCLA, I forget, which stated when we unpack memories they become very vulnerable; they can develop a relationship between themselves and the situation we are in when we open that box in our brain. If, for instance, someone I’m not fond of keeps bringing up a particular memory, even if I enjoyed myself and would personally recall the situation with a smile, that event is now tied, even loosely, to someone I’m not fond of, and the memory is compromised—and what’s crazy is that’s true even if that person wasn’t even there during the memory. Now they are, indirectly.

The converse is true as well: if we talk to someone about something in their past, and return to the conversation enough, the next time they remember that memory of theirs, even if we’re not around when they remember and weren’t around during the event, we are now part of the emotional response to the memory. Keep this in mind when jumping in front of a speeding recollection.

This morning I went to the cemetery and sat on the grass and didn’t remember anything, I mean on purpose. I drank one of those airline bottles of Glenlivet and watched a construction crew working on an expansion of the grounds. I noticed how well they incorporated the new section into the old and thought how nice the place will remain. I didn’t try to not remember good times with my father; I simply was in the moment, like we were watching the crew together. A short bit later I was in a store just a few blocks away and an older man noticed my sweatpants I was wearing with “St Bonaventure” down the left leg. He asked if I went there and when I told him I had he said both his kids went there but graduated in the early nineties. I could tell by his accent he was not from around here, and he said “No, I’m from New York.”

“Where?” I asked, and he said Brooklyn.

“Oh wow,” I said, “I was born there and my parents both lived there until I was born. What neighborhood?”

“Bay Ridge,” he said. That’s where my father is from. Just a few blocks away

I left, did some things, saw my mother for a while, did some more things, ate some stuff, and turned on the radio; the Moth Radio Hour was on, and the first person talked about death and what it is like to be with someone after they die; the difficulty but need to see the body. She is a minister and works with youth who are dealing with grief.

Five years ago this very evening my siblings and I and our mother stood around my father after he died and said our goodbyes.

On the radio, they played a clip of the woman who was up next. In the except, she said, “So I need to start with this quote from Schiller: “It’s not flesh and blood but heart that makes us fathers and sons.”

I pulled the car over to listen to the rest.

She is a neurosurgeon from NYU and talked about the “vulnerability” of memory and how when and where we recall events in our history can affect our future recollections of those events. She was funny, and poignant, talking about her father and how quiet he always was, how he shared moments of his youth but not often, and certainly never the tragic moments.

And I thought of my father, and how quiet he always was, and when he did talk about his youth, which, with me anyway, was rare, and even then in short summaries—like the Ebbets Field story, or the snake under the upside down dingy where their clothes were story, or his neighbors with Gold Stars in their windows during the War, or how he was listening to a game on the radio when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Really, I can’t recall many. He didn’t share many. Part of that is me; I didn’t ask enough. I’m sure he would have told more stories if I had asked. I don’t know.

So when I came home I walked to the river and while there watched a deep red and yellow streaked sky as the sun slowly melted into the trees across the reach, and I remembered this one: Mom and Dad came to visit me in Pennsylvania in August or September of ’86. I lived in an old house on Main Street that during the Civil War was used to house injured troops. The doors had replicas of those old latch handles that lifted up and out when you pressed down. Dad loved them. Mom didn’t feel well so she sat on the couch while Dad and I went for a walk around the corner to a beautiful farm with a tree-lined driveway and a split-rail fence with horses. One came over and we stayed a while. I don’t remember what we talked about, if we talked at all, but most likely how pretty the area was and how quiet it all seemed.

The river is quiet tonight, calm, and the sun disappeared fast. Out across the bay the half-moon is already climbing and what I suppose is Mars is hanging nearby. This is a fine place to remember; there’s nothing negative to tether those events in my past onto, no sidebars, no distracting digressions. Just me, and the river to carry those memories out into the bay, and south to the ocean, where they might mix with the waters that maybe not so long ago washed out of the Narrows and into the headwaters of New York.

I’m not by nature a person who spends his time looking back, for a variety of reasons. But when I do, those memories are mine, just as I’m guessing Dad’s memories were his.

Oh, and that Schiller quote; it goes on: “Lose not yourself in a far-off time, seize the moment that is thine.”

