Sitting in the mailbox is the latest rejection. That inevitable tide of feeling “what did I do wrong?” They’ve become so numerous now that over the years it’s almost like seeing an old friend. Well, maybe not a ‘friend’ per se – or maybe that friend who turns up at your house drunk and trashes your kitchen and is sick on your cat – but still, someone you know well.
It’s normal too, for the insides of your head to be screaming “I’m A Fraud! I’m A Fraud!” like some maniacal demon. Especially when you’re just starting out on your career.
But here’s the thing, everyone is in that space. Every writer, at least. You’re only as good as your last work – and every piece you write you have to build from the ground up, to relearn that psychic jiggery-pokery that makes the story walk. The “I’m a Fraud” demon wears a lot of masks and makes a lot of snide comments – ‘maybe you got lucky with that other acceptance, maybe the editors were taking pity on you, maybe you haven’t got the chops’.
Whatever that little mite of evil says, I can assure that they are all bullcrap. Stephen Pressfield in his book on writing “The War of Art” goes to great length to describe the process of artistic resistance – almost a law of physics: Every time you try to push your way forward you’re going to get friction, or resistance. You’re trying to bring something new into the world after all, and that means fighting all the layers of hubris and static that is telling you it can’t be done. That things can’t change. That you can’t have nice things.
So stop. Breathe. And really breathe this time, right down to the gut and back. There, better?
Lesson 1: When multi-million sales author J.K. Rowling started sending her Robert Galbraith novels out, she got rejected – and she knew her shit.
Lesson 2: Rejections happen for all sorts of reasons, and only some of them are anything to do with your skills as a writer. I would probably bet that 7 times out of 10 it is because your style and/or content doesn’t fit the publication. Maybe they’ve seen a lot of other stories/novels/plays/cinema treatments with similar themes recently.
There’s also an entirely different way to see rejection, as exemplified in Neil Gaiman’s “Fail Better” speech. As creatives we generally don’t get performance reviews, grades and exams – and counting sales is a sure-fire way to drive yourself around the bend. Instead, we get scars.
“I pinned my 1st rejection letter to my kitchen wall because it gave me something in common with all my fave writers!” JKRowling, Twitter Mar25/2016
Whilst at the risk of sounding like some Orwellian double-thinking nightmare: Failure doesn’t mean bad. Rejection doesn’t mean bad. It’s only in our career-obsessed “we’re only real people when we’ve turned ourselves into successful brands” does rejection, failure, and mistake means a loss of identity. Rejection slips are a way to measure how long you’ve been in the game, how much blood you’ve spilt on the playing field. In an even deeper sense, we can start trying to grok what failure means at all: that you didn’t get that pay-cheque? Really? That you might not have been picked up by that Hollywood Studio?
What if we took a longer-term perspective on those failures: Your Ace Screenplay isn’t directed by Joss Whedon but instead becomes an indy classic. That story that was rejected gets picked apart and you make an even better shinier story out of its bones?
Last year I was in conversation with a friend’s brother, he works with wood and makes stoves and barbeques and things out of old ironwork – so maybe it is no surprise that he passed on this bit of salvage advice: it’s all process. Sometimes you have to do a lot of work before you get to the final product, and sometimes that work and the experiments and the trial-runs and the i-thought-this-was-it you do, you end up scrapping to actually do the thing. That’s why painters can take years working through something before they release the summation of all that psychic jiggery-pokery.
So stop, breathe. We’re all in that endless process of starting again, of figuring things out from the ground up. Some days the words zing and it feels like we’re channelling Promethean fire, and some days it’s clunking heavy bricks or running demolition jobs. It’s all good, as long as we’re doing the work.
Right now, you are enough.
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” Stephen King, On Writing