Zen and the Art of Rejection

Zen and the Art of Rejection

Well, it rained a bit this afternoon, the air grew thicker by the second, the complexity of contemporary existence pushed me into the dark midnight of the soul, so, what the hell? 

I did it again. 

Never one to learn from yesterday’s brutal assessment of my value as a human, I submitted a revision of my college guide to a publisher and 30 pages of my most recent novel to an agent. Over the years the methods by which writers present their work has changed, but like death and taxes, the outcome arrives with grim certainty:

“Thank you for sending your submission our way, but we have to pass on your project / it’s not the right fit for us / we’re not right for your work / we cannot use it at this time / this is but one reader’s opinion, but this submission doesn’t work for me” and so on.

At least the responses come quickly; many agents and publishers now maintain a site on which a decision is entered within a few days of a submission or query sent by email. I’m registered as a supplicant and invited to check the site to see how intrigued the editor/agent is by my work. 

Spoiler alert: Persistently not intrigued at all.

In earlier years the process was considerably more complicated and expensive. I typed (badly) several hundred pages, some number of which were then jammed in a package with a self-addressed, stamped envelope so that the unwanted submission could be returned to me. I rarely had a copy as typing with carbon paper was a tricky business. One of my plays, A Night of Terror, laughingly presented as a musical, now exists only as mimeographed copies of the script given to actors when the play was performed. Messy and almost illegible. I did not keep score in those days, but my guess is that the average time between submission and the return of my unread manuscript was about eight weeks.

Now I and millions of others can zip an entire manuscript to the ends of the earth and can expect a response of some sort within a week or two. I’m not waxing hyperbolic in suggesting that millions of unpublished authors are out there hoping to find a place on America’s bookshelves. Before the artist’s retreat known as the pandemic arrived, more than a million projects were handled each year by the self-publishing juggernaut at Amazon. Who knows how many lightly edited great works could be rushed to my home with a single keystroke. Formerly known as Create Space and now as Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s software has made self publishing child’s play, easy and inexpensive. 

There is some comfort in knowing that as my books are published on demand, which is to say when I or any of the other four readers buy my book, only a single copy is printed. I won’t find discounted copies of my books in a cardboard bin in the grocery store; no dusty copies languish on remainder tables.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

I’m rarely stumped in pursuing instant research on any subject, but estimating the number of magazines and websites offering advice to aspiring writers is problematic. I tried every search I could imagine and was presented with more than seven billion references to particular magazines and information hubs, none offering any guess at how many rabbit holes writers can access in print or online. 

I’ve been knocking on publishing doors for years but still look for help in placing at least one of my babies up for adoption somewhere. Letters seeking representation by an agent are known as queries, and one could hop among innumerable articles offering advice on how to craft a query. I looked at a few, again before contacting yet another agent identified as one accepting clients. Great advice to be had, but, Nah, I stuck to my jocular conversational gambit and let the chips fall where they may. Self deprecation is my stock in trade; why not approach an agent in the same key?

Here’s the “pitch”:

The odds of this book reaching any reader, any eyes but my own are stunningly low. My earlier confection, Afterwards, has yet to sell a copy. That’s not entirely true; I placed a copy on the local authors’ shelf in our independent bookstore and bought it some weeks later, expecting the few bucks owed us local authors when one of our books rockets off the shelf. I’m still waiting for the check.  It’s been two years. My expectation is that this volume will join the others in languid security floating in the nether world of publication on demand.

Why you might ask, if in some moment of addled confusion you picked up this book thinking it a prescient piece of social criticism, why do I write if not to be read?

Thanks for asking. Fair question. The easy answer is that I wake in the morning with ideas I want to write about. Even if no one reads a word. A more reflective answer is that it fills each day with purpose, exercises my mind, and generally amuses me.

 I also sing in the car with no expectation of being heard,  pretend I hear the roar of the crowd as I loft a jump shot at the netless hoop in the park’s playground,  talk to my dogs with a French accent, and offer jokes to my children with the presumption that the response will be muted. I enjoy writing almost as much as I enjoy the French accent with the dogs.

Even as I write this piece, I discover that some goblin has been trotting through the pages I just sent to the agent, moving sections of sentences willy nilly. That’s what we professional writers call a death wish. 

Yikes and Ah Well and time to check the rejection machine once again.

Step Right Up…

Step Right Up…

Ladies and Gentleman, I PAY to face the Learned League, some 20,000 of my closest friends, competing daily in providing answers to grotesquely difficult questions posed by a relentlessly erudite quizmeister whose nom-de-jou is Thorsten A. Integrity. Like the Football Association Premier League Limited, The Learned League practices relegation; those who shine move up from one “rundle” to the next while those whose sheen has faded moved to the next lower “rundle” in order to find competition appropriate to their ability.

The first season, the “Rookie Season”, is free. Once hooked, the aspiring contestant pays an annual fee in order to be reminded on a daily basis that their very small window on the world is very small indeed. I’m not sure how Thorsten A. Integrity generates questions as some are reasonably within the competence of ordinary humans while others are chock-a-block with questions so ornate that it takes several readings just to figure out what’s being asked.

