When bad work gets published you should be inspired.

A few weeks ago I got one of those phone calls we writers get now and again from our writer friends: “I’m giving up. There’s no point. I will never write again.”

My friend had failed to place in a contest that looked really promising. Worse, when he read the work of the winners he was horrified to find one of the worst stories he’d ever read—including workshopped stories—glorying in the spot he’d wanted for himself. The winning story was so bad, he said, he’d never speak to me again if I didn’t agree.

Oh, it was bad. And not just a little bad. In Project Runway language, the story was a hot mess and I have serious questions about the author’s taste level. I sent my friend a gleeful e-mail.

“You should be thrilled that these people didn’t like your work!”

He wasn’t thrilled nor has he managed to become thrilled since that day. He’s angry and discouraged because what’s the point? What’s the point in trying if the gatekeepers are publishing CRAP?
Well… who are you writing for? And why are you writing?

This could be my departure point, right, for another sweet, encouraging piece reminding us all that we don’t write because we hear the siren call of editors and publishers, we are compelled to write because of some mysterious, internal drive. We write because we MUST and ultimately we write for ourselves—meaning that we, not the gatekeepers, are the final arbiter of our work.

Sure, we want to get published. We want to share our work, our talent, each of our polished beauties with the world. But we don’t control that part.

I could write another version of that essay, because there’s a reason why we trumpet that message so often, to ourselves and others. Two, actually. (1) It’s true, and (2) We forget it over and over and need to hear it again and again. But let’s agree that this paragraph has spent the requisite time on that particular truth. Because I’ve put in my share of reassurance for the week and what’s left I need for myself.

I don’t want to talk about why we write, I want to talk about the gatekeepers. The ones who published such CRAP. And the gatekeepers who publish show-stoppers like this and this and this, the ones who kickstart the careers of writers we cherish, and all the ones in between.

I want to talk about why I really meant it when I said my friend should be glad that the magazine’s staff didn’t like his work, and why, after getting over my own rant about how bad that winning story was, I felt light and excited and ready to send out a few of my finished stories, and tackle one of my unfinished ones.

First, another anecdote. A few months ago I was having dinner with another writer friend, and the topic of submissions came up, as it always does. My friend commented that it’s extremely difficult to get a place in a competitive journal, our reminder that a writer should never rely on her batting average as a measure of ability.

“Oh” I said, “I’ve come to a kind of peace with rejection and I just keep going.”

My friend smiled and praised my attitude. Then I said something that failed to impress.
“I believe there’s a place for all of us and all our stories, every one.”

My friend scowled. “There are very few places to publish when you think of the number of people who are submitting work. We’re all fighting for those same places.”

She was right to swat the Tiny Tim in me. In the context of our conversation she was right to say there is emphatically NOT room for all of us, all of our stories, every one. Of course. But there’s a kind of truth in what I said and I’m always glad to remember it.

If your goal is to be a celebrated, well-published author, that might not happen. But if your goal is to share your stories—and what writer doesn’t want to do that?—there is room for you and every one of your stories, every single one. That has been true for decades but never more so than now.

So this is where all this talk of gatekeeping leads me to an enthusiastic riff on the glories of the Web and all that fantastic, grassroots literary citizenship, right?

I could talk about the ongoing democratization of publishing, the growing DIY subculture of writing and publishing, the ease of side-stepping gatekeepers altogether to put our own stories into print. For very little investment, we can all be published writers. Hell, if you have a library in your town, you need no investment. Grab a free blog and publish your piece. Then send the link to your friends and family and shazzam! you’re a published author.

But I’ll skip all the talk of exciting, empowering projects going on in your back yard. Because I don’t want to talk about the Web and the future of publishing. Remember? I want to talk about these opinionated, elitist, controlling gatekeepers. Like me.

For several years I was an official gatekeeper at Hunger Mountain, Vermont College of Fine Art’s literary journal. At one time or another, wearing the hat of the moment, I rejected stories or essays, and I accepted them. I gave no feedback except a kind “this isn’t for us,” and I provided detailed paragraphs of feedback. I chose not to work with some writers on revisions, and I worked intensively for many weeks with other writers.

Open the gate, close the gate. Lock the gate. Break the lock and push all my weight against the gate, keeping it open, as I argue the merits of a story with my fellow decision-makers. Catch myself when the gate flings me aside and slams shut. Then open it again, this time with the key. And so on.

If I had been judging the story that won the contest my friend entered, I would have swallowed the key. If someone else had forced open the gate I would have thrown my body across the gateway, tripped the author on the way in, stuffed the story down my throat, just behind the key, and refused to open my mouth. Because I never thought I’d have anything to do with formal gatekeeping but when I did, I took it very seriously. As do, I’m sure, the editors who chose and published that prize-winning story that so discouraged my friend.

Which is why I feel so good. Because not only did I not have to swallow any paper or keys in the making of this essay, I also get to revel in how many gates there are, how differently their openings are shaped, how many hands and wills are hovering over them. I believed there was no gate that would open for that story, but I was wrong. So, I tell myself and you, there’s a gate that will open for my stories and my friend’s and yours. Probably.

And failing that I can publish myself and share my work with a few friends. Failing the energy to publish myself, I will reserve the energy to write anyway because I must.

And failing that—in the moments when my self-doubt crowds out my inspiration, when I spend a listless hour reading a hokey mystery or a bitter hour reading about all the bad news in the world, when, in short, I deny myself the joy of writing because, right now, at this moment, I’m wondering, like my friend, what is the point, why should I bother… I will remind myself that I am not powerless.

As long as I’m a writer and a reader I’m a gatekeeper, too. I was a gatekeeper in spirit well before I formed a connection with Hunger Mountain. For my entire reading life I’ve participated in this grand project of deciding whose work is worthy of notice. And so have you.

This is what I want my friend to understand, and you, if you need to hear it: We’re not all “officially” gatekeepers. But we all contribute strength and energy and talent to gatekeeping.

The minute my friend judged that winning story to be dreck and the rejection of his story to be unjust he joined the ranks of gatekeepers. Because if he’d been guarding the city’s gate the day that awful story rode up, he would have swallowed the key, too.

And if you had been in charge the day that poem you hate so much came to call, you would have slapped it aside and turned your back. You know you would.

There’s enormous power in knowing that we are all, already, part of the conversation. When I’m reminded that we are all gatekeeping, all the time, and especially when editors or contest judges prove how wide the range of taste is, how many, many gates there are, how seriously we all take our role, how much passion is out there for every damn kind of writing there is, well… I feel excited. And I want to hustle, catch up, get more of my stuff out there so I can have a bigger share in the literary conversation.

I find it hard to hustle if I feel I have absolutely no control over what happens to me and my stories. But I am not a passive drifter, washing up with the current. As long as I have the energy to be disgusted by a published story (plus the nerve to discuss it with a friend) and the enthusiasm to make Tiny Tim-like pronouncements about all the unpublished ones, I’m in the game.

We’re all, novice and apprentice writers, joining the conversation already. I may as well do my best to raise my voice. And so should my friend. Today I intend to ask if he’s sent his story to any other contests or magazines.

If he says no, I’ll ask why he’s whispering.

Photo from Visualhunt.