Rejection: So good it hurts

Writing is rejection. But until the rejections start rolling in, it’s hard to gauge just how painful that is. Writers know rejection is part of the game, but the reality can sometimes be a crushing, or even fatal, force to our creativity, to our very mental health. But rejection can offer us something valuable, a chance to improve and become stronger.

At a Meet-the-Agent event, panelist Jo Unwin said pretty much that. I felt the looming doom as questions that had been haunting me about my work-in-progress came calling. I leaned over to a friend and said something to the effect of “My story’s just not special enough.”

Not long after that, I had my one-on-one with the agent. I knew I wasn’t going to be “discovered” but my heart didn’t. When she pointed out that very weakness I had just admitted to my friend, I nodded my head but it was purely mechanical. It was me trying to hold myself together as the big, big belief I had been nurturing in myself, the belief that all the writers before me said I needed to develop, that I really can do this, settled itself back on Earth and then withered.

Rejection sucks, even when you know it’s coming

Rejection of any kind sucks. The guy who says no thanks after you worked up the courage for days to ask him for coffee. The job of a lifetime that says they are going with someone else.

Somehow we translate the truth, that this one thing is not right for me right now for any number of reasons, means that we, as the whole package, as the most vulnerable human us, are not worthy. In other words, failure.

Our writing is as much a part of us as the fingers with which we grasp our pens. The commitment it takes to even say the words out loud to another human being: “No more talk. I am going to write this book.” Every step on this journey is a marathon. Cliche, but for good reason.

“Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead” — Gene Fowler

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.” — T.S. Eliot

So how can we expect to finish a project when all around us, everyone, everywhere, tells us that we will be rejected–A lot?

There is a skill to master. We have to become a bit split personality. Watch out!

We tap into our creative mind, the open, fearless, curious parts of us that can create compelling human or otherworldly tales. Then, we must switch out of that realm and into a receptive, detached, curious in a different way person that can kill our darlings.

I’ve been working with editors for more than a decade and this is one lesson that is hard to swallow no matter how long you’ve been at it. Clinging to something that doesn’t work is futile. We have to consider that our beloved baby could be flawed and then we have to be willing to learn how to improve it.

What to do with rejection

Everyone says writers have to grow a thick skin. But what does that mean? Do successful writers become automatons with unresponsive neural pathways, the ones that explode when us mortals get a document back filled with red ink? Or the notice that our short story didn’t even make the long list? Or … crickets. Just no word, whatsoever. Of course not. But they’ve learned their own methods for passing through the inevitable emotional tangle of rejection without letting it snare them.

There are two paths to take when faced with rejection, the downward spiral into despair or the steep climb up.

Side note: This fork in the literary path came into heated debate with one writer admitting to a newspaper audience that she was rejected and therefore had failed. Her anguish struck a chord with readers who both felt the crushing pain of repeated rejection and those who called her a quitter. It made for some fascinating discussion in my critique group. 

But before the fork, there is a place we sit before moving in either direction. That’s where the hard work waits.

When rejection comes, we can’t expect to feel numb to its effects. But what we do with it will set us on our path.

It’s like moving through the stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You might want to get mad at your editor, tell them how wrong they are. You might want to write a nasty note to the publication that rejected your story. Or you might feel trapped in depression, feeling like you don’t know why you thought you could play this writing game to begin with.

Tips for accepting rejection

  1. Acknowledge how crappy you feel to get another rejection. Journal about it. Post about it in one of your online writing communities. And then, after a mourning period, ask yourself how you can learn from it and get back to work.
  2. Make your mourning period brief. Go for a run or something that gets the feel-good hormones flowing. Watch out for crutches, the chocolate croissant at the bakery, the bottle of litchi rum in your cupboard. They may make you feel worse in the end. Dwelling in that state of heartache can become its own kind of crutch, too. It can build up the walls of fear and make returning to work almost impossible.
  3. Look for any possible silver lining. When you’re ready to take the first step, take a look at what the rejection was really saying. They didn’t think your work was ready but complimented your writing. Awesome! Put it on a sticky note in front of your writing space. They sent a form rejection, okay, is it time to hire an editor and listen for the hard truths? Was this submission the last possible home for your piece? Okay, is it time to retire a book to the drawer and start something fresh? There is often a lesson, small or large, in even the most painful rejections. Unless someone just says I hated it… and then, well, isn’t there a lesson to learn in that our writing isn’t for everyone.
  4. Make rejections your goal. You’ve gotten 100 rejections, which means you’ve put your heart on the line 100 times. Your dedication makes you stronger and is something to be proud of, too. A writer once told me to plan a 100th Rejection celebration. Make it something to be lighthearted about to help take the sting out. Make a list of your favorite books and find out how many times they were rejected. Same with authors, how many unpublished works are in their drawers. Strive to be like them, the ones who take the punches and learn from them and then get back to work.
  5. Keep your eyes on your own situation. Don’t look around and say, well she wrote a crap book and it got published, why not me. This is a fast road to becoming that angry old man who yells at the kids for walking across his lawn. Other people’s successes have no impact on your ability to tell a compelling story. Comparisons in any aspect of life get us nowhere. Actually, they hold us back. Don’t get caught in the mental game of “if I could only get to X level.” Writers at every level have to face rejection. So keep your eyes on the project in front of you.
  6. Adjust your plan and get to it. You’ve taken in your lesson, you’ve thought long and hard about the truth of the rejection, not the judgmental voice in your head. The hard part may be facing your work again. If your work-in-progress is still too sensitive, try starting a new project, even if you think it’ll go straight from notebook to trash can at the end of the hour. That’s fine. Just move your pen. The words will start to flow. If you’re stuck, pick any random object in front of you and ask some what-if questions about it. Pick one of a billion writing prompts from your craft books or online. The idea is to start writing and then you can get back to examining your work with a more critical eye.
  7. Remind yourself why you’re writing. Take some time to touch base with the original ideas, the ones before critique groups, and fearful rewriting of something to fall in line with trends. Be honest.

What helps you get back to work after rejection, or a string of them? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.