Once upon a time, I kept all my stories in one folder. Then, I wrote more stories and got tired of some of the earlier stories, so I began to banish those stories to another folder that I called “Trunked Stories”. Like everything in my writing life, the whole filing system became more and more complicated (there are now folders for “Revisions”, “Completed Stories”, “Unfinished Stories”, and “Fragments”). The most recent innovation was giving each story its own file folder. This became a necessity after I started doing multiple drafts of each story (sometimes as many as 15 or 20 of them). Oftentimes, the story’s name changed during the drafting process, and it started to become a chore to go back and rename all the files. Now I just create a folder for the story and rename that whenever the story changes name. Furthermore, I drop the story folder into the different sub-folders as it changes status.
I’ve been doing that for my in-progress stories for a few weeks now, but today I decided to go back and apply the organizational method to my old stories–the ones that I no longer submit. There are a lot of these (99 of them, to be exact). That’s more than half the stories I’ve ever written. Altogether, my ‘trunked’ stories have accrued 694 rejections: an average of 7 each. There are no hard and fast rules for when I take a story out of submission. Basically, I usually retire it at the point when I would be ashamed to send it to an editor with whom I had a good relationship.
As you can see, there are ten years worth of stories in this folder. All of them are pretty bad. And yet I submitted the vast majority of them to editors at some time or another. I can still remember the joy and hope that I felt when I wrote many of these stories. Nor are these stories some impossibly distant part of my life. Many of them were written in 2011, which is also a year in which I wrote a number of stories that ended up selling to fairly decent places–stories that I still think aren’t too bad.
Whatever, I feel no shame. I read slush. I rejected over 900 stories. That’s roughly equal to the number of rejections I’ve gotten in my life. So I’ve been on both ends of this. And I have to say: bad stories are a fact of life. Some people treat bad art like it’s some kind of crime against humanity. To that I say…art is not serious business. There are plenty of things in life that are serious business: marriage and war and fatherhood and poverty and our present system of industrial manufacture are all pretty serious things; if you screw them up, then people suffer. Art is not like them. Bad art hurts no one.
Looking at all these trunked stories, I just have to say, I am a bit astonished that I kept at it. There is roughly a five year period here, from maybe 2003 to 2008, when I got almost no encouragement. Even until about 2010, good news was pretty rare. If I’d really thought about this, I probably should’ve concluded that my talents didn’t lie in this direction. There are very few writers who’ve received as many rejections as me. I don’t think I’ve ever even been a workshop star (you know the kind of thing I’m talking about–the workshop where the instructor loves you to death). I mean, being a workshop star is utterly meaningless, but when you’re not yet publishing, it does mean a lot to you.
Life will never again be the way it was in 2008. Not because I don’t get rejected (I’ve gotten 114 short story rejections this year). But because I don’t really care about rejection as much. Back then, rejection was painful because I thought that selling a story meant something. Now I know that it really doesn’t. It doesn’t make you particularly happy and it doesn’t materially improve your life, so it’s not really something that’s worth getting that worked up about.