Friedrich Schiller | Words quotes, Life quotes, Quotes

Five Years

Frederick W. Kunzinger, Sr.

Five years ago, on Thursday, October 15th, 2015, I had the last conversation with my dad who at the time was in the hospital. Oddly enough, this year the 15th is once again a Thursday. I had been staying at my parents’ condo just around the corner from the hospital in Virginia Beach, and I decided I’d head to the college to teach my 8 am class despite the dean’s suggestion that I cancel. Before leaving, however, I made a sudden turn into the hospital lot to run up fast and see my father. It was just before 7 am.

I walked into the room and he was alone, his head in the middle of the pillow, his eyes open and staring toward the ceiling. He turned his head slightly and smiled when he saw me, and with his baritone voice said, “Well, hello!”

My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t expected a greeting. “Hey Dad. How are you?”

His voice sank to something like a whisper. “You know I’ve been in here since 4:30 this morning.”

“Actually, Dad, you’ve been here for three days.”

“Oh Geez. Three days? What hotel—hotel! Ha, I wish I was at a hotel!—what hospital am I at?”

“Virginia Beach. First Colonial Road. Right near home.” He nodded but a nurse came in and Dad was distracted and our conversation was over.

It had been almost exactly three days at that point. On Monday, Columbus Day, Dad walked downstairs in the morning and told my mother he didn’t feel well at all and he was shaking and had a fever. Dad told my mother he thought he’d better go to the emergency room. That was about 8 am. I had been in West Virginia so Mom didn’t call figuring they would take care of him and send him home. But that afternoon about five while I was visiting a friend’s class to read to his students, Mom called and told me they were in the ER. I drove to the hospital and Dad was on a gurney as they still didn’t have a room for him. It was then I found out he had been there almost nine hours.

They got Dad settled in a room and my siblings came to town. I won’t go into the details of that week, of how one of us was always in his room even through the night, of the comic relief at the expense of everyone, of the shared stories of Dad, of the boxes of to-go food from Panera, of the phone calls from family, of the nursing staff—nearly all of whom had been students of mine at some point and of whom Mom always asked after one left, “Did she get an A? I hope she got an A.” There were the knocks from neighbors, and since one of us was always at the hospital, whenever the phone rang we all held our breath, and each call was followed by a few moments of horrific quiet and no one talked, no one said anything at all, but all thought something similar.

Dad had turned ninety the previous May. He had some significant health issues those last couple of years, and sometimes life could get stressful—for him, for my mom, and the best you could hope for is things were the best they could be. I can tell some stories that are hysterical, stories that we all have, each of us as individuals with Dad and some with all three of us as well as Mom; but the essential element here is we had those stories, and that is what life is for—the stories, the shared and personal memories. Dad was everyone’s hero when it came to being a father, a husband, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and a hard-working, golf-loving, gentle beautiful man. Oh, sure, I can tell stories of incidents and misunderstandings, but instead this:

Less than two months earlier Mom and Dad celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary. A few days before that when my son and I picked him up for lunch—a monthly tradition the three of us had been doing for a few years—he asked if we could stop at an open-air garden shop at a parking lot not far from their home. We walked around slowly for an hour while he inspected every plant, every basket, and every arrangement looking for just the right one. He settled on a red-flowered Mandevilla and asked what I thought, then he asked what Michael thought, and finally we bought it and put it in the car.

Then he asked if I wouldn’t mind stopping at Hallmark so he could get her a card. Dad didn’t drive anymore so he knew he was going to do all this when I came to bring him to lunch. We went in and since by this point his eyes had grown weak, he asked me to read him some cards. I read maybe seven and still they didn’t really say what he wanted one to say. I found a large, beautiful card and while I can certainly no longer recall the phrasing, the sentiment was pure: something to the effect that he only had a life at all because he spent his life with her.

Perfect. No, really, it is perfect for my mother and father, for either to give the other.

Then we had oysters and beer.

And on the way home we surprised Dad by stopping at the golf club to which he had belonged for years and years, but at which he hadn’t played in a very long time, and we went to the putting green. Dad putt several balls and explained to us that it was always the best part of his game, and he leaned over and put a twenty-two-foot putt right in the hole. He was about to hit another, but I picked up the ball and said we had better get the plant home. I just knew that needed to be his last putt of the day. It was his very last putt.

