I try to avoid rejection at all costs. Does that mean I give up easily? Hell no!
Any article about rejection will tell you to never let the fear of hearing “no” keep you from doing something. They’re right.
Then how do I avoid rejection, you ask? I work my butt off to be the best, and I do whatever it takes to get what I want. I also rarely take no for an answer.
It generally works, although I’ve also been pretty fortunate. Or I’m just so persistent that people tell me yes just to get me to stop emailing them. Either way, my quest for acceptance works out in my favor.
But I have been told no before. I’ve faced some pretty crushing rejections in my life — ones that I didn’t think I could recover from. One particular rejection put me in a nine-month funk, but we’ll get to that later.
I used to think that rejection was synonymous with failure. They told me no because I suck, end of story. I also went through a phase when I thought the world was out to get me. They told me no because they didn’t “get” the kind of art I’d created; they didn’t understand my vision.
Both conclusions are not only wrong, they are also incredibly harmful.
I recently came across an article published by The Guardian, entitled “What I’m really thinking: the failed novelist.” The anonymous novelist rants about her failure after having had a successful academic career and small wins as a writer. In her pity party, she blames publishers for not loving her work and belittles peers who have been published in her stead.
I get it. I know exactly where she is coming from. After working for years on her craft, during which time she was affirmed with awards and publications, she finally hit a roadblock that didn’t seem to move. It’s frustrating. But is it the world’s fault? Is it the fault of the writer whose work Random House did decide to publish?
Nope. It’s neither the world’s nor anyone else’s fault.
You’re Not Ready … And Neither Was I
In response to The Guardian’s article, author V.E. Schwab went on a little rant of her own, which I happen to completely agree with.
She brilliantly tweets:
And goes on to say:
The failed novelist probably hadn’t experienced much rejection in her life. She probably went to school for creative writing or the like, which, while it does help you hone your craft, doesn’t exactly prepare you for the harsh realities of the real world. What it does do is boost your ego.
I know, because I was in the same situation.
In high school, I decided that I liked writing and that I was good at it. My English teachers loved me, recommended me for the Advanced Placement classes (which I aced), and installed me as the Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook. Those affirmations informed my chosen career path and what I would major in during college: creative writing.
While every high school teacher tells you that college is “the real world,” it is far from it. Though the classes and workshops I attended to complete my degree were challenging, they also coddled me. I received extensive feedback on my writing from professors and peers alike, with comments on what wasn’t working and many suggested changes. And yet, I would still get As.
If you grew up in the American education system, the grades were all that mattered. College proved to be no different. Even with all the feedback I was getting, my As gave me a false sense of greatness. That, the small competitions I won, and the praise from my professors, all added up to a grossly inflated ego.
My academic accomplishments made me believe the writing and publishing industry was going to be exactly like college and that I would be an instant success. So much so, that when I decided to apply for some of the top Master of Fine Arts programs in the country with a less-than-hundred-page portfolio, I was sure I would be a shoo-in.
Talk about a rude awakening.
I’m not joking when I say I applied for the top two screenwriting programs in the world after three months of screenwriting experience and one script to show for it. That was a laughably bad decision (and a waste of a couple hundred dollars).
I was devastated when I got rejected from every single program. I graduated summa cum laude with honors, but I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life. So I moved home and moped around for nine months, doing odd jobs here and there to make money and get my parents off my back.
That was the first time I had really experienced rejection when it came to my career. Sure, I had been rejected by friends and loved ones, but my talent was never in question. I was always so sure of myself, and my ego had been boosted too high. So when it was time for me to be knocked down, it was a pretty long fall to the bottom.
The Age of Entitlement
Here’s the thing … I hate when baby boomers complain that millennials are entitled. If they had been raised by parents who told them they were special and could do anything they put their minds to, they’d be pissed off when things didn’t go their way too.
The people complaining about millenials are the same people who raised us to believe that we deserved success. When we finally got to the real world and realized that success was not guaranteed (especially in the cut-throat economy that our parents created), of course we were disillusioned and upset!
But this is what we’ve been given, so we have to adapt.
It took me nine very depressing months to figure out why I had been rejected. Spoiler alert: it was my ego and my unwillingness to accept criticism.
I wasn’t ready for the big leagues; I wasn’t ready for success. I still believed that rejection and failure were synonymous.
In this, I was no different from the failed novelist.
She was raised in a similar environment, and believed that she was bound for greatness right away. She was naive and didn’t consider the politics (read: utter bullshit) that is the writing/publishing business.
She felt entitled to a book deal because she deigned to write a book, and when she didn’t get one, she threw a fit and quit writing entirely.
I guess that’s one way to deal with rejection …
In my case, I used those nine months to write through my pain, thicken my skin, and learn about the industry I so desperately wanted to be a part of. To be honest, I had to go to therapy to work through my issues and really become introspective about myself and my ego. I also met someone who acted as a muse — both inspiring me and encouraging me to write more. Not everyone has that privilege.
By writing for and about this person, I began to realize that my goals for writing had been selfish and small-minded. I used to write for the recognition, for the grades, and for the success it would bring me. And when my writing was rejected, I believed it was because I wasn’t good enough. The opposite of success was failure, and I was therefore a failure.
But in those nine months, I wrote as a way to express myself and connect with another person. Suddenly, there was no such thing as failure. As long as I could make one person feel something, I was on the right path. The rejection I had faced before seemed superficial because my motives for writing had been superficial.
With this newfound understanding of myself, I rededicated my time to learning about the craft and the business. And boy, did I learn a lot.
The Goal Shouldn’t Be Success
Another nugget of knowledge shared by V.E. Schwab was this:
Like the failed novelist, my reasons for writing were the rewards. The competition wins, the acceptance letters, the fame and fortune.
