Letter to Paula J.

Dear Ms. J.,

We’ve never met each other, but several years ago you took the time to send me a handwritten note regarding my story, Every Bird Casts a Shadow, after I submitted it to The Sun. You were kind enough to offer me some constructive criticism and to praise my writing and my narrator’s voice, and you invited me to submit something else. I love that you referred to my story as “chilling”, because it is, it was, and it always will be. For various reasons, I haven’t sent another submission to The Sun yet, but I have kept your note in my desk drawer ever since.

I have deleted or thrown out all of my other rejection letters. But I keep yours because everything about it: the paper, the ink, your words, the time you took to write it, reminds me that even though the road to publication can seem inhuman, writing, and writing for publication are in many ways the most human of all endeavors. Writing represents an unflagging desire to be heard, seen, listened to, and understood in a crowded, unfeeling world.

Thank you for seeing what I was trying to do with my story, for listening to it, and for your thoughtful and encouraging response. Your letter, and the support of my friends, family, and others who believe in my work, help me to remember to take each rejection not as a rejection of me and my writing, but as a challenge: a challenge to view my work from another’s perspective, and as an entity separate from myself. A challenge to admit that my writing is not perfect, but that with some hard work, I can take a hodgepodge of words and sounds and arrange them in a way that is meaningful to me and to others. A challenge to listen to feedback, integrate the useful bits, and disregard the rest, and most importantly, to admit that no matter how attached I am to my story, character or plot line, sometimes my most useful tools are an eraser or a delete key.

A few months ago, I submitted a manuscript draft of a novel that I’ve been working on for a little over a year. There was a deadline. I love deadlines. Deadlines are useful and important. They are compelling and motivating. But they can also be detrimental to one’s work. They can make a writer rush and drop plot threads and add characters to a story that don’t really belong there. They can make someone prioritize a date on the calendar instead of focusing on the characters and the story that they are trying to tell, and in many cases, need to tell.

Well, that manuscript draft was rejected last week. I deleted the rejection email immediately, and I spent a few days wallowing. I talked with my family and with my writer friends. And this morning, I sat down at my desk, and I opened up my drawer, and I read your letter. I remembered that challenge that you unknowingly set for me when you took the time to write to me about my story.

Tomorrow, I’ll be plunging headfirst into the second draft of my 250 page manuscript. I have no idea where to start, but I plan on experimenting with the structure and rewriting the last fifty, and perhaps the last one hundred pages. I will ignore deadlines and peer pressure and the ever-present what-am-I doing-with-my-life pressure. I will let my characters tell their story. And when they have nothing more to say, I will send them out into the world again.

I don’t know whether you will see this letter, but if you do, please know that your note made a difference in my life and ultimately in the lives of my characters. Sending work out into the world to be judged is scary and unpredictable. It requires a healthy dash of ego and an even heftier dose of vulnerability. Rejection can be soul-crushing, but it doesn’t have to be. Handwritten notes like yours make all the difference. Thank you.

Most Sincerely,

Alexandra Kontes

5 comments

  1. Carol D Gray

    “Writing represents an unflagging desire to be heard, seen, listened to, and understood in a crowded, unfeeling world.” So true! And another reason why rejection really sucks! But I’m glad you’re able to find something useful in it — an important reminder that if we use rejection to improve our writing, then we can turn the hurt into something positive. Thanks Alexa.

  2. Lisa Birk

    I hope she does get to see your letter. It’s lovely and so true. Meantime, I’m rooting for your 2nd draft!!

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