I received a number of private messages following my last “article” on writing about Magic the Gathering. Many of these messages were consistently themed: writing is scary. By writing about something you care about and sending it to someone else for approval, you are putting a piece of yourself on the line. Hobbyist writing is a very personal thing. You don’t live a life of quiet affluence on the back of your Magic the Gathering essays. You do it because you want to be recognized for your contribution to this big mess of collective mental energy we call “the community.”
So what happens when you get told “no thanks?” It hurts. And what do our bodies tell us to do when something hurts? Well, stop doing it. But here’s the thing: we’re not talking about actual pain. We’re just talking about fear. Fear cuts deeper than swords, but it can be mastered just the same through practice. So for those of you who contacted me and those who didn’t, if you’re stuck between the rock of your desire to write and the hard place of your fear of rejection then this one’s for you.
I promise I’m sober this time. I also promise to really, really try to avoid turning this into an article about dating. You can put your three-piece suit away and get your Coldplay albums back out of storage. I might write about sex, love, happiness and heartbreak one day, but today is not that day.
Overcoming Your Fear of Snakes
Ophidophobia means fear of snakes [ed: this is different from Ophidianophobia, which is fear of 1990s Jon Finkel]. I remember, as a younger boy, watching a video on the process of treating a girl’s extreme ophidophobia. The way they treated her was through progressively increased exposure. In the beginning, she would briefly watch a video of a snake. After so many iterations of this, as her reactions diminished, she would then see a snake in a tank from across the room. By the end, she was holding snakes nervously, but with full presence and control of her faculties.
This really stuck with me as a general lesson. Her fear was overcome by simply by practice with facing the fear and the gradual process of becoming desensitized through repeated exposure. The fact that in none of these circumstances did she actually get bitten by a snake probably helped too. We can apply this process to sending our writing off to some inhuman, brutal and callous editor. Did you get a rejection letter? Good for you. You’ve made progress.
This will happen. It is a side effect of writing in much the same way as dying is a side effect of being born. There are many reasons that your writing might get turned down. Sure, one of them is that your writing might not be good enough. But tons of rejections are for all kinds of completely impersonal reasons:
- You sent an FNM report to a site which already has a staff writer on that topic.
- The site has more submissions than they can even look at in the current cycle.
- You sent a Commander article to a site which markets primarily to spikes and grinders.
- You sent a long form poem to a magazine called “Limericks R Us!”
The bottom line is that while you should always assume you can write better (and never be satisfied with your match wins if you could have played better), and while sometimes you will get turned down because it just wasn’t that good (didn’t test your deck, did you?), sometimes it’s just not about you (Channel Fireball is all on Tempered Steel and no one saw it coming). This is the equivalent of watching the video of the snake. It’s just practice. The rejection letter won’t bite. We don’t have that technology yet.
At one point, my father published a collection of poems that he had been working on for some time. The premise was that all the poems were written from the perspective of God/YHWH. God goes to a series of shopping malls, big box stores and the like and basically laments the condition of His creation witnessed therein. In one of my favorite rejection letters of all time, my father received a notice from an editor who refused to publish the poems because, in his opinion, God sounded like a wuss and should have been pissed off and destroying things with righteous fury. This is yet another example of opinion and perspective being a relevant factor in this process.
My final attempt to convince you that all is not as scary as it would seem comes from my own personal experience. While in college, I published some poems in the university press’ anthology called Calliope—a multi-award winning publication. I was fairly proud of myself. My parents came up for the reading and I got a lot of good feedback. So I decided to do what anyone too clueless to know better would do. I aimed higher. See, I’m a pretty big fan of this guy named David St. John. I tried to emulate him to some degree in some of my poems. So I decided to just figure out where David St. John had published things and send some stuff there. I sent a few poems in to the Denver Quarterly.
After a while, I finally received a letter back. I made myself a cup of black tea, sat down and opened it up. Here’s the gist:
- Thank you for submitting to the Denver Quarterly.
- Your poems are good, but we’re not going to run them.
- Feel free to send more things in the future.
Needless to say, I was pretty crushed. I decided to turn to my father, who had been writing for ages and from whom I had received all manner of sage advice over the years. Here’s a paraphrased recreation of the conversation:
Me: “Well, my first attempt at publishing failed. Any advice?”
Dad: “Where did you send your poems?”
Me: “Denver Quarterly. David St. John wrote there.”
Dad: “In other words, you had a pretty good season at Peewee League football in Elementary School and decided to try out for the Washington Redskins in Junior High?”
Dad: “Let me see that letter. [Reads for a bit]. Congratulations.”
Me: “Congratulations on getting rejected?”
Dad: “You see where it says to please send more? Yeah, they don’t say that unless they are hoping you send more. Editors get so much crap in such high volume that the last thing they want is more crap. If they ever say to please send more, that means it was worth their time. This is third base. And the Denver Quarterly is a very attractive girl.”
Among other things, this is why I love my dad. But it turns out, after conferring with my old professor, that he was correct. If you send us or anyone else your first article and get a response saying “not this time,” but providing a few pointers, remember this parable. It means you were worth the time to read and to write back with advice. This is no small feat when dealing with volunteer, part time editors who get scads of submissions and read them after their families fall asleep. You’re on third base. Enjoy it, but don’t get comfortable.
If I still haven’t convinced you yet that you’ll survive rejection, here’s one of my favorite rejection letters ever. It was issued in reference to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness–required reading for my senior year English class in high school. I might add that it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction in 1969. The editor was clearly correct to reject it on the basis of having fallen one trophy short of the Triple Crown. Oh, wait, the Philip K. Dick award didn’t even exist in 1969? Never mind. What an idiot.
If You Must Suck, Find Out Early
Now, here’s the awful truth. It’s entirely possible that you were just not meant to write. I know, growing up, that your mother always told you that with the right attitude you could do and be anything your little heart desired. I’m not here to tell you that your mother was lying to you. But what I will tell you is that your mother probably thought you were a bit young to have a meaningful conversation about opportunity cost. Weren’t you, snookums? Just a widdle bit too young for that? *cheek pinch*
From Wikipedia: opportunity cost is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the next best alternative forgone. In other words, if you do X instead of Y and Y was a more valuable option, then you paid a high opportunity cost. The choice to do X was costly in terms of value. And whenever you choose low value, baby Marshall Sutcliffe cries.
I know, for example, that no matter how much I wish it weren’t true, I am not meant to be the lead singer of a famous prog rock band. Why is that? I can’t sing, for starters. I also can’t hear or carry a tune. Or dance. And I’m sort of awkward looking. Especially in tight leather pants. I’m sure it’s possible to overcome these obstacles with time. By that point, however, I could have panhandled enough money to simply fund a band, produce their record and make millions. As I am fond of saying at the office, we need to embrace our constraints and optimize. Just because Michael Jordan was physically capable of playing baseball doesn’t mean it was the best use of his time. The opportunity cost was pretty high.
If you’re interested in being a part of Magic culture, there are a million things that you can do. Don’t get hung up on something with a high opportunity cost. If you must suck at writing, find out early. Because there’s something else that you’re perfect for and we’re all waiting eagerly for you to find out what it is.
@Justin_DZ on Twitter
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