Monday, August 15, 2011

Looked at "no" from both sides, now

Sorry for the earworm, and if you're too young to have it appear naturally, here. You're welcome. This is the version (pared down: Joni Mitchell + guitar) that plays in my head. (Though, okay, I first heard Judy Collins do it; I'm American.) And this version (Measha Brueggergosman + lots of production) is also beautiful. It's obviously an enduring song.

In any case, my point: I've had the chance to "say" no recently, and being on that side of the rejection was a different kind of difficult.

A group I'm in has a great program starting (again) this fall, and we put out an RFP that elicited dozens of applications. I wasn't involved in the entire vetting process, but I joined toward the end, and since I was the one with a little time, I was responsible for bearing the news.

First I notified applicants that selection was taking longer than we anticipated. About ten days later, after much discussion and back-and-forth and research, I had to notify applicants that we had selected someone (else).

And in between, I wondered how an editorial team at a literary journal can stand it. Because guess what? Being part of the process of saying "yes" to one, and "no" to dozens of others, was difficult.

Obviously, we had criteria--as lit journals do. We used them to weed out the candidates who were slightly off-target. Even so, the list of qualified, viable candidates was long for us, as I imagine it is for a journal.

From there, we went back time and again to the audience: in our case, the people who would be participating in the program. Which candidate could offer them a good experience? What did we even mean by "good experience"? Lots of the candidates would be able to take the program in interesting directions with their expertise. Which direction was the best match for our membership at this time?

And yes, we also considered the membership we don't have, the audience we haven't quite attracted. How would candidates help us win participation from those folks?

Ultimately, we made a decision. The candidates who weren't selected were gracious; many wished us success, which we appreciate. Writers are good people.

Saying "no" isn't an entirely new experience for me. I've been on hiring committees before. But this experience was particularly illuminating. For the past several years, I've been mostly on the receiving end of rejections. Through necessity, I've developed a much more sanguine response to "no" than I once had. But I didn't really have a sense of just how difficult the decisions were from the other end.

Now, I will dig a little deeper to be even more sure my piece is a good match for a journal. I will set a piece aside for one more revision instead of sending it out because I can't quite get it right and I'm tired of looking at it on my (virtual) desk.

And I will continue to send the "thank you" notes. When you've spent an hour sending rejections, getting an email with a "thank you for your time" makes one feel a little less like an ogre.

But mostly (to get back to the song), I'm getting beyond an illusion. (Again. I knew this but I didn't KNOW-it-know-it, I just "yeah yeah I know"-knew it.) Hearing a "no" about a piece of work isn't a rejection of me, my writing ability, the ultimate viability of this piece, or anything else. It just means "not now, not for us." Really!