Columns > Published on March 5th, 2021

Why I'm Not Submitting for Publication Anymore

Everybody has their 2020 story.

Here’s mine:

January: I get the flu. Twice. Then, after a pretty terrifying afternoon, I discover that someone in my life, VERY close to me, has a medical situation. I’m not going to spill all the beans here because it’s not my story to tell, let’s just leave it at this: think of the 5 scariest, worst pieces of medical news you can get. This medical situation she’s/we’re facing, it’s probably in that top 5.

February: We discover that she’ll have MAJOR surgery in May. The outlook is better than we initially assumed, but still pretty damn frightening, and we’ll have to live with the uncertainty for the next 3 or 4 months. The thing she’s got, it’s pretty unusual for her age. One in a million. Beats the odds in the worst possible way.

March: COVID. Because I work in eMarketing, I work 50+ hours every week for a couple months there. I’m fortunate to have a job, but it was a stressful time. There’s some guilt because I’m a little grateful. Because me and my loved one, we're both at home. We have more time. We take walks, go to bed and get up together every day.

April: We wait and see whether surgeries will be possible or if COVID patients will fill the ER. I get mega-pissed about people doing unsafe things, risking COVID without considering situations like ours. Magical thinking sets in. This person in my life, she puts a houseplant in the garbage because it’s pretty much dead. The leaves look like banana peels that've long since passed their prime. I rescue the plant, put it in a warmer part of the house, cut off the dead leaves, which is most of them. I know it’s insane, but I don’t want the surgeons to give up on my loved one if things look bleak, so maybe if I don’t give up on this plant, I don’t know, somehow that translates.

May: We do paperwork. The paperwork everyone tells you to do and nobody does it. The paperwork we all joke about with stuff like, "Just put me in a coffee can and throw me in the ocean." We both fill everything out, my stuff and hers. I thought it might help if she didn't have to be the only one. It doesn't. 

June: Surgery day. The surgeon signs the site with a marker, then they wheel my loved one away and I hope it’s not the last time I see her. I get a text that says, “The procedure has begun.” An hour later, an ominous “The procedure is complete.” No other info. Someone takes me to a small room with two chairs facing each other, a private room, the kind of room where they can tell you anything, maybe the worst thing you’ve ever heard.

I have a running trick: When you’re exhausted, don’t worry about how far you still need to go. Look up, find a landmark, like a light post, and just make it there. What happens after that, you worry about it when you get there. I can’t make it all the minutes it takes for the surgeon to come in and tell me what’s what. Minutes are too long. So I count my breaths. I make it one breath in, then from there, I figure I can make it as long as it takes to get the breath out.

Surgery goes well. Everyone is okay. I spend 2 days visiting in the hospital. I’m the only one allowed, she’s only allowed one visitor, and I’m doing my best to take care of her while also communicating with everyone about how she’s doing. I take her home. She’s okay, but a scare the following day has us back in the ER, and she’s unable to lift even 10 lbs. for at least a month. We set up a step stool in the shower, she sits on it, and I clean her wound site every night. It’s 13 staples long, and I count them to make sure I’ve cleaned the entire site.

September: Possible infection at the surgery site. Multiple, multiple doctor visits. An infectious disease specialist. Another surgeon. Concerns that the infection is bone deep. This would mean a repeat of the surgery.

November: After 2 months of doctor visits and MRI’s, the infection clears up on its own. I turn 37 (snoogans).

I’ve had some depressed times, and those suck. I’ve had some very broke times, and those suck, too. But 2020 has been, far and away, the worst kind of time. I don’t even know what to call it. They don't have a word for it the way they do for "depressed" and "broke."

I’ve always thought of myself as a rock, you know? Very steady, very reliable. But when it’s someone else going through something, and when you’re totally helpless, and when all you can do is watch and’s weird, man. 

Your world gets real small. A space about the length of 13 surgical staples was my everything. And in the middle of this, the entire world outside was in complete chaos. Every day there was something about the President. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, COVID, mask fights, all this shit was going on, too, and while I did my best to care about things outside that 13-staple line, I didn’t do a great job. Because that 13-staple line was more than I could handle.

Maybe you never wake up feeling pretty good again. I don’t know. I’m still waiting.

Something I didn’t expect is that when the surgery was done, even after the infection cleared, it wasn’t back to business as usual. And I don’t even mean that in reference to COVID. I mean, when you go to bed every night and watch to make sure the person next to you is still breathing, and you’ve got a surgery date in mind, and after that date you’ll maybe sleep next to your loved one again, maybe you’ll sleep next to them and they’ll have severe disabilities, or maybe you’ll never see them again, that feeling, all that weight, it doesn’t just go away. You don’t just wake up feeling pretty good once things are medically stable. You don’t wake up feeling pretty good months after that. Maybe you never wake up feeling pretty good again. I don’t know. I’m still waiting. 

2020, everything that happened, it’s one of the few things that I couldn’t bring myself to write about. It’s usually a great way to process shit, to work on your pain. But this was just too big. Writing about it, trying to tame it, it didn’t seem right. My normal coping tool failed me, big time.

Let’s talk about anger.

If I came out of 2020 with anything, it was a new understanding of how hard it is to be the relative, the close friend, the person who is right up next to the pain and can’t do a damn thing about it. You’re helpless, and you’re worthless, and nothing is fair. Nothing. There are thousands, millions of people more deserving of this ailment, and they’re all fine. And that’s another thing: It’s not like there’s a cosmic reason someone MUST go through this stuff. There’s no set number of people who have to do it. It’s just the way things are. There’s no reason, there’s nobody doling out as much as we can handle. Some people live healthy lives, some people don’t, and who gets what is not meaningful.

