If there’s one thing Facebook has taught us, it’s how to constantly edit ourselves. To show a limited public the best of us, the infinitely cool(er) version of ourselves. To post only those pictures with optimal lighting, only the good side of our face, with nothing incriminating in the background because we carefully framed the shot to begin with.
This is a natural skill for writers, who make a living (or don’t make a living but at least live) by making up personas and telling interesting lies.
We’re pros at prose but we’re also pros at putting on a show. The good thing about our line of work is, for the most part, we can hide our rejections. The stuff we’re proud of gets published (or doesn’t) and no one ever sees the stuff that gets rejected a billion times, except editors maybe. And who gives a shit about them? I mean, I do, but most of them are writers too so they’re “in the club”– they know rejection is the name of the game, and they have a sea of their own. No point in playing proud around them.
Last weekend I was wading through my Submittable account, sorting through the ‘Denied’ queue, which is several pages long, and I thought, What the hell. I’d like to share some of the things that got rejected numerous times and then, finally…never found a home. Ever.
These are incredibly flawed pieces, and I totally understand why they were rejected. But they also represent different points in my writing development, and they’re still things I wrote. Little pieces of me. I have a soft spot for rejects and outliers, so I wanted to give them a stage. Plus, I think you can learn a lot from your old work, especially your old shitty work. Hopefully I can glean a lesson or two from these as I post them.
So, here are my top five rejected pieces, starting with the most recent and ending with the very first piece that ever got rejected.
“The Dear Bullshit _____, Poems”
[These are tonally all over the fucking place and far too cutesy, and just…not very good poems. But some nights you write something and it’s so late and you’re so drunk on candy and words and sleep that you somehow manage to convince yourself, “Wow, is this good? I can’t even tell. I better submit it tonight so I don’t chicken out in the morning.” And of course you wake up in the morning and see that what you wrote isn’t very good, but you think, “Fuck it.” And that’s pretty much the story of these poems.]
I. DEAR BULLSHIT PONIES,
(Don’t think I haven’t seen the way you twirl your stupid tails
when the morning sets the fields aflame
there is a joy in the world
that makes me shit
but, like, on the inside)
II. DEAR BULLSHIT LOVERS,
(Love is an oubliette
from which is born
the desire to be happy
stuck in a fucking oubliette)
III. DEAR BULLSHIT ATOMS,
(Watch for falling particles
they’ll put your ion out, kid!)
IV. DEAR BULLSHIT STARLIGHT,
(Only mud sings. Only bombs tell truth
Even the swans are breaking their necks tonight in the lot behind the church
sick of the lake’s cruel reflections
I have studied their incessant cracking between the slow breaths of beasts
God’s wet cough through the chattering teeth of clocks
counted the chimes that tap out our misery with the indifference of angels
rolling dice in heaven over which dogs will eat tonight and which dogs
will learn to lie down forever, begging the light’s indecent tease
Show me something truer than meat!
Show me what’s sharper than a knife singing!
the mouth worth kissing more than a bullet!
the skull that isn’t painted like a clown!
the heart with wings that hasn’t been gored by gravity!
or the easy way out: the rope to yank to conjure curtainfall
Just teach me to ascend beyond tonight
O beyond the depths, the depths
this long indifferent deep
so blueblue it’s black
It’s true: you can die from loneliness)
WHAT DOES THIS TEACH ME: At least wait until morning to submit, to reappraise the quality of what you wrote the night before. Clarity is golden, and that little act will save you and some unlucky editor a buttload of time and energy.
“Subtle Distinctions in US Law”
[This is the first protest poem I ever wrote, and the language isn’t very interesting but I liked the conceit. And there was real rage behind it. I was pissed off about a certain event, and the only way I could get it out of my system was to write about it.]
