The Thinnest Folder Was Labeled “Success”

Posted on 09 April 2012

I’ve mentioned my “writing tub” before — the plastic bin where I keep old story drafts, critiques, notes, rejections, and more. This weekend I decided to finally get organized and clean the thing out to make room for the stories and essays I’ve written in 2011-2012 instead of, say, 2004.

Going through that old stuff was like a time warp. I found:

A stack of personal agent rejections from 2004 for my first novel. So many of them are personal rejections: Long letters offering critiques, suggestions, and advice. This was actually kind of impressive, considering that I can now see that the novel was never truly ready to be published.

An entire folder of form rejections from literary magazines (2004-2006). I dumped them all in the recycling pile without a second look. It seems so foreign and pointless to save any form rejections now.

An old brochure for the very same journal that later accepted my piece, demanded all the rights, and then unceremoniously dumped me when I stood up for myself. I have no idea where this brochure came from. I’m just glad I didn’t submit to them back in 2004 or 2005, when I might have been more likely to overlook their bogus contract.

A folder labeled “Success.” Inside, I found old acceptance letters from two tiny (now defunct) literary journals and a flyer announcing writing contest winners. My name is listed on that flyer for winning an honorable mention in the creative nonfiction category. I had completely forgotten about that contest. The literary organization that ran the contest is now defunct, by the way.

A synopsis of my disastrous second novel. I have to tell you, friends, that this synopsis was truly horrifying on many levels. Yikes. Going into more detail would just depress us all. But let’s look on the bright side — that synopsis is proof that I’ve definitely improved over the years.

A stack of personal rejections, some quite detailed and encouraging. They came from lit mags I really respect, like The Sun, The Missouri Review, The Indiana Review, The Harvard Review, etc. Seeing them all together like that was actually kind of heartening. Every single one ended with a variation of “Please submit to us again!” The very last one in the stack was from Flyway in 2006 or 2007. That journal published my story “Wedding Season” last year, so this is a nice reminder that sometimes those personal rejections actually work out. I’ll also take this as a sign that I need to get work out to some of the other journals that encouraged me in the past.

Draft after draft of stories from Living Arrangements. We’re talking drafts of some stories dating back to 2005, all their incarnations since then, and all the critiques I received from various writing groups over the years. I was excited every time I came across a Living Arrangements story because I knew I could immediately toss it into the recycling pile. That’s the good and bad news about publishing a book — you can no longer go back and make changes or improvements. For someone like me, a careful, cautious reviser who needs lots of time to absorb changes and let a story or novel came to the surface slowly and in layers, this is kind of terrifying. Even so,  I was glad to be able to toss out all the old story drafts and critiques.*

I went into this expecting to simply clear out some old papers and get a little more organized. Instead, I ended up staring down the state of my writing life from 6-8 years ago. What I found is evidence of a writer who was trying really hard — attending conferences, getting critiques from writing groups (so, so many writing groups), submitting to journals, and not letting the avalanche of rejections crush her. And you know, I’m proud of that former version of myself. I hope that in another 6-8 years, I’ll be able to look back and feel the same satisfaction about what I’m working on right now.

It’s probably safe to say that I’ll never keep another folder labeled “Success,” though.  Maybe it’s because I know success isn’t always something tangible, like a published book or acceptance letter. More often it’s just the daily work, the hope, and the process. But mostly the work. In the end, that’s all that matters.

*Fear not. I did take a few minutes to compile a few more critique comments from those old drafts before I carted the whole stack off to the recycling bin. I’ll share them later this week in the second round of Notes from Writing Group Members. So stay tuned.


10 responses to The Thinnest Folder Was Labeled “Success”

  • Paul says:

    And what will you gaze into eight years from now rather than a bin with actual papers in it? Email folders?

    You’re right about defining success as just doing the hard work (regardless of the outcome). I think that is a healthy way to approach this craft.

    This was a delightful post. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • I definitely thought about how 8 years from now, I likely won’t have much paper documentation. And you know, I think I’m okay with that. As old-fashioned as I can be (still don’t have an e-reader), a lot of that paper I saved just wasn’t necessary. Now, if I feel like hoarding writing-related stuff, it just waits in my email files or on my computer instead of physically weighing me down.

  • Sarah W says:

    What a great peek into the effort that went into your book!

    Thanks for sharing—and for showing us that success can’t fit into a folder.

  • Teri says:

    Okay, this process of going through the bin sounds both overwhelming and so, well, healthy. I have a drawer. The drawer is stuffed to the brim and remains untouched. I’m kinda scared to see what’s been languishing in the bottom since about 2004.

  • Downith says:

    “not letting the avalanche of rejections crush her.”

    That’s what I’m shooting for, right now. So thanks.

  • Averil says:

    I loved this. My crapalanche is more scattered, but I promised myself that when the current book was finished I would take every piece of paper I’ve scribbled on over the past two years and make a bonfire with them. Next weekend, I think. I’m inspired.

    Really looking forward to the critique comments.

    • It felt so good to toss out all the old story drafts, etc. I’m someone who likes to hold on to the old stuff just in case I need it later for revisions. And while publishing a book comes with many many other concerns and worries, at least it frees you from this stuff.

  • Lyra says:

    I love this post, how you can track your perseverance, dedication, all of it. How refreshing, cleansing to be able to toss the stuff from Living Arrangements, knowing it is complete, and to also see how far you’ve come. Fantastic.

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