The coffee was as dismal as the doughnuts smelled, but Hope kept it, clutching the cup to her chest like a Styrofoam talisman. She’d never been inside St. Matthew’s before, much less its basement. With its frowzy walls and sepulchral lighting, though, it suited her mood. Western Romance had just rejected her again—this time for “Cowboy, Unfettered”—with the same stock response she could now quote by heart:
Thanks again for the opportunity to read your story. Unfortunately, after careful consideration, we’ve decided that it’s not a good fit for us at this time.
Wiping away residual tears, Hope entered the circle of chairs and sat in the last one available, next to the man with a lint-strewn beard and a tweed sport coat.
“Welcome to We Regretfully Decline, an open meeting of Unpublished Anonymous,” said the man, reading from a laminated page. “My name is Thom with an H, and I’m a writer without credentials.”
“Hi, Thom,” said everybody, in tones better fit for a funeral.
“Are there any scorned scribblers here for the first time?”
“I’m Hope,” the girl said, raising a hand that still glistened.
The fragile smiles and flimsy applause that followed put her at ease, for everyone looked like Hope felt. Misery oozed from every face, and each face belonged to someone twice her age. It was like nothing—and everything—she’d expected when she first found the meeting on Craigslist.
“Welcome, Hope,” Thom said. “In this space, we’re connected not only as writers, but as rejects. Our work has been refused, time and again, by journals the world over. Whether you’ve been turned down by Ploughshares or your own college paper, you can count yourself among us.”
A large-eyed woman in a flower-print dress leapt to her feet and said, “Hell, AGNI’s declined me so many times, I should be president of this whole damn outfit. Their editors just don’t appreciate a good—”
“We know, Kathyleen, we know,” said the woman beside her, who wore a T-shirt with Sylvia Plath sticking her head into an oven on it. “AGNI’s editors just don’t appreciate a good cat-themed sword and sorcery epic. You say it every time.”
Kathyleen slumped back into her chair, her big eyes locked on the notebook in her hands, and said, “Doesn’t make it any less true.”
Thom tugged his linty beard and invited the group to join him in the U.A. revision of the Serenity Prayer. Heads bowed and eyes closed in a moment of silence. Then the room, following his lead, supplicated in unison:
Editor, please grant me some serenity
by accepting the piece that I submitted,
courageously changing your original decision,
and in wisdom reversing your indifference.
Beautiful words, Hope thought, slugging her coffee. Words that somehow made everyone even less tranquil than before.
“So, Hope, care to share anything about yourself?” said Thom. “Your last story that editors passed on, for example, or how many no’s you’ve received from The Paris Review? I’m sorry to say that they most recently declined my piece about Shakespeare making breakfast: ‘Alas, Poor Toast.’”
It was all Hope could do to choke back a fresh sob. “I just got my third rejection in as many weeks,” she said. “I’m still keeping track—this makes thirty-two submissions without a single acceptance.” As she stopped to collect her thoughts, a fly landed on the room’s lone window, whose layers of grime obscured the view of the church parking lot. “It’s just so frustrating. I’m starting to think I’ll never see myself in print. Not in Western Romance, not in Holsters & Hard-Ons, not even in The Sensual Buckaroo.”
Everyone nodded in commiseration save the woman in the Sylvia Plath shirt, who was hyperventilating as she shook a tiny fist at the ceiling.
“This calls for a Lisinopril,” the woman said, her face as red as a handmaid’s dress. She ripped a bottle from her purse, tore off the lid, and slapped a pill into her mouth. “Sorry, all, but the sad tales of spurned newcomers really spike my—”
“We know, Brenda-Mae, we know,” said Kathyleen. “The sad tales of spurned newcomers really spike your hypertension. You say it every time.”
“Doesn’t make it any less true.”
Thom waved the laminated sheet around like a white flag and said, “Anyway, thanks for coming, Hope. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the fresh, helpless face of a burgeoning author in distress.”
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Hope said, “aside from picking up a healthier habit, like Sudoku, or crack cocaine. But it’s the only thing that makes me happy—telling stories of lovestruck cowpokes and the women they adore. So I can’t stop, not even when I know that all that awaits on the other side is an avalanche of declines. Maybe there’s a touch of the masochist in me. Do you guys ever feel like that?”
Seated across from her, the man in the full bondage suit undid his hood’s mouth zipper. “All the time,” he said through the slit. “There’s something about being turned down that turns me on like nothing else.”
“You’re not supposed to talk, Ralph,” said Kathyleen. “Remember, those are your rules, not ours.”
“I’m sorry, master. Do you wish to spank me now?”
“Lord, no. I’m not your master. All I’m saying is, what’s the point of rules, if all you do is break them?”
The man to Ralph’s right—who’d decided on the full Burroughs both in style and in suitcase—removed his fedora and pointed it at the author of Purrcules the Avenger. “I’ll remind you, Kathyleen, that the last rule on every list of writing rules ever made is, ‘All rules are meant to be broken.’”