That’s not why you should be writing. That’s not why you should be doing anything. You’ll never be truly fulfilled if you think that way.
It took a few sessions of therapy and falling in love to understand why I wanted to write. But as I said before, not everyone has that privilege.
Everyone wants to be fulfilled in their lives somehow. Many turn to charity work as a way to help others, some go into politics to change the world, and some choose to create.
Do you know your reason for writing?
This is a very important question, because your answer dictates whether you’re truly ready to put yourself out there or not.
As V.E. Schwab said, if your reason for writing is publication and fame, you’re not ready. You’re focused on the destination and not the journey.
Now, I’m not telling you that there is one “good reason” for writing and that the rest are shit. There are so many reasons for you to dedicate yourself to writing. Maybe you’re doing it for a family member; maybe you’re doing it for yourself. Maybe you’re doing it to change the world or spread knowledge.
The only thing that makes your reason “good” is its ability to outlast rejection and even failure. The failed novelist’s short-sighted reason for writing was to gain success, so when she was rejected, she had no reason to go on. By contrast, if you write for yourself, there’s very little that the universe can do to stop you from writing.
One great way to figure out why you are writing is to stop writing. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Without food, your stomach makes noise. Without writing, your “reason” will too. When I wasn’t writing, my depression got worse and I felt disconnected from the people around me. I only started to recover my happiness and my friendships when I wrote again. I figured out that my reasons for writing are creative expression and personal connections.
If you stop writing and you suddenly feel that something’s missing in your life, that should give you an idea of how truly important it is to you. If you feel no difference, well then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate.
Write because you have a story to tell. Create because it’s what you love to do — what you have to do. The success will follow, because the meaning of success will change. Then you’ll be ready.
I knew I needed to learn more about screenwriting before I would get anywhere in the industry, so I spent the next year learning and teaching myself how to accept criticism and how to “play the game.”
Playing the Game
During the year of my redemption, I took on the role of Content Producer at Craft Your Content. To say this job has helped me would be an understatement.
I learned that being a creative is exactly like being an entrepreneur. The creative industry has profit margins and quotas and trends that they need to follow to break even. There are ups and downs, and rejection just happens. It’s a game that creatives have to know how to play to get anywhere in the business.
We get some great submissions to the blogs that we manage, and we try to accept as many as we can. However, there are some factors that prevent a great piece from getting onto one of our blogs.
Here are a few:
- We have published a similar article recently
- We have a similar article already in the editorial pipeline
- The pitch doesn’t quite match up with our voice/vision
- We’re looking for a specific topic and the pitch doesn’t cover it
- The pitch was obviously sent to other companies
- We don’t have room in our editorial calendar
And that’s just our company. More authoritative publishers will consider your background, your previous works, the audience you’ll bring with you, whether your work satisfies their target market, whether they have the resources for your work, and even things as ridiculous as your age and gender. It sucks, but it’s just the way things are.
Most creative businesses are calculating and cruel. The default answer is “no,” and your job is to change it to a “yes.” So while the business sucks, that doesn’t mean that you do.
So many factors are out of your control, but that shouldn’t keep you from trying. You just have to be as strategic as they are.
Research the companies you want to submit to, and figure out what they are looking for and if your work fits into those categories. Find out what you can do to go above and beyond the standard submission. But also be ready for when they say no, because they most likely will.
A few months ago, I applied to one of the top screenwriting programs in the country for the second time. Whereas before I submitted about 60 pages of writing samples, this time I included nearly 200 pages of my absolute best work. Instead of a generic personal statement about how writing is what I was “meant to do,” I wrote a deeply personal letter about how I dealt with the initial rejection, how I learned from it, and how I was now ready for graduate study.
When I got through to the second round and they had an interview with me, I talked at length about the realizations I’d had about myself and my previously inflated ego, how my goals have since changed, and how I wanted to learn how to be better, not just successful.
I thought I bombed my interview by being too negative, but apparently I didn’t. They liked how humble I was, how open I was to criticism, and how dedicated I was to bettering myself. They offered me a spot, and I accepted.
I have since spoken to friends who are publishers and people who work for writing competitions. A lot of them say that they rarely accept people who are applying for the first time. They want to reward persistence and improvement.
It’s possible that your rejection is a test. Maybe the publisher wants to see what you’ll change, or if you’ll even try again. This is where they weed out the big egos from the humbled workers. While everyone wants to get in on the first try, it’s the ones who can rise above the rejection that deserve success.
This business is like a game. You just have to keep playing until you win.
Either You’re Ready or You’re Not
Rejection sucks. I know.
As your eyes pass over the words “We regret to inform you …” and your heart sinks, it really does feel like the world is ending.
But rejection does give you something that acceptance doesn’t always allow. It gives you a chance to look at yourself, your motivations, and your goals, and reassess what you want and what you’re willing to go through to get it.
You chose this career for a reason, and you have to be willing to play the long game just like everyone else.
How many publishers rejected Harry Potter before it got published? Oh right, 12.
Some publishers have even sent cruel rejection letters to authors like Dan Brown, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.D. Salinger. Did that stop those authors? Hell no!
But if, after countless rejections and major revisions, you still can’t get your work off the ground, it might be time to consider whether it’s missing a few parts. Or maybe it’s missing its pilot.
A rocket ship can’t take off if the astronauts aren’t ready for space travel.
Maybe you need to work on yourself for a while and face the demons that are holding you back. It’s been said that writing is a soul-sucking profession. Maybe you need to travel to the depths of Hell and pry it from Satan’s cold, dead hands. Do what you gotta do.
But just remember, whether you get one rejection or 12, you’re only a failure if you let yourself become one.
Photo credit: Ash, Rhendi Rukmana, GeneGlavitsky