When we begin writing, we’re in touch with our deepest and most creative selves. It’s joyful. It’s fun. We’re walking the tightrope of success–and in constant danger of falling off. Those falls come from rejection. But rejection also brings many positives: life lessons about balance, reframing, and disaster preparedness.
In this post I’m going to talk about rejection in all its forms, from the responses we get from our families, to feedback from writing groups, to agents’ rejections. Later on, we may face rejection from publishers and, ultimately, disinterest from readers.
Criticism need not cause you to put work aside and question its worth. Rejection is not fun. But, how we handle rejection can mean the difference between achieving our dreams and letting them fizzle out. If you want to write, you have to dust yourself off after a fall. You must be wedded to process, not outcome.
Showing Our Work
The moment we show another person our work, we open ourselves to criticism. The shrug or eye-roll of a spouse can send us into a funk for days. Too many “helpful suggestions” from our writing group can trigger a migraine or cause us to lose faith that our writing will ever be “good enough.”
If you are going to be a writer, you will be rejected, not just once, buy many times. It’s virtually impossible to develop the hide of an armadillo, even if we’d sometimes like to find a way to let those barbs of criticism bounce off. Instead, know that you are in good company. In their day writers like Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were occasionally maligned by reviewers. Rejection so wounded Thomas Hardy that he stopped writing fiction.
I hope I can demonstrate that anticipating rejection will help us deal with it when it comes.
Five Scenarios Where You Can Expect Rejection
You can expect to feel uncomfortable when your spouse or members of your writing group make negative comments on your story or stories. Negative comments can feel personal, even though people don’t mean to undermine your confidence. (It’s also quite possible that these folks have no idea how to write or what good writing looks like, so take their feedback with a grain of salt.)
When authors muster the courage to send out work, they will inevitably need to prepare for rejection. Magazines have two kinds of rejection letters. One is a “thanks for sending it” letter. The other is a “think of us in the future” letter. Both hurt, and in the case of the encouraging bong letter, you’re left wondering why they didn’t just say “yes.”
Eventually, authors finish their novels and try to find agents. Hunting for an agent means you’re riding a roller coaster of disappointment. The “up” comes when the agent says, “Send me the whole manuscript.” The down comes when they’ve held the manuscript for months and decided they “just didn’t fall in love with your characters.” At that point a rejection can feel like a body blow. You were close. It’s tempting to give up.
A fourth case of rejection occurs when an agent can’t find an editor willing to publish your book. You’d think that would be the ultimate downer, but there’s one more case of rejection authors face: rejection from readers. This is the most wounding of all. We’ve managed to run the publishing gauntlet and get our book into print. Now, the reviews come in, but they’re not what we’d anticipated.
Imagine how you’d feel if Amazon’s and Goodreads’ reviewers say this: “I didn’t like any of the characters in this book.” “I couldn’t relate to these characters on any level.” What? Not like my characters? But, they’re my children, the author thinks. How dare this stranger insult my children. By this time it’s too lake to fix whatever’s wrong. The book is out there in the world.
Dustin Hoffman’s Advice
However, writers who are in it for the long haul know that they’ll experience rejection. That’s because writing is a highly subjective endeavor. Writing, along with painting, acting, music, theater, film-making, and dance, have one thing in common. The audiences for these art forms will like one artist’s work, but detest another’s.
In 2003 I attended my grandson Mick’s graduation. That year the speaker for NYU’s TISCH School of Performing Arts was Dustin Hoffman, whose son was also graduating. Hoffman spoke extemporaneously about the job of an actor. I’ll have to paraphrase his remarks because no record of his speech exists.
Hoffman likened the job of an actor to the job of a tightrope walker. Every day, he said, the tightrope walker climbs to the platform and slides out along the tightrope. In the middle of the tightrope, he finds three chairs, balanced one atop the other.
- The first chair is I AM A MAN. The tightrope walker climbs into it and sits.
- The second chair is I AM AN ACTOR. The tightrope walker climbs and sits.
- The third chair is I AM A FAILURE.
On that chair of failure, the tightrope walker must balance until it is time to come down. The following day, and all the days of his life, he must repeat this sequence.
Robert De Niro on Rejection
In 2016, Robert De Niro delivered the commencement address at NYU’s TISCH School of the Arts. “On this day of triumphantly graduating,” De Niro said, “a new door is opening for you. A door to a lifetime of rejection. It’s inevitable. It’s what graduates call the ‘the real world’… Rejection might sting, but my feeling is that it often has very little to do with you. When you’re auditioning or pitching, the director or producer or investor might just have something or someone different in mind. That’s just how it is.”
Rejection may come from forces beyond your control.
That’s just how it is in writing, too. You’re constantly bumping up against other people’s preferences. And yet, in the end, you can’t know why the agent or editor rejected you, or why Amazon’s reviewers left hurtful comments.
It’s impossible to inoculate yourself against the pain of these experiences. You can only have a strategy for how you’re going to deal with rejection when it happens.
Sylvester Stallone’s Wake-Up Call
Few actors have taken more real-life hits than the creator of Rocky Balboa. According to Wikipedia, “[Sylvester] Stallone had his first starring role in the soft core pornography feature film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). He was paid US$200 for two days’ work. Stallone later explained that he had done the film out of desperation after being evicted from his apartment and finding himself homeless for several days. He has also said that he slept three weeks in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City prior to seeing a casting notice for the film. In the actor’s words, ‘it was either do that movie or rob someone, because I was at the end – the very end – of my rope.’ ”
Here’s what Sylvester Stallone says about rejection:
I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.
Make a Disaster Plan
Develop a strategy for how you’re going to deal with rejection. The simplest way is to set a time limit for how long you’re going to be upset. “I will let myself be upset for five days,” you could say.
Put a “moping time” on Google calendar. Block out an hour or two. Do a “fee-write” about your anger and frustration. Let the feelings all flow out. At the end of that time period, stop writing, and pick up the next day where you left off. By the end of five days, you will feel dismayed that you’ve spent so much time “crying over spilt milk.”
Another strategy is to “reframe.” Call the rejection by another name. Author Toni Morrison says that she views rejections as “gathering data.” By that she means that she pushes negative feedback away from herself. If you can manage to view negative feedback as data, that will shield you from the worst of the hurt.
Here’s another simple way to visualize rejection’s “pile of doo doo.” Author Ron Carlson says, “Step over it.”
If you cannot get past the speed bumps of rejection, you are allowing negative feedback to interfere with your happiness. Your writing is not you. It is just writing. Ultimately, your happiness depends on your family and friends and the way you choose to live your life.
All Creative Endeavors Involve Rejection
Between 2007 and 2016, the number of new books published in the United States exploded from 600,000 per year to 1 million. Book deals became harder to land. At the same time, the number of readers was shrinking. If you just go by the numbers and think about the odds, you’ll see that writers face an uphill battle when it comes to finding agents, publishers, and readers.
However, no matter how many times we get knocked down, we are not alone. Artists, photographers, actors, and filmmakers must all come to terms with the very real possibility that they must–if they want to have a career–sit in the chair of FAILURE. Knowing that we’re in good company–the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone–might just help reduce the sting.