“Tell that to the magazines that only read stories in Shunn’s format.”
“Not on your life,” Leo said. “It would reduce even further my already slim chances of appearing in Bedraggled.”
“I didn’t think so.”
Hope sipped her coffee. It smelled like dark-roasted depression.
“I’m more concerned,” she said, “with finding someone who believes in what I write in the same way I do. I think my stories are good and worth reading, and it’d be nice to find an editor who thinks so, too.”
Her giant eyes blazing like swimming pools in Hell, Kathyleen bounded from her seat again and began to speak in tongues. As this was going on, Leo drifted over to the table, grabbed a doughnut, and shoved it whole into his face.
Thom, who’d plugged his ears with his thumbs, turned to Hope when Kathyleen was finished and said, “You mentioned how you can’t stop writing. Why do you think that is?”
“Like I said, I love telling stories. It helps me bring order and meaning to a world that seems to have lost those things. But also, maybe I’m just a sucker for punishment. I don’t know. Why can’t you quit? As writers, we do what we do because we’re compelled to. In my case, at least, I’d say it’s an addiction.”
“Tell me about it.” Leo, sitting down, brushed the crumbs on his tie into his lap. “Since Granta passed on my last story, I’ve descended so deeply into drink that I might need to hit some A.A. meetings on top of these.”
“What was your story called?” Hope said.
“‘Armageddon from the Perspective of the Hair of Ken Burns.’”
Kathyleen’s eyes grew to the size of Pulitzer medals. “You submitted that to Granta? Why not Blunderland? At least there it’d have a chance.”
“Couldn’t,” said Leo. He lit a cigarette, state laws notwithstanding, and blew smoke rings à la Alice’s caterpillar. “They’ve banned me for life.”
The whole room wanted to know why.
“Their editor said my piece was ‘worse than week-old horseshit and a hat made of nails,’ so I threatened him and his loved ones with nuclear annihilation. Let’s just say he didn’t take it well.”
Brenda-Mae squinched her face up in disgust and muttered something about submission etiquette under her breath.
“Don’t you dare talk to me about etiquette, witch,” said Leo, tapping cigarette ashes to the floor. “I’m not the one who submitted zombie stuff to a journal that explicitly doesn’t ask for it.”
“How was I supposed to know?” Brenda-Mae said.
“It was right there in the name: We Don’t Accept Zombie Stuff.”
“That was before I started tracking my submissions in Duotrope.”
“Doesn’t make it any less egregious,” said Kathyleen.
Hope, having finished her coffee, went back for more. She filled her cup and a second to the brim before returning to her seat.
“The problem,” Brenda-Mae said, “and you all know this, is the glut of journals. Searching through them is enough to drive a writer insane, even with Duotrope.”
“Not to mention that the editors ask that you familiarize yourself with the work they put out before sending in your own,” Thom said.
“Which means you have to—ugh—read one or more stories already published,” said Kathyleen, pretend-spitting into make-believe wind. “If it’s subscription-only, you’ve got to pay for an edition. Is there anybody here crazy enough to do a thing like that?”
“Fat chance,” said Leo, and then he coughed up a splodge of lung butter.
The group agreed with violent nods, like a circle of bobbleheads in a tornado outbreak.
Hope drank from one cup and then the other. “I’ve never bought a journal. I’ll read the stories online, occasionally, but usually I don’t have the time.”
“Your MFA program keeping you busy?” said Thom.
“No, just writing on my own. I’m not even in a workshop. Too afraid of them, I guess.”
“Don’t be,” Leo said. “It’s not like the old days, when a story in second person led to pulled hair and broken noses. Now they’ve got special rules that govern the discussions.”
“And you would know, wouldn’t you?” said Brenda-Mae.
Leo chucked the cigarette to the floor, stamped it out with one of his brogues, and lit up another. “I was in a workshop once. One day a classmate called me ‘Burgess Lite,’ so I went after him with my nunchaku. Let’s just say we weren’t invited back to the next session.”
“You and your classmate?” Hope said. She didn’t think a verbal insult should’ve been grounds for immediate expulsion.
“No, I and my nunchaku.”
Kathyleen said, “Whether you’ve got an MFA or not, you’d figure there’d be space for you somewhere, with all the journals out there. But it turns out everybody and their brother’s a writer these days, and they’re clogging up submissions. Cat’s Fantasy has been closed for seven months.”
“Molly’s Bloom hasbeen for eight,” said Brenda-Mae.
“Uriah’s Heap is now at nine,” Thom lamented.
“And Severin’s Stripes,” said Ralph, “hasn’t been open for a year. I check every day, sometimes twice.”
At this, the room dropped to silence. Leo bowed his head, fedora over heart. Kathyleen’s eyes sank like two suns under the horizon. Brenda-Mae sucked a thumb while Thom plucked lint from his beard. The only sound was the squeak of latex on metal as Ralph squirmed in his chair in an effort, apparently, to make himself as uncomfortable as he possibly could.