I started getting angry. I was angry at “thoughts and prayers” people. Not the people who offered them, the people who said that thoughts and prayers are bullshit. When someone says that, it tells me they’ve never been in a real bind where it’s nobody’s fault and there's nothing left to do. Because thoughts and prayers were all we had. I wanted them.

I'm still a little angry. 

I don’t mean to take on someone else’s problem as my own. And at the same time, if that’s what you’re thinking while you read this, that I’m pulling at your sympathy: Fuck off. You know? Just fuck off. I wouldn’t trade 2020 for all the pity in the world. I really wouldn’t. Implying that I would is something I will go after you for, hard. Don’t play with me.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “So-and-so had it worse, Pete’s a whiner,” you’re totally correct, there are people who had harder years than me. And you can also fuck off.

I don’t normally like stories and essays that tell people how to feel, so instead of doing that, I’ll tell you what you can DO: If you are reading this and thinking of arguments and contexts and “think about it this way” methods of downgrading the shittiness of my 2020, you can fuck off. Feel however you want, say it however you want, just know that I’ve already pre-responded with a hearty fuck off.

At some point this is about writing. Let’s get to the writing part.

At some point this is about writing. Let’s get to the writing part.

Writing is something I like to do because it’s fulfilling. With everything happening in the last year, I don’t feel fulfilled by my career, I don’t feel fulfilled by my relationships with other people. I don’t feel fulfilled by cooking a good meal. Most everything seems very pointless right now. When someone at work asks a trivial question or makes a correction to a typo, it’s all I’ve got in me to not spill my guts, tell them about 2020, and ask if they still think their question matters.

This is not my normal state. This is not something I’m proud of. This is no way to go through life.

But when I can write something good, I do feel some satisfaction. I do feel like I can do something that matters a little.

I’ve submitted stories and manuscripts on and off, and this year, and maybe forever, who knows, I’m done with that.

It’s not why I started writing, not why I’ve kept writing, and not the aspect of writing I look forward to in the future.

I don’t like it.

Submitting is a pit. It’s a job application, except instead of me doing something for money, I’m doing something I love and that means something to me, so when I don’t get the gig, I take it harder.

Submitting time isn’t writing time, but it has to happen during writing time, during the time set aside for working on stuff. With things the way they are, with every year somehow shrinking my writing time, I’m taking time back where I can, and one easy switch is to write more, submit less.

Writing makes me happy. Time at the keyboard or with a pen, it’s fast time. Some people call it “flow,” but I just call it fast time. You can blow an hour, easy, when you’re doing something that’s fun. “Fun” isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean.

Submitting doesn’t work that way. I don’t work on submissions for hours on end, look up and say, “Whoa, look at the time!”

Submitting is about being a famous writer, or maybe, more charitably, about being a known writer or a writer who can make a living from writing.

Right now, I don’t care about being a famous writer, and the cynical side of me, which is in charge, thinks that being a paid, full-time writer is an unattainable dream. It’d be great, but it’s not going to happen, so maybe it’s time to stop. Stop behaving like the famous writer you're not.

Submitting puts your work in journals and magazines and anthologies, and only writers read that shit. You know I’m right. Ask every non-writer in your life whether they’ve EVER read a lit mag or a journal.

I don’t want to write for writers. I’m flattered when a writer enjoys something I wrote, and I have no hate in my heart for other writers. It just means a lot more to me to hear that someone who doesn’t usually read got into something I wrote. That’s my direction, that’s my path, and submitting doesn’t get me in the right hands.

I’m not submitting because right now, I need writing to be about joy. About feeling good about myself here and there.

I need it to be about me.

My world remains small. It’s longer, maybe a couple hundred staples now. But I’m still measuring in staples, which tells you all you need to know.

I do feel lucky. I have a good job. My close friends and family have mostly avoided the worst consequences of COVID.

I even got mad at my loved one. She smashed a spider on the wall and left its mooshed corpse just sitting there. And I was angry because I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just clean it off herself, and I’d been doing everything around the house for months, and why couldn’t she do this one thing?

The felt great. Because feeling that irritation at someone, that’s normal. It was coming up on close to a year since I’d last got steamed at her. Every time I felt it creep up, even a little, I squashed it down. I thought, “If she doesn’t make it, you’re going to be so mad at yourself for getting all upset over stupid bullshit.” I thought, "You might not have a ton of time left together, don't waste it being angry." And this time, this smashed spider, it was the first time I felt normal.

Without submitting on my mind, I write differently. Probably worse.

But when the world shrinks down, when you take submission off the table, you win back a little freedom. Freedom to write about whatever you want. To say it wrong. To write a complete garbage line and keep moving forward, knowing you’ll never come back and fix it.

Because when you’re not submitting, your writing doesn’t have to “work.” It doesn’t have to DO anything.

Because I’m not submitting, I started writing about it. About 2020. Someone asked me what I would’ve done if my loved one didn’t make it. I never let myself think about that before. But now, because it’s not exploitative if it stays with me, because it’s not something I need to explain, I can write about those imaginary lives where things didn’t work out.

Some of them are grand. I sell everything, buy a pickup with a topper for the bed, put a mattress in it, and just...go.

Some of them are small. I live the same life, but I do listen to every new Taylor Swift album. My loved one, she’s a Swiftie.

In none of them am I motivated to grand things. I don’t raise a shitload of money for research or learn a new skill or turn the pain into something useful.

And that’s okay, too. There doesn’t have to be a lesson. Stories don’t have to mean anything. They just are.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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