Yes, the high-paying, packed-with-perks job of an editor for a literary publication is fraught with landmines.
Well, maybe not fraught, and maybe not landmines, but there are times when you, the editor, dread opening your email. Especially during the days after sending out a long round of rejections. Because, more often than not, that’s followed by a few responses by mortally wounded writers.
These emails are very emotional, often in all capital letters, and generally fall into two categories.
The more benign kind is passive aggressive, where the authors try to change your decision, talk about their feelings and disappointment, admit they cried, insist they are the most talented writers in the country, actually send books and other unsolicited materials for you to see how wrong you were to reject them.
The more aggressive emails are outright angry, attack you personally, or your taste, or the publication, or the selection process, or all of the above. The authors still may add a few sentences regarding their genius, but it’s secondary to the main point and purpose of the communication.
The truth is, no matter how much you brace yourself for these outbursts, or how many you’ve received to date, each still blindsides you and ruins your day, makes you question why are you spending your time doing this after a long day at your paying job, instead of reading a book, watching a TV show or (gasp) writing your own poems.
Below are my thoughts on how to deal with hate mail.
1. Always remember that it’s intended to make you feel bad. The person who sent you the note did not want your decision to go unpunished, so if you spend the day cycling between sulking and fuming, then yes, the hate mail achieved its goal. Try to put the negativity out of your mind and focus on taking care of something both urgent and long overdue.
2. You are not a victim. Sometimes this is hard to remember, but it’s always a fact. You are an editor out of your own free will. Furthermore, you have the authority to make publishing decisions and, if you’ve done your best, you’ll feel you’ve made the right decision even after the hate mail arrives unapologetic in your inbox.
3. Don’t respond. Don’t acknowledge the email or, worse, engage in an argument with its author. That won’t help anything. Neither the relationship, nor the communication, nor you, nor even the author of the note. In some ways, not responding actually may help this person. One day, years later, during breakfast, when he suddenly remembers his own reaction and flushes with shame over his oatmeal, he will at least have the face-saving hope that maybe nobody ever saw the email.
4. Best to forgive and forget. That is the quickest way to move on. It’s much easier when you do not know the author of the email, and there is no chance you’ll bump into him at the next open mic. Then you can just delete the note and never think of it, or the person again. It will challenge you much more, however, if the note came from someone you considered a friend, or even from a student of yours. Then you’ll have to work on your own detachment, understanding and compassion to let go of any hurt and bitterness you may be harboring.
5. Remember why you started doing this in the first place. You did it out of love for writing, and desire to help writers. Because you wanted to learn about the process of editing and publishing. Because it feels good to read new, great work. Because it’s wonderful to make someone happy with an acceptance. Because you were naïve when you first started. Yet now, after years of experience and communications with thousands of writers, you still believe it’s your dream job.
And to those who feel compelled to send their bile to the editors I have to say the following: There are many things you could do instead. Punch a pillow, eat a bar of ice cream, collect sea shells by the sea shore, join a gym, clean your room, to name a few. I know it hurts. But it’s part of growing up as a writer, and if you continue sending, chances are it will happen again. Then you will have another opportunity to react or not. My hope is that this time you write nothing, or a simple “thank you for your time and consideration.” You’ll instantly feel better about everything. I promise.