How to Receive Criticism

 

Picture of Traci Brimhall

Author: Traci Brimhall

When you were just starting out did your professors prepare you for the inevitable rejections that writers experience? How so?

I don’t remember my professors actually ever speaking to me about it. Most of my knowledge about submissions came from two places: 1) panels at conferences, and 2) Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. The panels at conferences shared a lot of advice about how to find journals that might be a good fit for my work, as well as gave me a number of submissions to shoot for (I heard 30 more than once). Reading Poetry Daily and Verse Daily every day meant that not only was I sure to read at least a couple of poems every day, but I also got to see what kind of work journals were publishing, as well as learn from people’s bios what kinds of residencies and fellowships existed. I think it actually took a couple of years to develop a decent sense of the “lay of the land.”

 

What do you think a rejection from a magazine means? Should a writer change his or her work in response to rejection?

A rejection from a magazine could mean all sorts of things. It could mean the work really isn’t a good fit for that magazine. It could mean that the magazine just had a change of editors, and even though that magazine has accepted your work in the past, it’s no longer the editor’s aesthetic. It could mean the screening reader didn’t care for your stuff and it never made it to the editor. It could be that the magazine already filled its issue and can no longer can accept new work. It could mean you sent four poems about whales, and three of the poems they’ve already accepted for the next issue are about whales and they don’t want anymore whale poems. It could mean that rather than a single editor deciding on your work, there are three or four editors that have to decide, and they can’t agree on your poems. It’s definitely not personal (unless you were in a bar fight with an editor, then maybe it’s personal).

I’ve never changed work in response to rejection, although I’ve edited poems even after I’ve submitted it. I’ve changed work after an acceptance. I still write in my copies of my own books. I change the work when I’m dissatisfied with it. Of course I would like it if my work made editors happy and readers happy, but my first (and most disgruntled) reader is myself.

 

Have you had magazines that have rejected you for long periods of time before accepting your work? What was that experience like?

I remember one acceptance that came in the mail. I’d just gotten home from Christmas vacation around midnight. I opened the mailbox in the apartment vestibule and saw the letter. I tore it open right there, covered my mouth to stifle the excitement, and danced as quietly as possible around my suitcases.

 

What do you do when you receive a rejection? What do you do when you receive an acceptance?

When I get a rejection, I usually send out another submission. What I enjoy most about sending out work is the sense of possibility, so the more I can keep my work out of the house, the happier I am.

I wish I had some sort of ritual for an acceptance. It might sounds a little sedate or boring, but I think my favorite thing to do when I get exciting news is just take a walk. If I’m lucky enough to be home when I get good news, I just want to walk around outside and carry that feeling with me for awhile.

 

What advice to you have for young writers who are just sending their work out for the first time?

I think it’s important to know yourself and how you deal with rejection. I know someone who had a U.S. map and tried to submit to places in all 50 states to make it like a game. I know people who’ve swapped poems with friends and they’ve sent out for each other so they don’t have to receive their own rejections. For the past several years, I’ve been in a rejection contest with friends , and the person who received the most rejections at the end of the year gets a book purchased for them by the person with the most acceptances (I “win” the contest every year). If you can find a way to make it impersonal, do that.

I also think I started sending out work too early. I started sending because people said I should. I wasn’t ready and neither was the work. I suppose people are always embarrassed by their early efforts in any venture, but I’d recommend waiting until it’s something you want, not what you see other people wanting. Be as ready as you can be and accept that you’ll make mistakes along the way.