By Anniebelle Quattlebaum
Rejection is a dish best served yesterday, with espresso, and behind an acceptance letter. Tales of once-rejected authors litter the web. Before her image graced the cover of our most recent issue, Anais Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love was rejected 64 times. This story is inspiring for the five seconds we read it on Facebook, but as the rejection letters come pouring in, we don’t give a damn about Anais Nin—we sit wondering how we can shape our writing to fit the journals’ and publishers’ tastes. As Free State Review’s author liaison, I decided to sift through the rejection letters and find a common, defining “nugget” that ties the rejectees together.
Everyone wants to know things, but no one wants to be spoon-fed. Editors—and readers—do not want everything spelled out to them. They do not need to know why the luggage-laden engineer embarks on a mysterious trip to Alburquerque—just that he seeks an adventure. As I combed through the letters, this overtelling (“there’s a lot of telling without images”) was a common complaint. If the author knows everything, and wants to make sure that the readers know everything, the story loses power. As one of our earliest contributors Chris Toll once wrote, “the job of the poet is not to explain the mystery; the job of the poet is to make the mystery greater.”
What makes reading enjoyable isn’t just obtaining information, but being challenged; readers like to see and judge for themselves. Equally important as the words are the questions we ask between the lines, in the white space.
And instead of constantly telling, we must show—concisely. During a recent reading, novelist Tim O’Brien described the biggest enemy of the writer: overwriting. “Do not describe her neck as long, white, and elegant as a goose,” he said. “Do not fill your writing with flowery, wordy language. Instead, write this: She honked.” This statement, though curt, provides readers all they need to know while leaving some room for imagination. Just like the drunken uncle at Thanksgiving, too much information is unnecessary. Too much is annoying.
Furthermore, endings need not be wrapped up in neat red bows. Stories need not have “Disney endings,” another complaint I found to crop up amongst the letters. Like overtelling, fairytale endings solve everything for the reader and leave little room for the mind to wander. What could possibly happen beyond blissfully riding off into the sunset? Heading home and watching Jeopardy?
In life, we do not always know everything, and literature should be the same way. We do not possess omniscience of the gods, and frankly—do we really want to? Do not impress with long-winded knowledge, character details, and descriptions of goose-necked damsels—our brains are tired and our eyes are dull. Give us some exercise. Double the pumps and our anxious hearts.