Finding Your Built-in Compass

I’m going to tell you a funny anecdote. In 2006, two years after my immigration to Canada, I wrote my first short story in English. I reviewed it twice, tweaked a few words, rearranged a few sentences, and then submitted it to The New Yorker. I promised myself if they didn’t publish it, I’d give up writing. When the days ticked on with no response, I saw it as a good sign. I imagined a round table with some serious-faced editors, wearing fedoras and smoking cigars, discussing my story, so taken by the prose they couldn’t even get back to me. After the first month, I began checking The New Yorker’s website. Maybe they’d published my story without letting me know. Maybe that was how this business worked.

Three months later, I received a form rejection email.

It was a blow to my ego which took some time to heal. Later, forgoing my promise (it’s not always a good idea to keep a promise), I wrote a new story. This time, I sent it to an obscure magazine called Tin House, certain that they were hungry for my writing.

It turned out they were not. And neither were a few other publications I blindly sent my work to. Later, my personal life dictated a shift in my focus and interests. For a while, I wrote in Farsi until about three years ago, when I returned to English. This time, I was better equipped, not only in terms of craft (which was crucial), but I also gained a better insight into the literary world. I already patronized bookstores, mostly idling in fiction and non-fiction sections, but now I gradually began levitating towards the magazine section, as if extending an olive branch. I began to read literary journals and to read about them. It was then I realized Tin House was one of the most coveted literary magazines and that getting published in The New Yorker through the slush pile was as likely as getting struck by lightning.

This personal account is exaggerated, and yet, to my embarrassment, there is some truth to it. Nothing is wrong with having ambitions or daydreams. An Iranian filmmaker friend of mine once said there’s no one in the film industry without an Academy Awards acceptance speech under their belt—just in case. But, I think, the problem presents itself when your chosen path towards your goals doesn’t agree with reality and it will lead to frustration, and possibly to the premature fulfilment of a sad promise, like the kind I mentioned earlier.

Aside from a few rare cases of genius and fluke, the writer’s path is a tortuous road paved with rejections and snubs. Lots of articles on the Internet praise tenacity and teach you strategies for sending your work out into the world. But it also helps to know where you stand in this overcrowded space. Progress is only possible when you aim higher, but first you need to know where the high is in relation to your work. When I look back at that first English piece (I must down a shot of whiskey first), I wouldn’t even dare to post it on my Facebook page, let alone imagining it published in The New Yorker.

So, continue to send out your work if you think it’s ready, but be honest with yourself. Strive to train an objective eye, bereft of ego and emotion, to see if your piece is on a par with your favorite journal’s selections. This way, you’ll accept rejections more gracefully and there will always be a chance for a breakthrough.

Read Mehdi’s short story “A Galaxy Far Far Away.”

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