Burying the lead as is my wont, I’m actually going somewhere else, but having introduced the League, I feel compelled to offer a random selection of questions to illustrate the point not yet made and to moderate my feelings of inadequacy this afternoon as I face relegation for the first time.

Here are three not-uncommonly-obscure questions from the previous week’s array:

  1. FOOD/DRINK – A certain cutting implement, which usually has handles on each end and is rocked back and forth to chop and mince items such as herbs, cheeses, and meats, gets its name from its crescent-like shape. What is that Italian name?
  2.  SCIENCE – There are six distinctly named phase changes of matter: freezing (liquid to solid), melting (solid to liquid), condensation (gas to liquid), vaporization (liquid to gas), deposition (gas to solid), and what sixth, which is solid to gas?
  3.  LANGUAGE – The Khoisan language families are distinctive among languages of the world for their extensive use of certain consonants that linguists—and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)—describe using what word?

I see hands raised and eager onlookers shouting out the answers. You win if you came up with MEZZALUNA, SUBLIMATION , and CLICK.

I came up with nothing, although had I not rushed through the questions, I might have attached the crescent-like shape to the moon and then translated to luna, then figure half a luna, but I didn’t.

Against all odds, I have good days from time to time, enough to have pushed me up into a danged smart rundle where I am pulped like a ripe orange.  I do not fear relegation as water and puzzlers find their own true level, but it occurs to me that as one of those called, “The bulge in the python”, a baby boomer, I could devise questions that might challenge and amuse others of my generation. The usual sets of questions are neither puzzling nor evocative as everyone recognizes the original Mouskateers, Howdy Doody’s nemesis, and the Cisco Kid’s horse. My forceful but inaccurate hunt-and-peck typing a moment ago mistakenly produced the Costco Kid then the Crisco Kid, both heroes who deserve to be fleshed out, but that’s a pleasant diversion for another day.

Following the Learned League’s format, I present six questions which only those with a keen sense of recent (?) history will be able to answer. Thorsten A. Integrity asks me to swear that I have not cheated as I enter my answers. In this case, however, use whatever it takes to see if you can glom on to these blurred reflections of a decade now way back in the rear view mirror.

  1. A 1995 semi-factual biopic presented John Turturro as gangster Sam Giancana, boyfriend of one of a trio of singers. Influenced by the Andrews Sisters, this trio appeared frequently on programs hosted by Milton Berle, Perry Como, and Andy Williams. We sincerely hope you can come up with the name of any one of these three singers.
  2. Speaking of gangsters, this bodyguard worked for Mickey Cohen and the Cohen crime family. Frank Sinatra asked Cohen to keep this lothario away from Ava Gardner, but Cohen reportedly rebuffed Sinatra, reminding him that he never,”…got between men and their broads.” He was in an abusive relationship with Lana Turner, whose daughter stabbed him to death. What was the name of this love magnet?
  3. After World War II, the Swanson brothers expanded their line of frozen dinners, giving their products a distinctive and entirely appropriate brand name.  What was the name of Swanson’s brand?
  4. In 1956, the first television show to be hosted by an African-American was broadcast by NBC. A musician and actor, this talented performer was only 45 when he died, but is featured on a Grammy winning recording produced 26 years after his death.
  5. “That’s the $64,000.00 question!” The reference to the tv game show indicated an answer worth a lot of money. Taking inflation into account, the top prize of $64,000.00 is the equivalent of 640,000 today, a hefty prize from 1955 to 1958. The second big winner was a female psychologist and an expert of boxing. She went on to appear more than 90 times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson offering advice and accounts of current social mores.
  6. What frequently televised sport presented Dick Hutton, Buddy Rogers, Enrique Torrez, and Eduard Carpentier?

*Answers presented at the end of the article.

Hey there, Hi there, Ho there, are you as welcome as can be?

There is a peculiar satisfaction in dredging shards of memory from the recesses of the mind. Those of us who were devastated by the recent death of Alex Trebek may have a tough time coming up with answers in the form of questions for a while, but when (if) we return to Jeopardy, there will be answers outside of our experience and expertise. I’m ok on The Bible, for example, but World Geography and current Pop Stars are big trouble. In the same fashion, those of you not enjoying your seventh decade will find many of these questions annoyingly obscure.

Next time I’ll put up fragments of advertising jungles to see how many out there can complete the pitch. Examples?

1.“Who was the first to conquer space? It’s incontrovertible. The first to conquer living space is __________”

2.“________, the gals’ll all pursue ya. They love to run their fingers through your ____”

3.“Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks, tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox, love _______s, …”

4.“Ask any mermaid you happen to see ___?”

5.“Mommy puts it in my drink for extra energy.  ______ gives me iron and sunshine vitamin D.”

6.“Charlie says, Love my ____________.  Charlie says, Really rings my bell.”

And a bonus question!

“My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dog’s better ‘cause he gets _________.”


  1. Any of the McGuire Sisters – Christine, Dorothy, or Phyllis
  2. Johnny Stompanato
  3. TV Dinners
  4. Nat King Cole
  5. Dr. Joyce Brothers
  6. Professional Wrestling


1.Castro Convertibles


3.Armour Hot Dogs

4.Chicken of the Sea Tuna


6.Good and Plenty

BONUS Ken-L Ration dog food