So, as I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve received my fair share of rejection letters. In fact, so far my average on rejection vs. acceptance seems to be about 99 to 1%. Even though you hear all the time that this is just a fact of the writer’s—or artist’s—life, when it happens to you, it’s personal. It’s intimate. It’s the first time anyone has ever experienced that spear-through-the-torso-agony of being not good enough.
I went through a long period in my mid-twenties where I wasn’t sure I could take it anymore. Like many people in my generation, I grew up on a steady diet of “follow your dreams” feel-good pep-talk. And I bought it. I followed my dreams, but there are days where it feels like you’re crawling naked and belly-down through an endless expanse of glass shards. There are days when I can’t imagine anything more painful than the heartache of following my dreams. And they never mention that part in the “follow your dreams” speeches. They speak in code; in sterilized words. I’ve read a lot of how-to-break-into-the-industry guides, and the blogs of the ‘experts’ are no better, I could damn near set them to music by now: “You’ll get a lot of rejection, you just have to keep on going…” It’s such an artful understatement for what daily life feels like when you’re bouncing from one perceived failure to the next, all but begging for someone to see the value in your heart’s work.
So what broke me out of it? Well, for starters, I worked retail in a very dangerous neighborhood of South Seattle for a couple years to put my husband through school. Boy, if I’d thought there was nothing worse than a rejection letter, customer service in the ghetto sure taught me otherwise. That job should have come with a bulletproof vest. (But those are stories for a different day and I certainly don’t recommend that route for everyone.)
The longer answer is that I developed new coping skills, and since I assume there must be other people waging my same battle against irrelevance and rejection, I figured I’d share some of them.
1.) I got my ‘day-job’ sorted out. When you’re trying to be a writer, or an artist (or God forbid, both) you know you’re not going to be able to pay bills on that income—at least not consistently—for some time…if ever. I’ve thought a lot about why we live in a society that so craves constant visual and storytelling entertainment, but feels justified in paying those creators so poorly, and I can’t think of a solid answer other than that they know one essential truth about us: we’d do it for free. We can’t help ourselves. It’s as natural an element of our daily existence as eating or breathing. So find a day job you don’t hate, if you can, and one that leaves you room in the margins of your day for following those horrible, horrible dreams of yours.
2.) Never respond to a rejection letter right away. My first emotional gut-reaction is always awful: “They’re an idiot! They simply don’t appreciate the magnitude of my genius! Everything they’re saying is BS!” Ride that wave out—read the rejection to the best of your ability (my brain tends to fog after the first sentence or two and I only get the gist of what they’re saying) then walk away. Do something else. Something empowering and/or something you know you’re good at. This is why I started running—there’s nothing like tackling a huge hill or beating your best time to help you feel better about yourself in general. Then, once you’re calm, re-approach the letter, and try to truly listen to what they are telling you. Sometimes they really are nuts, no doubt. (Sometimes they never even looked at your submission and it seems like they’re talking about someone else!) But sometimes, somewhere in there is buried a kernel of truth, and if you can embrace that, it’ll help you get better next time around. Re-frame it in your mind that it’s not about getting accepted or rejected, it’s about getting better at your craft. Then, if the situation calls for it, you can try writing back—NEVER TO ARGUE. But you can certainly ask for clarification or advice; they may or may not respond. I try to always send a thank you, because manners matter.
3.) Feel good tips: Other than exercise (a natural anti-depressant that is at least as effective as any over-the-counter medication and with no negative side-effects) I have one other trick I like to do. I’ve taken all my favorite compliments and positive feedback and I’ve created a slide-show backdrop for my laptop. I also asked myself, “Why do I love this work?” And I wrote my answer out where I can see it every day. Is it silly? Maybe, but sometimes seeing those kind and affirmational words is enough to convince me to try again.
No matter who you are, I can state with virtual certainty that someone believes in you. Someone thinks you can do it, and thinks you are good enough. On your worst days, let them be the reminder of why you keep trying.