By Edward A. Dougherty
photography by Heather Maxwell Hall
I thought I’d arrived. In 2009, a publisher accepted my poetry manuscript about the World Trade Center, we signed the contract, and it was done. Starting right after September 11th, I worked on the manuscript—on and off—for eight years, with steady effort for four.
On that aweful and confusing day in 2001, I stepped safely out of the college English class I taught into hallways and down stairwells abuzz with chatter. A plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Assuming it was a terrible accident, I taught my next class a forgettable lesson about the topic sentence. Emerging from that basement classroom, though, everything was different. Despite the number of people, the building was quiet. A colleague rolled a classroom TV into the now-crowded hall outside my office. Both Towers aflame, the Pentagon hit and smoking. This was deliberate. And it was like nothing I’d experienced in my life.
Trying to make sense, I began writing after the war started in Afghanistan, in October. Trying to capture history unfolding, I wrote as rescue became clean-up, as Ground Zero became building site. The anniversaries rolled out. My topic kept shifting, the scope expanding. I wasn’t sure anything I was writing was any good or if it sufficiently honored the subject.
Despite these doubts, I kept at it. By 2009, I had a manuscript. Thinking it was ready, I sent it out. It got accepted, so it must have been good, right? I had arrived.
Soon validation turned to misgivings. The publisher expected citations and other scholarly elements. Creative projects do these differently, I emailed back. I forwarded examples from Martha Collins’ Blue Front, one of her deeply researched collections about race, Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust (found poems), and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, poems about disasters in China and the U.S.
They held their view, so we nullified the contract. Instead of a published book ready for the 10th anniversary of September 11, I had nothing.
Out of the blue, my friend Ken Letko’s observation floated up in my mind: rejection has its benefits. My situation was not the usual writerly rejection—a generic email or Submittable notice. Those shape attention into editor-mind very effectively: why did they say no? Follow this inquiry sincerely, and we can gain rejection’s benefits. If I let this rejection sink in, I could still adopt the attitude of an editor.
This is the most important benefit of rejection: it shapes our mindset. Rather than taking “no” as defeat, it’s an invitation to see our own work in a new way. Re-vision.
Notice how rejection gives us a gap, time between developing a piece and reviewing it. And that time-lag creates a space in the mind between what we imagined for our project and what the writing is actually doing.
When we view a work as “done,” like when I saw my book as “in production,” we stop seeing possibilities. We overlook flaws. We are too easily satisfied with merely adequate phrasing. Rejection can renew our pursuit of excellence.
An editor only has the writing, not our hopes or intentions. We need to view our work that same way. Editor-vision can help us revise in practical and strategic ways:
- Look for reasons to reject it. Editors are busy. They receive more submissions than they could ever publish. Sure, they’re eager to discover great work, but those surprise in part because the reader’s found no reason to say no. Such consistency of quality is rare. So, first make no mistakes. If you mention the Guiness World Book of Records, don’t misspell Guinness, like I did. (And it’s the Book of World Records.) If you revised your character’s name from dull “Jack” to sparkling “Lincoln,” use Find & Replace, then Search for “John,” even “J.” Expect mistakes. Look for them.
- Punch up the opening. First impressions don’t happen on page 5. Even a slow burn starts with a spark. In my book, I opened with a story designed to put readers in the middle of action. Editor’s eye revealed that I actually put them down in the weeds. Who’s this guy? When was that? What’s he doing that for?
- Mind the gaps. Don’t give the reader pauses to lay the work aside; editors will pick up the next submission. Make transitions move the piece along. Examine the ends and beginnings of paragraphs. If there are sections, end one to encourage starting the next. And start the new one with momentum (see No. 2).
- Feel the rhythm. A regular pace can dull, but too much variety can be chaotic. This is true for all parts of writing, from narrative voice to paragraph length, from character development to line breaks. Where does the writing break into a run (and why)? When does the rhythm stroll leisurely or rest on a park bench (and why)? Look for patterns and analyze any expectations they raise. Examine changes in those patterns and investigate how they create surprise or tension.
- Work the style, style, style. All writing’s creative writing if we attend to style. Word choice, sentence structure, paragraph development. Do sentences vary in length, opening, and structure? Is each word apt or just functional? For a simple example, I changed a single verb in a section about the inventor of the elevator (key to building skyscrapers). I wrote: “every tool / invents its inventor, / so American came up with // Elisha Graves Otis.” That phrase, “came up with,” is understandable but it lacks energy: “created” is punchier rhythmically, more active, and sonically more related. Stylistic precision and pizzazz should not be occasional, but in every sentence.
When I accepted that 10048 was not going to be published, I adjusted my mindset. I banked the blaze of my original motivation: I returned to that sense of duty I felt to the subject matter. Along with the Covid-19 pandemic, 9/11 is a defining historical event of my generation, of our whole era. Because of rejection, those fires had more fuel: I wanted to show that publisher what a mistake they made!
But it’s really not about them. It’s about me. The best revenge is success. For writers, that means to write the best we can.
I returned to the manuscript and could see how curtailed the narrative arc was. Whole sections felt slack, draggy. Some efforts to make the poems cohere and refer to each other only sounded redundant.
I rearranged most of the poems, wrote four new ones, and took out a coda that was such a weird tone-shift that I can’t understand why it was there to begin with. In each line, I tightened up the phrasing, listening to voice and music. And I found ways for images and themes to relate more meaningfully. In short, I was seeing what could be better.
The collection was accepted again by a different publisher, only to have that contract mutually dissolved too. This time, though, I knew what to do. I dug in. I put on my editor’s glasses and got to work.
In 2019, 10048 came out from Finishing Line Press, in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Several poems are reprinted in Never Forgotten, an anthology of 9/11 poetry that came out in 2020. I’ve done my work, the publisher did their work; now it’s time for readers to participate. The book’s available for book groups, for memorial services, and of course for classes. My students are now of an age that they have little personal experience of that day. As a people, we’re transitioning from witnesses to inherited memory. Students build understanding of 9/11 from stories, poems, and artwork they receive.
Because of the setbacks, not despite them, 10048 is a book I am proud of. Because I could shift my mindset from defeat to possibilities, and because I could return to the work—the actual writing—it is a better book than the initially accepted manuscript. These rejections taught me that in the life of a writer there is no arrival, only progress.
Edward A. Dougherty is the author of 10048 in addition to 10 other collections of poetry. His latest book, Journey Work: Crafting a Life of Poetry & Spirit, is nonfiction, and it was accepted by the first publisher he sent it to, Apprentice House Press. He teaches happily at SUNY Corning Community College as he has for over 20 years. For more information or to read his oh-so-irregular posts reporting on his research into creativity, visit his website.