Subs and Chill is a monthly conversation with writers on rejections, the submission process, and all the moments in between, before hitting submit. This week, Chelsea Hodson, author of Tonight I’m Someone Else, talks about the struggles with rejection in the competitive world of poetry and essay submissions, handling negative feedback and her evolution in understanding when a piece is ready to be sent out.
When you were first starting out, how did you take rejection? What did you learn from those first few rejections?
When I first began writing seriously, I often submitted poems and essays to contests, grants, and fellowships—all highly competitive opportunities with cash prizes, and I almost never won (I did win one poetry prize in college). I spent so much time working on these applications that it felt totally crushing to receive rejection after rejection. I was looking not only for money, but also validation—proof that I was a “real” writer. Instead of saying, “Well, at least I tried,” I would be inclined to think, “I’ll never be a writer now.” Very dramatic, but it was hard for me. It took me a few years to really find my rhythm with the submission process, and to acknowledge that I didn’t need to only be submitting to these highly-appealing and highly-competitive prizes. When I started finding journals with similar aesthetics as my own, opportunities slowly began presenting themselves.
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? (do you browse or just submit to anyone with subs open regardless?)
My first poetry teacher in college helped to point me in the direction of a journal, EOAGH, which was a) a good fit for me aesthetically, and b) open to new writers who had never been published before. So, I was lucky that my first poetry submission was a good fit, and I was first published there (in 2009!). In the following years, I was slow to submit other work since I was (and still am) a slow writer. But when I started sending out essays for the first time, I encountered several rejections over a period of two years before a single essay was published (in the Black Warrior Review). I celebrated by sending handwritten thank you cards to both the nonfiction editor and the editor-in-chief. I couldn’t express to them how much it meant to me that they published my first essay—it felt like a breakthrough for me.
When I started submitting, I would browse the database on Poets & Writers, and later I just paid attention on Twitter to where my friends were publishing. And later, I learned about a lot of new journals at the AWP conference. The literary world was very foreign to me at the time, so it took me several years of paying attention to really get a feel for places where my writing might be a good fit.
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?
In the past, I would usually just rely on Submittable to track my submissions, and I would submit to about three places at a time. But these days, I don’t have anything to track since I’m working on a book and I’m not sending short work out for submission (I had a single short story published last year). Before I hit “send,” on a piece of writing, I have edited it relentlessly—printed it, read it out loud several times, and made sure everything is as good as it can be.
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 don’t actually get that much of a thrill out of publishing. I like writing, and I like keeping things to myself, which is why I work so much and publish so little. I don’t see publishing as a numbers game, I see it only as a means to an end—when a piece has reached the end of what I can do with it, I’ll send it out, but I’m more interested in a book-length manuscript that I can create. When I first started writing, I felt I couldn’t tell if something I wrote was “good” or not, so I was relying on other people and editors to tell me. Now, I’ve been writing for so long, I have a different level of familiarity with my writing, and I know when something is worth sending out or when I should wait. Rejection feels differently in this stage—I can see the journal as a bad fit versus my writing as objectively “bad.”
Is there a rejection letter that stands out in your mind? Something particularly harsh or intense? Or maybe even comical?
I had a teacher in my MFA that told me my writing frustrated him because it wasn’t in chronological order, and it took too much of his mental energy to read. That seemed ridiculous to me, because I’d always loved writing that treated the reader as an active participant. Otherwise, why not just watch TV instead?
I also had the experience of a literary journal editor telling me that writing about summer camp was trivial and something only girls did (“Why do girls always write about camp?” were his words). This was scary for me because I felt my worst nightmare was coming true—no one would ever take me seriously. Thankfully, I didn’t let that stop me, and instead I leaned further into topics that might seem trivial or feminine, realizing there’s meaning to be found anywhere you look.
What publication or magazine would you love to see yourself in someday? Or, if you have already been published in your dream pub, tell us about the experience.
I really liked my experience publishing in Hazlitt. It’s not easy finding a journal to publish a 20,000 word essay! In fact, it took almost two years to place this, and my agent helped me. I initially wrote this to go in my collection of essays, but I felt it wasn’t a good fit, and I wanted it to live elsewhere instead.
Is being published all it’s cracked up to be? What is your advice for writers who are working on getting published?
Publishing can provide a quick dopamine hit, and then you’re left alone with your work again. I’ve seen some writers chase that high and begin to publish nonstop, but I much prefer to let work sit for a while and resist that urge to make it public right away. I like the feeling of keeping things to myself.
My main advice to writers is always to read the journals you’re submitting to—without that, you risk a much higher percentage of rejection because you’re more likely to send work to places that will be a bad match for you anyway. Instead of thinking of it as a numbers game (“if I submit 20 places at once, my odds increase”), think about where you actually want to be published, and where you might find like-minded editors.
Because we can’t talk about subs without thinking of sub sandwiches, what is your all time favorite sandwich order?
I really like a classic BLT.