Last night I got my rejection from the Clarion Writers Workshop. It was a standard “sorry, Charlie. Better luck next time” kind of message. The wording was clean, clear and precise, pefectly fitting for a writers workshop. Certainly I felt disappointed and perhaps even a bit hurt because I’d wanted so badly to attend. But once I thought about it, I realized that I actually learned a few things from the process.
• I learned not to pre-reject myself –– It’s a writerly truism that a manuscript never submitted will never be published but what I learned was slightly different. Clarion only accepts a handful of students per year so if it was a publication it would be considered a highly selective market. But Clarion like any workshop is doing something a bit more personal than accepting manuscripts: they accept applicants on the basis of their manuscripts. From one perspective, this situation is the closeted writer’s greatest fear regarding submissions, that somehow they themselves are being judged by their works. That fear leads many writers to “pre-reject” their stories by not sending them out for consideration. When I sent my submission into Clarion, I considered myself worthy of attending. I still consider myself worthy of attending; other circumstances just got in the way.
• I learned to submit my best work — The application clearly says to submit two stories that represent your best work. As strange as this sounds, I was not accustomed to looking at my writing in those terms. When I thought through the literally dozens of stories I’ve written and which I had even been submitting to publications with spotty success, I didn’t consider any of them to be my “best work.” I realized that if I was honest with myself, those stories were just “good enough.” Then I asked myself why I would waste my time not to mention a slush reader’s time with stories I knew myself weren’t my best. Cowardice is the answer I came up with. It would be easier not to take a rejection personally if I knew deep down that the story I sent was flawed. Applying to Clarion made me realize that life is too short to submit crap. Lord knows I still write plenty of “shitty first drafts” as Anne Lamott calls them; they’re the only way I can get to slightly less shitty second drafts, partially crapulent third drafts and eventually a submission-ready manuscript that I can really be proud of. The work I submitted to Clarion was sincerely my best work and it now can be a touchstone for the work I do in the future.
• I learned to own the fact that I’m a writer — As soon as I got my rejection, I wanted to share the news with others if for no other reason that to get a bit of comfort. I realized last night that only a couple of my friends even knew I had applied to Clarion. They provided me with counsel and support throughout the application process but most of my friends and associates didn’t even know I had applied. Once I thought about it a bit more, I wondered if most of my contacts even know that I consider myself a serious writer. And all of a sudden it struck me how absolutely crazy it is to be a writer in a closet. Publishing now more than ever requires self-promotion and a network of people pulling for you. It’s unlikely I’ll ever make my living through writing alone but writing stories has been an enduring passion through most of my life. I learned that someone can’t really know me and not know that.
I don’t know if I will be able to apply for next year’s Clarion Writers Workshop. There was an unrepeatable coincidence that opened up time in my summer schedule this year. But even if I never give Clarion a second thought, I think I’ve learned valuable lessons just from the process of applying.