Below is the first rejection letter I received as a writer. As far as rejection letters go, it’s a good one. There is specific feedback on the story and it’s personalised. It’s even hand signed. All of which is a rarity in modern times. However, it’s the story behind how I came to receive it, which makes it more valuable to me than my first acceptance letter (which didn’t come until much, much later).
In my life I’ve been fortunate to have more than one teacher whose influence has shaped me as a person. One such teacher, from my high-school, was my English/Literature teacher, Mr Vallence. He was a person who was on a his own journey, and who had a thirst for knowledge. Both made me feel a connection to him as they were traits I shared (Mr Vallence passed away a few years ago). I’d written a short story, Insight-ful, and he was the first person I remember showing it to. His response was that I should try to get it published and he recommended I try a particular literary magazine. This was a pivotal moment for me as I wasn’t really thinking about publishing. I had just wanted to share the story with someone who could provide some proper feedback.
While I don’t remember what I included in my letter to the magazine, I’m pretty sure I had to snail mail it. I have no doubt I didn’t format my cover letter in the ‘proper’ manner, nor include a synopsis. However, I’m certain my perfunctory ‘here’s a story I wrote, would you consider publishing it?’ wasn’t the reason for it’s rejection. This is in part due to the detail in the reply I received, and also to my now much older eyes being able to see exactly what the editor was on about. Some time later the corresponding rejection letter appeared in my mailbox:
Looking back at this rejection, I’m struck by one of the editor’s comments, “You certainly have a fertile mind.” The reason this stands out for me is that when, after some editing, the story won a writing prize (the RAS short story competition in 1996), the person I collected my winners cheque from commented that she’d enjoyed the story and was impressed that “someone could think like that”. I don’t think I would have had the courage to enter the competition if I hadn’t had the encouragement of Mr Vallence the year before.
However, I was never fully satisfied with the story and felt there was more to it. From time to time over the next seventeen years, I would ponder Insight-ful and what I could do with it. Eventually I wrote the briefest of chapter outlines for a novel and began to write. The result was what I call my first ‘proper’ novel, Incite Insight (my earlier book, The Conversationist was more musings on themes than a narrative). While I would have kept on writing anyway, I can’t help but think that some of my persistence trying to get my writing published came from a teacher believing in me.
So what’s prompted this reflection? Well, recently, a student I taught as a neophyte teacher some 17 years ago informed me I’d changed their whole career path. While I had felt like I’d had a positive influence on that student’s learning at the time, I didn’t know I’d affected their life to this extent (and it was only a chance interaction which led to me knowing this now). Which goes to show that we all influence others in ways we might not anticipate. So thank you to the teachers out there who are making a positive difference, be it small or large.
I’ve told the following before, but it’s worth mentioning again here:
During my final year of high-school, I was school co-captain of the debating team. The teacher-in-charge of debating was Ms Taylor. She gave me copy of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow as a thank you for my efforts during the year. I didn’t read it right away; in fact it probably took close to two years to read it, though it was always on the “to be read list.” When I did finally read it, I loved the book, especially the philosophical elements. The description of Mathematics in it is beautiful, and Hoeg’s books have helped me feel more confident exploring ideas beyond the plot in my own novels. Soon, I had read all of the Hoeg’s books. He remains my favourite author, even though his last couple of books haven’t had quite the same impact on me.
In a delightful twist of fate, seventeen years after I received the book, I wound up working at a school with Ms Taylor. Not only did she remember me as a student, but when I raised that she’d once given me a book, she recalled not only the event, but that she’d chosen it for me quite deliberately. She had enjoyed it and thought it would appeal to me. Ms Taylor was quite chuffed at the impact she’d had on my literary tastes and stylings. And it was wonderful to be able say thank you to her all those years later.