Hope broke the stillness with a nervous cough. “So, what happens if one of you has a story accepted somewhere?”
Thom was trying, and failing, to put the lint back onto his face. “That’s only happened once. There used to be six of us, see, until Rodrigo finally had one of his lists placed in McSweeney’s.”
Hope’s eyes danced with the slightest of grins. “That’s so great. What was the list?”
“‘Twelve Lists I’ve Had Rejected from McSweeney’s.’”
Everyone except Hope crossed their arms and grimaced.
“And this Rodrigo—he doesn’t come to meetings anymore?”
Thom’s look betrayed impatience with the girl’s naivete. “What do you think? Once a member is published, they renounce all ties to us. Or, rather, we renounce all ties to them—by barring them from our doors, never speaking to them again, and, most crucially of all, unfollowing them on Twitter.”
Now it was just Hope who scowled.
“I know I’m new here, you guys,” she said, “but doesn’t that seem a little, I don’t know, petty and unproductive?”
“How do you mean?” Kathyleen said.
“For one thing, Rodrigo was a part of your lives. Who knows how many hours he spent here with you? Instead of shutting him out of your lives, couldn’t you have been the least bit happy for him?”
“Fat chance,” said Leo.
“In that case, you still could’ve used these meetings to talk about what he did to get accepted—albeit with a list. Didn’t it cross your mind that it might’ve been valuable to learn from his experience, to apply those lessons to your own writing? If one of you were ever published, I’d be happy to hear about what made it possible. That’d be a more constructive use of everybody’s time and effort, don’t you think?”
The room went quiet again as all five members of Unpublished Anonymous thought about this. Then, at once, they burst into laughter. They cackled and snorted and stomped on the floor. Their faces contorted into monstrous grotesques of themselves, their eyes twisted, their cheeks puffed. As this was going on, the fly took off from the window, circled around the room, and flung itself, kamikaze-style, into Ralph’s slit of a mouth. Lurching and squeaking, Ralph pulled the mask’s zipper shut and swallowed the bug whole.
“Ab—ha!—absolutely not,” Leo said, his eyes bleary with tears and doughnut crumbs.
Brenda-Mae yanked the Lisinopril from her purse again and scarfed what remained of the bottle. “Kudos to you, kiddo,” she choked. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Hope guzzled coffee, first from one cup, and then the other, until she’d emptied both.
“I’m not trying to be funny,” she said. “I’m trying to understand. In A.A., they have the Twelve Steps, which they use to get better, right? But you’re saying you don’t have anything like that in Unpublished Anonymous, which means that when things don’t go your way, you just sit around and bitch about it. Am I onto something here, or am I as mistaken as a zombie submission to We Don’t Accept Zombie Stuff?”
Thom had given up on restoring the lint to his beard. He dropped the clumps in his lap and said, “No, we pretty much just sit around and bitch about it.”
“It gives us purpose,” Brenda-Mae submitted.
“Makes us stronger,” Kathyleen concurred.
“Steels our souls against dejection for the next time we’re declined,” Leo rasped. “You may not have noticed, but we’re the toughest set of writers this side of Hemingway.”
The cups crushed in Hope’s hands as she pressed them once more to her chest. “Or what if, maybe,” she said, standing up, “you’re just five cranky, miserable shitheads—have you ever noticed that?”
Tearing her cups to pieces, she moved for the door, leaving a Styrofoam trail in her wake.
“Of course we have, and isn’t that the point?” said Thom. “Where are you going?”
“Anywhere but here.” She opened the door and stood at the threshold, her back to the group. “Maybe I will apply to an MFA program, or at least face my fears and join a workshop. Whatever else I might do couldn’t be any worse than this.”
“But things were going so well. Give us time, Hope. Sit with us a while longer, and I’m sure you’ll feel at home.”
Hope turned to face them. “That’s the thing, Thom with an H,” she said. “I don’t want to feel at home here, not for a second.”
“Why in hell not?” said Leo, whose lighter now refused to spark.
The girl’s eyes glimmered, not with tears but resolution. “Because, unfortunately, and after careful consideration, I’ve decided that you’re not a good fit for me at this time.”
For several moments, everyone sat in silence. Having hurled his Bic into a potted plastic ficus, Leo produced a blowtorch from his suitcase and lit another cigarette. Thom gathered the lint from his lap and put it in the pocket of his sport coat. Then the sun broke through the clouds and shone through the small window. A square of light reflected off the floor like a forgotten, empty page.
“You’ll know where to find us,” Thom said, “the next time you’re rejected.”
“The next time I’m rejected,” she said, “will be the first time it doesn’t turn me into a sullen little bitch.”
Hope went out and slammed the door closed. The sound that reverberated through the hallway reminded her of endings—or was it beginnings? Still unsure, she took a breath. Then she smiled and decided that it might as well be both.
Josh Cook is an MFA candidate at Lindenwood University. In 2009, he earned an MA from Indiana University with a thesis on Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. His fiction has appeared in journals including Across the Margin, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, and Sage Cigarettes. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two dogs.