The thing is, confusion and forgetfulness were not unusual, and by the time the fall arrived, it had been a very, very long time since I had had any normal conversation with my father—one with sharp exchange, or, to be wide-open about it, one during which he didn’t think at some point I was my brother.

Through the end of August and all of September, while I saw my father several times a week, there was little or no conversation. His words were slipping away. So on Thursday, October 15th, five years ago, when I walked into the hospital room and we talked and Dad was completely lucid, after the nurse came in and I could see in Dad’s eyes he was gone again, I walked to the car and instead of teaching class that day sat for hours in the parking lot unable to compose myself. Not because he was dying–Dad died the following Wednesday, October 21st–we saw that coming for quite some time. No, it was because he was so present, so with me in that moment, as he had been a few years earlier, or before that when Michael was a toddler and the three of us would meet somewhere for lunch and Dad and Michael would tease each other and laugh for hours, or when I’d meet him at the mall and we’d walk around looking in windows and talking, or when he and I went to my college when he dropped me off and I swear to you it was the first time I remember him every shaking my hand, or before that, earlier, when just he and I spent the entire day in Disneyland in California and then drove up into Beverly Hills.

Earlier, when he and my brother and I would play golf at Timber Point Country Club in our neighborhood on the Island, and we were all learning together, and his passion was ignited. Or how when I was little he’d open the door to my bedroom every night to tell me to “Sleep tight,” and I never really knew what that meant.

Before that when he coached my little league team and promised me if I hit a homerun he’d buy me ice cream for a week; and it was a safe bet because I absolutely sucked at hitting, but dangle ice cream in front of an eight year old and watch me clear that ball out into right field. I couldn’t hit but I could run and I stretched a double into a homer and, as promised, had ice cream from the truck everyday for a week.

Scotch every Tuesday. Nine holes Wednesday afternoons during high school. Heading to his office on the top of the Dominion Tower in Norfolk to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Calling him on his 800 number from anywhere I traveled in the country and he always answered, and he always had time to talk—I mean always. I do not remember him saying to me even once that he didn’t have time to talk.

When he’d come to my house and we’d sit on the porch and he’d comment how much he loved how quiet it was and I loved the way he understood why I moved where I did.

The way he would share books with me: Roger Kahn, John Grisham, and more. The way he bought us all a book every Christmas; one he picked up based upon how he knew us. The way I went to sit with Dad every single Wednesday for every single season of “The West Wing” to watch it with him. The way we watched every Superbowl together and Mom would put out wings and shrimp.

The way he knew what nights I taught, even in those last months, he might have forgotten most of everything, but he always knew exactly what nights I would be by. And I’d go by, and I’d no sooner be in the door when he’d say, “I think I hear some ice and Scotch calling my name.”

To say he was generally a quiet man with a sense of humor, who everyone loved and considered one of the kindest men they had met, is to describe my son; and I’ve said many times how much my son reminds me of my father. I’m lucky to have had excellent relationships with both. Dad and I had no scars that needed healing, no disagreements we swept under the rug, no false companionship or fabricated gatherings for the sake of family. He was genuine to the bone, and if I could ever have been one tenth the man he was life would have been different.

I’ve told the story of that lucid morning in the hospital many times, but sometimes I tell the whole thing and other times, depending upon whom I’m talking to, I leave off one part.

After he said he had been there since 4:30 that morning and I corrected him, he asked what was wrong. I told him he had pneumonia, and he said, “Oh, oh geez. I guess I only have a day or two left then don’t I?” And I said, “These are great doctors Dad and you got here fast as soon as you didn’t feel well, so hang in there.” And he said, “What hotel—hotel! Ha, I wish I was at a hotel!—what hospital am I at?” and the nurse came in and I went outside and sat in the car for hours just remembering.

The way he would be embarrassed by foul language or scantly clad women on television. The way the summer of ’75 he and I went to a large movie theater together to see Jaws when it first came out and we left, him saying, “Maybe we won’t get a canoe after all,” laughing. The way the last piece of writing of mine he ever read was “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and Mom told me he said he really loved it.

