Dealing with writing rejection (aka on robustness)

A former student emailed me to point out that I might have sounded less than empathetic in my last post. While it’s true that I think you must be robust to cope with life as a fiction writer, I’m not unsympathetic (at least I hope I’m not) to those who struggle with rejection. In fact, I’ve coached writers whose main problem is dealing with the no, and there are as many techniques for getting over rejection as there are people. But one thing always holds true – if you don’t think you’re good enough without the acceptance, you won’t think you’re good enough with it.

What does this mean for writers? It means we’re in a doubly damned business – it’s creative, so we have to find that elusive spark that allows us to even enter the race: and it’s competitive, so once we’re in the race, we have to beat a large number of others for every acceptance. Or, of course, we have to get used to losing – frequently.

I came from an industry where rejection IS the business – if you’re a model, you get used to being told ‘no’ a lot. You also get used to standing in front of a couple of guys, with half a dozen of your peer group behind you, and hearing the guys say ‘too fat’, ‘too thin’, ‘funny nose’, ‘bad boobs’ or whatever qualifies the ‘no’ they hand you, and they say it loud enough for your peer group to hear too. Funnily enough (or maybe not) models are the most generous and supportive folk I’ve ever come across, except for long distance runners. The big advantage of this way of doing things is that you can look across at the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life, somebody much more gorgeous than you could ever be, and hear the guy say 'no' – and know he’s a complete idiot!

The disadvantage of writing is that you tend to get your ‘no’ in private – and you don’t often have any way of knowing if the ‘guy’ is an idiot or not.

So what do you do?

Build yourself a life.
Don’t define yourself through, and only through, your writing. Have hobbies and interests that remain entirely personal and non-competitive (this writer has been making a lot of bread this week, as she’s worked through various issues around the Willesden Herald and the resulting email/phone call deluge which has, to be honest, been something of a drain on her writing time). I’m a terrible embroiderer, but I like to sit down with silks and fabric and spend an hour or so just making stitches. I don’t show my embroidery to people – in fact I sometimes throw it away as soon as its finished – because for me it’s the process that matters, not the outcome.

Don’t take rejection personally. Easy to say, difficult to do. Building a circle of writer friends can help. I knew two other writers on the Willesden shortlist and have since started a fascinating email correspondence with a third; it’s given me a chance to vent, grouch, laugh, and generally kick back with people who’ve had the same experience, and that’s good for one’s self-esteem and one’s karma.

Live in confidence, not expectation. This is the toughest one, and it applies to everybody, not just writers. It’s the one I struggle with every day. I am confident that I will get a novel published in the next year or so, but I am not ‘waiting’ for anything to happen. People who put their lives, hopes, desires, ambitions, and quotidian pleasures on hold while they wait for the ‘big thing’, tend to die disappointed. I am guilty of this, and I’ve caught myself thinking ‘Oh, I’ll book a trip to India when my novel is published’, or even ‘Hmm, I’ll buy those expensive shoes when I’ve sold another three short stories’. Denying yourself a pleasure today (assuming you can afford it) for a future that may be indefinitely postponed is simply daft. Posthumous publication does you, the writer, no good at all. If you are confident that things will happen at the right time, you are more inclined to get on with other things, and those other things, more often than not, deliver the very ‘big thing’ you were expecting all along.

The picture shows rejection bread – with sunflower seeds!

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