‘It’s Not Personal But… ‘ by Sarah Leavesley

or Getting All Confessional, Subjectivity and the Rejected (Reworked) Manuscript

The first advice I remember being given as a writer was not to take rejections personally. Personally though, I think it’s a rule that’s both helpful and unhelpful.

One of many reasons I like writing competitions is the anonymity – typically the only personal part is the essence or shadow of me that’s in the poem/flash/article. With a standard non-anonymous submission and selection process for a journal or anthology, however, I’m present in my name and the submission letter. In performance, in videos, in recordings and work shared on social media, there is part of me in the delivery, the voice to the poem, the face to the name. This isn’t a bad thing but it does make these more personal, whether I like it or not. In fact, it may even be that this personal angle actually increases the appeal of a piece and an audience’s engagement.

Why am I talking about this? Two reasons, the first is vulnerability, the second is solidarity.

Around five years ago, I sat down and started what was my first truly ‘memoir’ prose, poems and artworks, exploring life with type one diabetes from the age of six. Maybe there’s an inevitable element of mid-life crisis in this self-evaluation now. But it also took me 20 odd years of other writing because I was scared of how people might react. And if the response was negative, it would literally be me/my life that was prompting this.

Over the years, I have used the first person ‘I’ a lot in a potentially seemingly confessional style. But this choice of person has mainly been a tool. There’s no cast-iron rule to my use of it. However, I tend to find the first person ‘I’ most fruitful when writing from imagination and the third person (she/he/they) when borrowing from or exploring real life. Put simply, ‘I’ helps me to get closer to mind-melding with a character and their viewpoint, whereas the third person helps me to create an objective distance so that I can develop a character (that may be a modified version of myself) and events imaginatively, in a way most likely to interest a reader. This is perhaps a slant on Emily Dickinson’s much-quoted ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant‘.

As a journalist, facts are important. As a creative writer, facts may still be important but only so long as they work for the piece and don’t interfere with the ‘story’. (Actually, even as a journalist, I was once given the sage advice to think about telling the facts of a story as I might when chatting in the pub or relating an anecdote.) Audience interest (drama?) and entertainment matter! For my mixed prose and poetry ‘memoir’, I tried to write it as if about a character based on me. Looking back with hindsight, writing through the viewpoint of a younger me that no longer feels like me meant this was mostly easier than it might sound. I also found it helpful to consider editing myself, so to speak, as a natural extension to general editing. It was useful too to remind myself that actually we all do this in real life anyway, especially extroverts – modifying our conversation, personality, how we look to fit with (or deliberately stand out among) the company that we’re in.

Of course, if like me you’re quite shy and try to blend in with a crowd, the page character might require upping the volume, amplifying presence, maybe even adopting an official alter-ego. (Enter stage left my six-year-old traumatist, a fictional me based around the personality-changing age when I was diagnosed with type one diabetes.)

Having deployed some of these tactics, writing my memoir was simultaneously fun, in a way not all the details were at the time, and full of interesting self-discoveries. The balance between sticking close enough to the truth for it to feel honest but allowing myself enough room to stray away and keep it entertaining wasn’t always easy. I also began to worry about how my story might impact on other real-life people in it that I care about, ie my family and friends.

Although there was an exhilarating sense of liberation in braving my fears and writing so directly about my life, as soon as I thought about the realities of publishing it, I felt exposed. And what right did I have to put the people in my life – past and present – through this too?

One way of dealing with my fears for others was to make my memoir self-centred. The more it was about me, the less it was about others. But this did increase the pressure to make myself entertaining, interesting and insightful. It also meant it was even more personal and I was even more exposed…

Did these methods work? Yes, and no. My unpublished early prose manuscript ‘The Myopic of Me’ was longlisted for the memoir prize in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017. A longer version ‘This < > Room’, which also included some poetry, was longlisted in New Welsh Writing Awards 2018’s Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. But neither of these led to publication, always assuming that I still wanted my story out there and being read by people…

Nonetheless, I’d written it and, as the work had been longlisted twice, I felt I owed it to the manuscript to keep pushing onwards. I submitted it to a publisher whom I greatly admire, though I knew the mix of genres wasn’t typical of the press’s titles. I was disappointed but not unsurprised to get a no, along with some really encouraging words about the quality of the work although it didn’t fit with what the press’s publishing remit at that time.

I’d started the manuscript thinking that by combining poetry and prose, it might increase potential readership – appealing to the pool of readers who love prose as well as those who love poetry. By the time, I’d finished relooking at the manuscript, I realised that I might actually have dissected potential readership down to the intersect (overlap) of those who loved this type of prose AND also loved poetry.

I wasn’t surprised therefore by the rejection. What did surprise me though was that a small part of me was maybe slightly relieved. Marketing and selling a book is hard work at the best of times, the added edge of it being very personal and feeling exposed pushed it closer to feeling like I’d be trying to sell myself. Then covid-19 happened. Finding a publisher felt like it could become even more problematic with live readings and marketing events off the cards for who knew how long. I re-read the praise for the manuscript, looked into Arts Council England’s emergency funding and realised that turning parts of it into a hypertext poetry narrative made both financial and creative sense. The funding allowed me to add multimedia audio, visual and film elements. Meanwhile, the hypertext links format of > Room and the labyrinthine effect created actually embodied elements of living with diabetes, as I have since the age of six,  in a way that the initial page version hadn’t.  