^That’s how it looks on the page. The text on the left reads:
“You have the right to remain white. Anything you say technically can be used against you in a court of law, but probably won’t. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense. You have the right to self-defense if you find yourself in a situation in which you fear for your life – even if you provoked that situation to begin with – no matter how paranoid or unbalanced you are. You have the right to the benefit of a doubt concerning your character. You have the right to wear a hoodie any time of the day. You have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Text on the right:
“You have the right to remain black. Everything you are will be used against you in a court of law, public opinion, depiction in the media, and pretty much every facet of society for the rest of your life. You have the right to speak to an attorney and to have that attorney present during the reading of your guilty verdict. You have the right to fear…in fact, it’s pretty much obligatory – any time you find yourself in a room full of white people, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Finally, if walking down the street minding your own business one rainy night you make the irrevocable mistake of wearing a hoodie, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever you have the right to remain silent.”
WHAT DOES THIS TEACH ME: Like I said, the language is incredibly bland and it’s a little <a lot, let’s be real> too…obvious? But it served a purpose, and I liked the concept. Which goes to show: a good concept doesn’t = good execution.
“The Self Love Song of Yeezy Prufrock”
[Geez. This one is just silly, y’all.]
WHAT DOES THIS TEACH ME: I mean, I don’t think there’s anything this can teach me, and I definitely don’t think there’s anything it can teach you. If anything, it’s one of those things we’ll just have to unlearn/unsee together.
“Burgeoning Economies of Self-Worth Following the Advent of Social Technology”
[This was the first ‘concept piece’ I ever wrote, and it’s pretty minimalist. Ready for it? Are you sure? OK: here it is…]
(<–Click 500 times to see poem)
WHAT DOES THIS TEACH ME: That I actually submitted that to places (I think I actually sent it to Poetry, as in Poetry Magazine, because it must’ve seemed like a good April Fools at the time) can only mean three things: 1) No 2) You’re never as clever as you think you are 3) Gimmicks, for the most part, are camouflage: in most cases, they disguise the fact that you don’t have a substantial piece of sincere art to offer, and you’d rather fuck around with cleverness. There’s always an exception to this rule (and every rule), of course, but gimmicks REALLY have to WORK for a piece to earn the right to employ it, and this one just didn’t.
“What the Gypsy Told Me About Our Dead Mother”
[As I mentioned above, this one is the very first piece that ever got rejected. It represents my first attempt to write a poem. It’s pretty atrocious. But it’s also written (poorly) with full artistic sincerity.]
Wind yourself like you once did
the spring ballerina in the pine box
your late mother’s nightstand
where she kept fake pearls
spit shined secrets many splendid
bobby pins to keep her hair from tumbling
like the tree trunk that splinters silence
every winter greeting frozen ponds with
death weight, keep your grace tall as
bronze weathervanes shaped like roosters
equally stubborn show talons kick dirt
brandish beak flaunt feathers let nothing
lash you not wind not rain not man not pain
remember why we bleed we bleed to learn
how to heal fear to be brave die to be saved
know it’s ok to doubt just don’t let it become the cloud
that bundles you up like a blanket keeps the sun
from finding you smiling melting crows in corners
of your memory don’t get too low always lust for
life swim through seas take it from me short is the
countdown until the thimble-headed dancer twirls
one last time before collapsing from exhaustion
never lose the music that slays shadows keep those birds
inside you warm, in fall coats worn, count your bedtime
stars to lose count all those bedtime scars & know I will
never be far remember there is no distance in love
but most of all most of all don’t forget to dance
WHAT DOES THIS TEACH ME: Lots of problems up in here, but I feel like at this point I could salvage it if I really wanted to, fix the lines up, fix the rhythm and line breaks and change out a lot of damn words and make it less corny and really improve upon it…but I won’t. I’d rather it remain as a relic, a symbol of my starting point as an artist, shamelessly imperfect. And that’s what it teaches me: we all have to start somewhere, and accept that maybe everything we write will remain flawed, and maybe 85% of what we produce will never find a home, but that doesn’t make it work wasted. Everything is practice, and every little rejection matters just as much (if not more) than every acceptance.
So we should write on and not pity the pieces that don’t find easy homes. The little orphans that pile up at the end of our Submittable queue. Their sacrifice is noble, and I have to believe there’s a heaven just for them, and in that heaven they find acceptance, finally.