Rejection: A Four-Letter Word for Writers
Is rejection of your writing a rejection of you?
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that…most of us will do just about anything to avoid personal rejection.
And because your writing so closely reflects and reveals yourself—your voice, your personality, the characters you breathe life into, the worlds that spring from your imagination, the stories you choose to tell, even your favorite turn of phrase—you might regard rejection of your writing as rejection of you.
Well, of course! How would you not?
You pour yourself—your essence—into your writing. Even when you’re not writing about yourself, you’re writing from yourself. And so repudiation of your work, especially by someone you respect, is painful. And you don’t want to experience that pain.
On the other hand, do you really want to be the sort of person who maintains such an objective distance from your work that you don’t feel even a twinge of hurt, anger, resentment, or humiliation when an editor or agent finds your metaphors “clichéd” or your characters “unlikable” or your storyline “not believable” (never mind that it’s something that actually happened to you)? I doubt you want to be—or are even capable of being—so detached.
Rejection is an occupational hazard, and it’s a rare writer who hasn’t been wounded on the job. I want to share with you a story of the rejection that hurt me the most.
I’d published pieces in The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and Salon when a New York Times editor responded favorably to an idea I pitched him on women now working a “third shift”—not just their paying job and taking care of most of the childcare and household duties but also spending enormous time and money to be beautiful, in shape, hot. The friggin’ New York Times was interested! As a former New Yorker (Long Islander, but still), reading the Times every Sunday when I was a teen was a mark of sophistication, a sophistication I didn’t possess anywhere else in my life. I’d never expected to see my byline in the paper, and now the opportunity was mine to seize…if I didn't blow it.
The editor wanted to take a look at a draft of my piece before he committed to publishing it. I worked my butt off on it, clarifying the angle, making my arguments airtight, sharpening the language to be hard-hitting and also clever. Waiting for his email response was three parts excruciating and one part exciting. And then, there it was in my inbox. Not what I was hoping for. He remained interested but said he’d work with me on the article. This did not portend well for it getting published. But at that point there was still hope…until there wasn’t.
With my second draft, I apparently still didn’t get what the editor wanted or didn’t have the talent to produce it, and so he politely gave up on me. It confirmed my fears that maybe my writing wasn’t always as strong as my ideas. I felt second rate, humiliated. My pride was shredded. And that’s not an unusual response.
I think the worst ego blows for writers fall into two categories: The first is when you’re really confident about—even smitten with—your own work but it gets rejected. In this case, you’re stunned. You feel not just wounded but foolish, like you must have been delusional about your own talent. Or, if you’re someone who goes right for a defense mechanism when “attacked,” you feel like you’re the sane one and the rejector is delusional, which isn’t much comfort, either.
The second is when someone affirms your own doubts about yourself and your abilities. You take this so much to heart, you become convinced that you can’t improve your writing or that every editor would also have turned down your work or that you were an idiot to have ever believed it was publishable. This is the sort of ego blow I experienced.
Since I’m asking you to be honest with yourself about your page fright, I’ve got to be honest about mine. I’ve never pitched anything to the Times again, not even when my former editor at The Boston Globe—the one who always responded to my pitches and greenlighted them 90% of the time—became an editor and ultimately head of the Times’ opinion pages. I’ve pre-emptively avoided a potential rejection and deprived myself of the possibility of attaining a dream. All because I simply can’t bear to be turned down by someone who once valued my work. I loved writing those pieces for the Globe and working with this editor, and I don’t want to ruin the warm feelings I associate with that time.
Notice how there’s some logic to my reasoning. This is true for so many of our anxieties and doubts about writing and getting published, and that’s what makes page fright so difficult to wrangle with. It’s not that all of our self-defeating thoughts are outlandish. It’s that they are steeped in a toxic brew of reality and unreality, grounded suspicions and airy delusions, clear-eyed perceptions and clouded judgment.
That’s the great challenge, isn’t it? To see the illogical fears for what they are (stories we tell ourselves, stories others have told us about ourselves, defense mechanisms, etc.) and thereby diminish their power over us. And to see the logical fears for what they are, accept the attendant risks, and decide which ones are worth taking.
Not every risk is worth the potential consequences. But I’m here to tell you that most writers I know, including myself, are shying away from too many risks out of an outsized fear of rejection. Don’t let that be you.
Have you received a rejection of your writing that really stung? Or have you stopped yourself from submitting work out of fear of being turned down? Please share your experiences in the comments below, and feel free to reply to each others’ responses. Thanks, as always, for being so open with this wonderful (and growing) writing community!