Andromeda: Cold night in Rejection City

I should really know better — and part of me does. But part of me doesn’t.

Just got back from a 14 minute run, the second half of it downhill. Not exactly a marathon. And yet I still wanted to quit halfway through and almost did. Followed that up with a 20-minute “game” of tennis with my daughter (if you can call it a game when you barely bother to chase the ball) and couldn’t muster the energy to get the ball over the night. Young woman in the court next over was grunting and groaning and moaning with each serve, so much that I felt like my daughter and I were eavesdropping on an X-rated movie. Wanted to laugh, but couldn’t.

Despair was creeping into my veins and deadening my muscles, my brain kept wandering off to obsessive worryland, inventing catastrophic life scenarios, and the only answer I could think of was slumping home and sending my family out on errands, trusting my 12-year-old daughter to run into the grocery store for slice-and-bake chocolate chip cookies. (Pretending it was all her idea, of course.) Milk might go along with those cookies, but wine or rum will, too.

Yes, I got a manuscript rejection today. Three, actually. So nice of my agent to package them for me in tidy bundles. (“Do you want to see them?” “Of course I want to see them — what am I, a wuss? I love feedback!”)

With family out of the house, I thought of calling a friend. But non-writing friends will react with too much alarm. They won’t say it, but they might be thinking it: “Rejected again? My goodness — maybe your career is over.” Writing friends, on the other hand, have had the exact same kind of year (or two, or three) and either don’t want to hear about it or shouldn’t. We’re all sick of it. We all know that rejection is the name of the game, more lately than ever.

Feeling despondency — and amnesia — lurking, it occurs to me that I need to write down some hard lessons and keep them visible, like on a notecard by my computer monitor. These are the things I know for sure but keep forgetting.

1. Don’t even try to be rational for at least one week following a significant rejection. (Okay, I’m trying to be rational right now, but still — it’s good advice.) A small touch of misery is normal.

2. These rejections contaminate everything. My fear: How can I be an advocate or teacher of creative writing if I’m getting rejected. Reality: How could I be an advocate or teacher if I’m not being rejected? What kind of message would that send? What kind of lesson would that be — for me or anyone else? To create is to be rejected — by agents, editors, critics, readers. The only way to avoid rejection is to avoid writing new works and submitting them and ultimately publishing them.

3. My favorite writers and my favorite works were rejected. It took half a lifetime for Somerset Maugham to rewrite Of Human Bondage after an early version didn’t fly; for years, he gave up on writing novels altogether. All kinds of agents rejected Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin before she submitted directly to an editor who loved it. Closer to home, it took years for David Vann to get Legend of a Suicide accepted. And on. And on. Being published already is not a cure-all. I have a separate mental list of favorite authors, some of them Alaskan, who got their first novel published but couldn’t sell a second. Some are doing just fine now, having survived the drought. Some aren’t.

4. Rejections always outnumber acceptances anyway. My first novel was rejected by about ten American publishers and accepted by two. That was one more American publisher than I needed, so I got to reject one of them. I don’t think the editor at that publishing house went home crying.

5. The harder the publishing world gets, the more writers will drop out because they just can’t endure, mentally and financially. Persistence is the key. Learning how to persist, how to endure, how to keep risking and growing is essential. And yet so hard. But the good news is: if you’re particularly stubborn, your chances are better than other people’s chances. And it’s easier to cultivate stubbornness than genius.

Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

By the way, as long as I’m indulging this topic: It occurs to me that I accept other people’s rejections just fine.

The aspiring gourmet chef who goes looking for a bank loan for his restaurant and gets turned down by the first few banks — normal enough.

The Broadway dancer who doesn’t get every role — well of course! It’s Broadway! (When the rest of us couldn’t even survive the audition or dare to be seen in a bodysuit.)

The screenwriter who doesn’t get his first — or fifth — screenplay turned into a movie. (That’s Hollywood.)

Rejection is good enough for all of them. Why isn’t it good enough for me and my novelist and creative-nonfiction friends? The answer is: it is good enough. I know it is. I know better. But it still really, really sucks — even with chocolate chip cookies and red wine on top.

Somerset Maugham may have said it more elegantly, but alas, I’m no Maugham. He suffered — and wrote — much longer, after all. That suffering does indeed flavor many of his books, including some of my favorites. There is no easy answer. There never was.

P.S. After seeing this post, a writer sent me this link to another post on Rejection.

A short sample here: “In New York everyone is smarter and more talented and younger and richer and better-looking than you. In New York you can spit and hit fifteen people who are doing the exact same thing you are doing, much better than you are doing it, and for a lot more money. So here is a lesson you learn fast in New York: you better f*ing love yourself, because ain’t no one here going to do it for you.”

5 thoughts on “Andromeda: Cold night in Rejection City”

  1. Love this post – fabulous topic, and one we're never keen to say much about, even to our closest friends. Especially love this: "it's easier to cultivate stubbornness than genius."

    Sad but true: we only get one shot at being the hot new thing, and most of us don't even realize that's what we had till it's gone. Within our control are persistence and craft. Period.

  2. Great post. Being stubborn is definitely a desirable quality in the writing world.

    I hope you find a home for your book soon. And for your next book, too!!

  3. Some great points. I also wrote about this on my blog about a week ago. I find it amusing how annoyed I get when other writer friends give me the "buck up, we all get rejected" line. Of course we all get rejected, but it still hurts and it still feels (even momentarily) like we may never publish again. I find that time does heal all wounds, and I can send those poor rejected pieces back out if I give myself a little time to sulk. Not much time, but a little. And yes, then get back up on that war pony.

  4. Encouraging post; we are not alone, and this post helps with other disabilities besides that of temporarily disabled writer–sudden, disabling sickness has nasty doodads that "contaminate everything"–wish I could come to Fall workshops and write about "the disabled writer"

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