Or how when my book Out of Nowhere came out he told me he loved it but never made it past page forty-six. Of course I had to check, and on that page is, “long before my own aging father was born.”

Or how he loved, and how he was loved.

Sleep tight, Dad.

“Missing someone is like hearing
a name sung quietly from somewhere
behind you. Even after you know
no one is there, you keep looking back.”

–Tim Seibles

The Covid Sentence

COVID-19 Dry Erase Signs - Small - NHADAStore

I heard some doctor today talk about Covid and the president and tests and ten days or fourteen days or twenty days, and I listened to him fumble through, Conley’s his name, and I felt bad for him, though not really, I mean all he can do is decide for himself who he’s going to be straight with, but anyway…

…around here people are talking about numbers of cases and medical costs and masks and the same thing everyone is talking about everywhere on the planet; seriously the whole world, eastern Siberia and along the Camino in northern Spain and on trains in India and on dried up riverbeds in North Africa; in skyscrapers and thatched-roof houses, in outdoor cafes where there used to be parking spots and indoor cafes where there used to be people; everyone everywhere is talking about the same thing at some point every day—sure they may digress or veer off into conversations about work and sleep and that new DeNiro film or that old MJ Fox film they rereleased, but it’s the new common denominator; seriously I have no idea when the last time was that the entire planet was all on the same page, maybe World War Two or probably 911 but even those events had a certain distance for many; I mean, plenty of citizens knew they would be fine during the war; everyone wasn’t running out and buying flak jackets, and 911 too, except for the first few hours when no one knew anything, but soon everyone knew one thing—that this attack was pretty specific, and then they mourned and talked about it, but not about themselves and whether or not they might die in a few days completely unexpectedly, but this time they do, they are, they’re all—we’re all—talking about the same thing, that we can actually get really sick and die because some fuckhead in line at 711 didn’t wear his mask and didn’t know he was contagious because he didn’t know that at his friend’s house the other day no one bothered to clean the doorknob as people went in and out…

but anyway, everyone’s talking about death and dying and what scares the hell out of me about this is kind of sick: I hear too many conversations where death is no big deal, like instead of life being some long beautiful compound sentence, some people find more favor in the fragment; and I suppose we have been heading this way for some time, for some years, as if someone wants us all to know what it’s like to get closer to death, feel it fingering us along; I know it sounds like a convoluted conspiracy, but listen, it makes sense, just like it makes sense that we come in the world as tiny babies and someone else helps us slowly digest this mess, and at the other end we slow down, grow tired, like marathoners who just want to collapse by the time they reach that last mile; we are slowly conditioned for death through disease; hell, I’ve been sick before; had Russian flu freshman year of college, and in fourth grade I had pneumonia and missed almost a month of school; before that chicken pox kept me from a third-grade field trip to the Bronx Zoo, but nothing made me feel worse than bad trout in Prague—that put me out with salmonella poisoning; I was so pissed that I went back to the same restaurant a year later and ordered the trout again and had a glass of wine and watched the waiter put the salt-encrusted fish in front of me, and I thought, “Fuck you Trout,” and finished it with another glass of wine; I was fine—until…

…until, oh geez, I had bad oysters in Asheville and wanted to die (see?)—my face faded to some shade of ash, went through a weight-loss program Richard Simmons never promoted; but I’ve noticed how older people get sicker more often and for less severe reasons than when we’re young–a cold lasts longer—the flu is cause for panic attacks, pneumonia a primary cause of death in otherwise healthy AARP members—I’m not dumber than during my college days; I’m not less cautious, no, in fact I wash my hands more often, eat healthier foods, swap way less fluid with far fewer people, but still, risk increases with age, and I know why: it’s all designed like some death pre-flight; we’re wired up to wind down; side step the slope toward the end of the end; go gently, fade away, pass—the euphemisms tell the story: death is usually not a sudden stop but instead more akin to running out of gas and gliding in neutral toward the shoulder, and those early maladies that kick our ass into bed, into the infirmary, into the ER, they’re practice, death-sprints, some sort of bucket of fatality at the mortal driving range—I mean, look at how our bodies work the rest of the time: we don’t gain fifty pounds, we gain an ounce then another, then another, and dying is no different, no; we don’t live then die–we live, then bruise, then recover, then fall a few times, recover again somewhat slower, and on and on, until like Paul Dunbar, death comes down to soothe our weary eyes…

