On Loss, Writing & Perseverance by Lisa Johnson Mitchell
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
During the last 7 years, I’ve submitted 357 times to literary magazines. I’ve had 12 acceptances. This is including contests and publications. Do the math. This isn’t pretty. You might wonder why in the heck I continue to subject myself to this process. Simple: I can’t not do it. I can’t not write. It’s part of me. Maybe you can relate.
This past spring, I enrolled in a weekly, virtual Weekend Writing class on Sunday mornings. The course was just an hour and half, and was taught by a friend from grad school. During this time, we met to share our “brags and snags” for the week (publications, rejections, cases of writer’s block, guilt about not writing, etc.), after which we received a prompt, usually a flash piece. We were given 45 minutes to turn off our cameras and write—and encouraged not to edit. After time was up, we didn’t weigh in on each other’s scribblings. We ended the session with our intentions for the week (I promise to write X minutes a day, for instance), until we met again.
While this was going on, my mom was in skilled nursing, dying. This workshop was a sacred place for me to cry and grieve, to reach into my mess, my woundedness, places that hurt too much to even think about. Lots of stuff I wrote was terrible. However, as a result of one exercise one Sunday that was based on memory, I birthed a story that was raw, pieces of which I could almost taste. There was an electric umbilical cord that tied me to it. You know those stories? I’m sure you do.
Over the next month, I went back and back, again and again, to my tale, cutting and rewriting. Shaping it into a story that I felt might have some merit. I decided, what the heck, I’ll send it out, which is always what I’m whispering when I hit Submit. I sent it to about five places. I waited and waited. The rejections started rolling in. I was bummed. (With a new story, I usually submit to a handful of places I think I might have a chance. When I get a rejection, I immediately find another lit mag and send my piece out again. It’s my rule. Hopeless romantic? You bet.)
On June 27th, my mom died. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I awoke at 4:30 a.m. and of course, checked my phone. I saw an email that said, Fictive Dream, then “Thank you…” which we all know is all we have to read to know we’ve been rejected. Instead, the editor went on to say that she liked my story and would like to publish it. This, not 24 hours after mom died. This, after an entire year of nothing, nada, zip.
This entire process was an aberration. Rejections were—and are—the standard. Except for this one time.
The flash piece, Summer, 1979, was posted on Fictive Dream on August 15th. I was humbled that this even happened, and yes, I let myself feel some joy, something that, in the context of my sadness, was so sweet.
The lesson in this is never, never, never give up. I think Churchill said that. And it’s true. You must believe in yourself. You have a voice. You have a story to tell.
Lisa Johnson Mitchell’s work has appeared in Cleaver, Louisiana Literature, and Litro Online, among others. One of her stories placed in the Top 10 of the 2020 Columbia Journal Short Fiction Contest. Another received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train and was a Semi-Finalist in the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Contest. She was a resident at the Vermont Studio Center and holds an MFA from Bennington College.