I was still nervous about how people would react. But, so far at least, all the feedback has been more than encouraging and confidence-building, maybe even gaining even more expressions of solidarity because of the vulnerabilities revealed.

Sarah Leavesley The Write Life

What about the rest of the manuscript? Well, something I realised throughout this reworking process was how much more exposed I felt with the prose sections than the poetry ones when it came to revealing parts of myself and my life to the reader. For me, a prose narrative doesn’t allow for as many gaps as poetry does – leaving bits out, or up to the reader’s imagination, is harder.

So, partially, I was under more pressure to include details that I was less comfortable about sharing. But also,  I think there’s an element in poetry where the space left for the reader can actually make the process of reading poetry feel more creative and more inclusive. It’s possible poetry is as revealing of the reader as the poet. As a poetry reviewer, I’m always conscious that how I approach a text, what I understand and what I miss, says at least as much about me as it does the poet. If anyone has ever read a review and thought that’s not at all how they read that collection, this is perhaps why. As a reader/reviewer, I fear getting a poem/collection wrong and revealing my own weaknesses both in not understanding but also potentially in what I read into it.  There is however a source of solidarity and comfort in this fact for a writer that I’ll return to in a minute.

As my manuscript stands now, > Room has broken away to become a hypertext narrative in the third person by the six-year-old traumatist – the part of me still traumatised and coming to terms with the diagnosis over 35 years later. The prose sections are in limbo – quite possibly never to be published – leaving me with a handful of very different first-person poems about the physical aspects of  living with my disability and how this has shaped my sense of identity. Having jettisoned the prose sections, I developed and added to the remaining poems to produce a full collection manuscript ‘Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic’ that explores diabetes, treatment and life with it in adulthood more directly. Reader, unmarrying these poems from the prose, I felt at ease with them being public in a way that I wasn’t with the earlier manuscript. The revisions also completely changed the shape, tone and reading experience into a more focussed yet expansive manuscript. The personal in the collection now feels way bigger than me. Although it is about my disability – solidarity with those who have endured similar challenges, raising awareness of some of the realities of life with type one diabetes to those who know little about this often hidden disability – it’s also about the vulnerabilities and struggles (sexism, ageism, acceptance, healing of all kinds… ) that many/all of us face. I was absolutely delighted when this manuscript was shortlisted and then won the CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry 2021

Sarah Leavesley The Write Life 2

Of course, very few endings are really the end, and this applies to rejections/rejected work, which can often also be mended (treated as a means towards a more successful manuscript). To return to the confessional about submissions rather than my whole life then. As is probably evident by now, not taking rejections personally isn’t something I find easy. (And yes, this may be linked to the sense of rejection or not being good enough that can come with a life-upheaving childhood diagnosis.)

With time, however, I’ve even come to see that actually taking rejection personally can be a good thing. By this, I don’t mean assuming that it’s personal on the part of the editor/publisher – running a small press, V. Press I know this is rarely the case. I make decisions on the basis of the submitted manuscript, my reaction to that, but also how it fits in with where the press stands at that point in time – what we’ve just published, what we have already lined up, what editing time I have and how a particular manuscript will fit (or not) with everything else. As a writer though, taking a rejection as personal to that piece of writing (even if it isn’t) has actually proved incredibly useful. It makes me reassess the words and lines more closely. Sometimes, I may change little or nothing, but other times I’ll re-angle or extend my work, often in a way that might not otherwise have occurred to me.

I won’t share full anecdotes here but I have examples of an identical short story that was rejected and accepted by different editors at the same publication within a six months’ time difference. And several poems that didn’t hit the mark with one journal/competition but went on to be published in bigger journals/competitions. (Subjectivity is personal but, like a relationship, it’s personal in a two-way sense of writer engaging with reader but also reader engaging with the writer/writing.)  

Rejection has also encouraged me to leave more time/create more distance whenever I can between the initial writing and the submitting, and between rejection and re-assessing a piece with a fresh editing eye. And yes, rejection has sometimes challenged me to strive to better in a kind of  ‘show them what can I do’ sense. Sharing rejections as well as successes with fellow writers is also a kind of solidarity that social media has done a lot to enable.

My final sense of solidarity comes from something I mentioned earlier when considering vulnerabilities. Most of us aren’t as unique as we might sometimes like to think – hence the power of the personal to reveal universal truths. If a reader identifies with a piece through the personal in a poem/prose, it is because they’ve recognised themselves or other people, events and emotions from the experience. This is important for writer-reader engagement. What I hadn’t clicked until recently though is the protection inherent in this for a writer who might be worried that their work is too self-revelatory. There is a solidarity between writer and reader when this recognition happens – anything that might feel exposing to the writer when it’s seen/recognised must also be there in the reader’s experience for them to see it. Meanwhile, if there isn’t that recognition, then it’s highly likely the reader won’t have registered the parts which make the writer feel exposed or vulnerable. At least, that is what I’m telling myself. I could be wrong, but if so, I won’t take it too personally.

About the contributor

Sarah Leavesley
Sarah Leavesley is winner of the Chaffinch Press Aware Prize for Poetry 2021. Her latest published books include a poetry pamphlet How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press) shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards 2018 and a novella Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2018). This is a sequel or companion novella to her novella Kaleidoscope, published by Mantle Lane Press in March 2017.

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