…we’re all dying, but we need to learn to adjust our airspeed, keep the engine clean; our grandparents go through it all first as we watch with child-like confusion; then our parents have a go at it while our middle-aged minds linger in the space between sending both our old folks and our teenagers on their way; then it’s our turn—unless (unless, yes, there’s always an unless) unless something screws up the order of things–it’s a plague, it’s the Dark Ages, it’s Covid, it’s coming at us but look back now at how hard we fought on the way, at the onslaught we suffered then shattered, and then laughed at it all, knowing, of course, knowing if we do what the doctor says we can get through it, knowing that anyway, these viruses, the cough, the fever, the hospital stay the recovery, that, well, yeah, it’s all just triage.

Life Sentence (TV series) - Wikipedia


Pin by Ink and Awl on Yes. | Writing humor, Writing life, Rejection

I must start with this story:

I sent an essay to a journal and they rejected it. This is year’s ago. Their brief note suggested they enjoyed the piece but ultimately decided to pass. It was a nice note; no one died in it. About a year later I did a reading at a conference and read that very piece, completely unchanged. After the reading, the very same editor came up and asked if the piece was available, that he loved it and would like to publish it. Not only did he do so, but the work went on to be my first essay noted by Best American Essays. The same journal with two different editors went on to publish four more works of mine, with two more going on to further recognition at BAE.

My point: publishing and rejection can be completely random. It can depend upon the particular style of the journal, or a particular editor, or even the theme of one particular edition, but it can often be equally dependent upon the caffeine intake of whoever read the work, the time of day, the weather, how much it reminds the reader of an old lover, or even whether or not the Pirates won that day. Sometimes essays and poems are rejected simply because the journal already had enough pieces for that time, and other times they’re rejected with great scrutiny and long epistles explaining all the changes that could be made for whichever other journal might publish it, though that new journal may just as easily prefer the essay in its original form.

Over the course of the last week or so I was rejected three times, accepted twice, had two personal invitations by publications to send them some work, started a new book of five long-form essays called “Five,” and sent off a manuscript to an editor for consideration. So tonight after an amazing sunset over the river and cool October breezes pushing September almost completely from my consciousness, I sat back like Charlie Brown perusing his pictures of France and wondered what I have learned.

Writing has taught me, finally, to trust myself and let go of my concerns and anxiety over what others think, how others perceive my decisions. In the writing world, editors can be helpful or random, can understand what they want but not what you do, or appreciate what you do but still not want it. Some like snark, some like drama, some like biting humor and some aren’t happy unless the piece sounds like it was written by some foulmouthed hack. It is essential to study the journal, to understand its history and style, its preference for length and how free one can be with language. In fact, for an editor to suggest in the rejection letter that the writer should first study the journal before submitting is so pretentious I can only assume the editors who make such suggestions believe they are addressing freshman comp students who have never submitted before.

I once sent a piece to a place and it was rejected. A few days later, forgetting I submitted it there because my mind sometimes slips, resubmitted the same piece without changes to the same journal and they accepted it with great thanks. Random.

I don’t pay attention to the comments and suggestions from readers at journals about how to change the work. I don’t know them; I do not know their style or ability; and I may be fine with the piece as it is but need to find another journal instead. In the end, I simply need to trust myself or I will forever be second guessing myself.  

My favorite rejections are the simple ones. I received one which read, “Dear Bob, Pass. The Editors.”  Perfect. They don’t want it; got it. I understand. That one is crystal clear. I also once received what appeared to be a detailed rejection from a journal which mentioned my piece by name several times in the letter, and which truly made me feel they took their time and honestly wished to communicate with me. Then I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is a writer in Ohio, and she revealed she received the identical rejection from the same journal, only the name and title changed in the paragraphs. How do they expect us to take their thoughts seriously?

