Subs and Chill with Mira Ptacin

Subs and Chill is a bi-weekly conversation with writers on rejections, the submission process, and all the moments in between, before hitting submit. This week, Mira Ptacin, author of Poor Your Soul and The Inbetweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna, chats about her stack of rejections before publication, when the “fuck around and find out” method of submitting works and doesn’t work, how thinking counts as writing and one of her cringest publication moments.

“Comparison is the death of creativity.”

Do you remember your first rejection? How did you feel about it? Looking back, is there anything you learned from that experience?

Throughout my career as a writer, I've gotten so many rejections that I lost count. I do recall the stings of the first, and my ego was so loud back then that it took me awhile to not 1. not take rejections personally. And 2. look at them as learning experiences, therefore, gifts of intellectual value.

Back when I was a "young" writer, I got so excited by my ideas that I was too eager to pitch them before really doing my homework. What kind of stories did this magazine typically publish? Had they already run a story with a similar topic? Was my voice too loud and did it upstage the topic or the story? When my agent first submitted my manuscript (my first book, Poor Your Soul), I was obsessively hitting the refresh button on my computer every 2 minutes. Now I do the work and move on, more or less, not only because I have a very busy life outside my world of writing but because sometimes I can only take things so far before handing them over to the next person in the process, and then let my brain breathe. I think it's important to attempt to have balance and health. To me, that is the hardest part. In the beginning of my career, I was often at extremes--both full of ego and simultaneously insecure. But since then I have DONE. THE. WORK. The work on the self, of my craft, of literary citizenship, of helping the vulnerable, of the business of writing/publishing, so it's not as hard as it used to be, but at the same time, it is not as new and romantic to submit work. I miss those days, but it was also a painful time! I took everything so personally!

Quick note: one of the first books I pitched was so so cringe. It was called "The Premenstrual Cyclist" and it was a guidebook for men on how to navigate PMS and I am SO embarrassed by this idea and am so so grateful it was rejected. Ooooph.

What was the first piece you got published? How did you celebrate? Also, what does your process look like for researching where to submit your work?

The first essay I ever had published was a personal essay about abortion. It was so intense! On top of that, the literary magazine had a reception and asked a selected number of their contributors to share their writing on a stage in front of about 150 people. So it was my first publication. An essay about abortion. In front of a big crowd of strangers in NYC. But I took my sister Sabina's advice and OWNED IT, read slowly and clearly, and in the end, the experience and gift of sharing my voice and my story was really f*cking empowering and a step in the direction of self-love and self-care.

For a short piece like a story or a poem, how many places do you submit it to at a time? Do you keep track of your submissions? What does your editorial process look like before you hit submit?

I have lists upon lists of story ideas always going at a time, and I just jot them down when I get the spark of inspiration. I write creative nonfiction--essays as reported pieces, so often I pitch the story before writing it, so I know it has a home to come to eventually. But even without guarantee of publication, if I really love the idea or have a question I really want to answer by exploring this story/topic, I stick with it and when the time is the right time, I work on it.

As far as books go, it depends on the urgency of the story. When I wrote my memoir, I was obsessive about it and wrote for hours every day, but I didn't have two kids and a spouse at the time (and eight chickens, a dog, two cats, two rabbits and a job as a writing professor). I worked at a bakery during the day and wrote during most all other times of the day and night. The story was urgent to me--I had lost a baby and gotten married and was SHOOK and medically traumatized--so I wrote my story down to sort of exorcise the sadness and fury out of me. It felt so urgent because of the attack on reproductive rights (which, sadly, is becoming a perennial topic. UGH.) But with my last book and the one I'm currently working on, a lot of my process is just THINKING about it. I still don't know what I have to say, but something is on my mind and I want to explore that topic. But the exploration isn't always through writing; often just to sit and think, or let it simmer in your mind subconsciously, is just as valuable, if not more valuable, than writing it. Everything can be considered as "writing."

What type of writer are you when it comes to submitting your work: Do you hold on to a piece for a long time and then have to give yourself a pep talk (if yes, please share) or do you subscribe to a more fuck it hit submit right away approach? If your piece gets rejected, are you one to power through and move on to the next publication or do you sit with it a little longer and try to figure out where you might’ve gone wrong?

I’m at a place in my life where I should dial it back a bit and not pitch so many stories because I'm overwhelmed with parent and work responsibilities (and two book projects), but I can't help myself! When I get excited, I want to give the story a home and share it with people. I definitely have a "fuck around and find out" attitude, but this wasn't always serving me in the beginning of my career. Now I am familiar with what editors at what publication are looking for, and I couldn't learned this from recon or from fucking around and finding out, and my experience was a bit of both, but mostly the first. But now that I know how publishing works, the fuck around and find out (pitching stories based in my initial excitement) serves me. It also suits my personality.

HOWEVER, with books, I'm a bit different, but again, it really depends on the topic of the story, or type of story (essay/memoir/reported piece, flash in the pan or perennial? timely and urgent?). I wrote Poor Your Soul in eight months. It took me four years from the conception of The In-Betweens to the publication date. Also, remember: we all have different lives, different privileges, bank accounts, family affairs, luck and connections. There is no typical timeline for how long it should take you. Comparison is the death of creativity.

Is there a rejection letter that stands out in your mind? Something particularly harsh or intense? Or maybe even comical?

A handful of editors turned down my memoir because they "weren't sure how to do PR on a book about abortion." This was so damn frustrating because it was a memoir that was about so so much more about abortion. Blessed be, after so many rejections that I lost count, I kept submitting. Even after my (former) agent retired from submitting my manuscript, I managed to find a publisher (Soho Press). And they were so wonderful and graceful and beautiful and this marathon to get my first book published was truly an act of love and fortitude and I'm so grateful for the experience. It was so incredibly formative, much more than if I had gotten a book contract instantly and easily. It was reality, a shock and a lesson.

What publication or magazine would you love to see yourself in someday?

I used to have "dream publications," but now I realize it's harmful to me and my writing to write so I can see my work in a certain publication because then it triggers some people-pleasing insecurities and neurosis I have. But also, I like a challenge. So: The New Yorker.

Is being published all it’s cracked up to be? What is your advice for writers who are working on getting published?

THE PROCESS GIVES US PURPOSE, not the end result. Also, I recommend Courtney Maum's classes and book "Before and After the Book Deal." What I've learned is that this all takes lots of fortitude and stamina. It is a LONG journey. There is a reason that when someone is called a "young" writer, they're often over the age of 35. It takes TIME.

Okay, you are really hungry and in front of a sub shop. What is your all-time favorite sandwich order?

Fully loaded falafel with hot sauce and a Diet Coke in a can.