Last year I received a rejection from the journal which published five essays of mine, but which turned down this particular piece with the suggestion I study their prose style before considering submitting to them and that they expect their writers to read their journal before expecting to be published in it. First of all, the rejection of the essay didn’t bother me; after reevaluating the work I agree it needed much more polishing, and I have since done so and sent it out elsewhere and it has been published. The trouble I had with the thoughtless rejection was that editor’s inability to simply say no. I wanted to write back and say, “I took your suggestion and read old issues to get to know your prose style and, oh, hey, look! FIVE of my works are in there! Moron!” Instead I deleted it. I delete lots of rejections. I have one friend who adheres to the trend to tape the rejections to the wall and shoot for 100 rejections in a month or maybe in a year, I forget. I prefer to keep the negative crap out of my line of sight.  Besides, the implication the writer did not study the prose style of the journal is condescending. One writer/friend commented I might not recognize the editor is new and the prose style is no longer the same therefore the comment was valid, but that makes no sense. Then why in God’s name did they send me to old issues to study their style?

But it is the nature of rejection; I’m used to it, both socially and professionally. When the percentage of acceptances goes up, it is mostly because those essays have been rejected enough for me to rework them and then they all do well. It is a numbers game.

I know a writer who for a while every time a journal accepted one of his works, the journal subsequently folded.  

Another example: I have a close friend whose manuscript was at a publisher getting ready for publication when a new editor there decided it needed a LOT of changes; “very invasive editing suggestions,” my friend told me. Instead of making the changes he pulled the manuscript and sent it somewhere else which accepted it and published it as is. The work went on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Editors and readers are like teachers: just because they’re qualified to get the job doesn’t mean they don’t suck at it.

I swear I once got a rejection from a journal I never sent anything to. It was like a “Snoopy” cartoon. I mean, I must have sent them something and simply forgot, but I could never find what I sent them, didn’t have an email in my sent file or a file in my Submittable account, and have nothing on my list of “works submitted” which I keep. Perhaps they just anticipated receiving crap from me and wanted to cut me off at the pass.

A writer’s history with a journal is irrelevant to acceptance. The new piece must stand on its own and it must be the criteria for the new reading period. But that doesn’t mean the writer started from scratch when the piece was sent. It helps to mention previous successes in a cover letter, especially if some of those successes are the result of publication in that very journal. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t do this. But like a famous comedian taking the stage, the audience will give you a break and listen more intently for a few minutes, but if you don’t quickly start making them laugh, you’re outta there. A track record with a journal may get you read faster, but that’s about it. You still can’t suck. But neither should the journal treat any writer like he or she is a moron. Just read the damn thing and Pass or Accept.

I have no idea what my win/loss record is at this point. Better than the Mets I’m guessing, but really, I stopped keeping track. I think it’s pretty good. Mostly that’s because I do a fine job of rejecting my own work several times through scrutiny before I decide it is ready to head out on its own. I don’t believe writers should listen to the advice of anyone who criticizes the work unless the writer knows and trusts that person. I have a few I trust, very few. Of course, finding someone to criticize the work is as easy as finding a parent to praise it. In the end it is a waste of time trying to “improve” through blind criticism. You must know and understand and trust the person who makes suggestions. And this isn’t because these other people don’t have something beneficial to contribute; they very well may.

The list of famous rejections is out there; check it out. You’ve got to be one hell of an accomplished writer to make the list of famous rejections, and I don’t play at that level. Still, in my own little world I show up enough to understand the process pretty well, and I understand this most: my audience is me, I’m the first and most important editor, and only when I’m pleased does the work move along. I’m the primary reader, no one else. If someone finds something in what I do worthy of passing along to her or his readers, that’s tremendous, but if I’m not happy with the prose style, I probably won’t send it out; and if I am, I probably won’t change it for someone else I don’t even know. I write this shit for me, not you. I just hope you like it anyway.

One more thing: There’s only one thing worse than rejection and that’s completely ignoring the work or the writer. This is true in the submission world and the reading and book signing world. If you see us sitting at a table of our books, don’t walk past because you don’t plan on buying a book. Come say hi—we’re an intensely lonely bunch of people. And besides, someone else might come over if you’re standing there and that person won’t feel pressured since I’ll be talking to you.

Writers write because somewhere deep inside is a deeply-seeded need to scream, “Holy Shit! Did you SEE that??!!” but we don’t want to get arrested.

Critiquing a rejection letter | Writing humor, Writing memes, Writer humor