Does it ever get easier to handle rejection?

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Recently, I was talking to a writer friend about submitting and he said to me: “I’ve been submitting, but, well, you know how it is. The rejections grind you down.”

And I was like, “No, no, after awhile they’re not as bad anymore. When you first get a certain kind of rejection–the one where the editor holds it for twice as long as normal or the one where the editor says he came this close to buying the story–it’s painful, but the next time, it doesn’t hurt as much.

However, even after my peptalk, my writer friend still seemed a bit dubious. And I don’t blame him. What I said was the truth. After 952 short story rejections, it’s impossible for me to imagine the magazine rejection that is capable of upsetting me for more than a few minutes. I’ve gotten rejected after rewrite requests. I’ve gotten rejections where the market said that we would’ve bought this, except that we’re closing. I’ve gotten rejections where the editor was like, “I loved this story, but I couldn’t get past this one thing that I felt to be scientifically inaccurate”. I’ve gotten nasty rejections from all the magazines that are famous for giving nasty rejections (you know which ones you are).

But…you know…I could be wrong. Because what I didn’t say to my writer friend is that as you improve and move into higher echelons, you start to get all these new opportunities…and each one of these opportunities involves new and more-horrifying types of rejections that you really haven’t built up any defenses for. For instance, last year, I pitched an article to a super well-known online newsmagazine. They were excited about the article and assigned me to it. I wrote the article and became super excited about the millions and millions of people who’d start coming to my blog. Generally, in non-fiction, once you’ve been assigned an article, the chances that they will use it are pretty high. But after I turned it in, the editor basically said that it wasn’t what they’d wanted and that they couldn’t use it.

I was devastated.

Like…that’s not like a short story rejection. Short story rejections are not really personal. You can always submit again and it’s really no problem. This was different. This was a relationship that was severed and an opportunity that was lost–maybe forever.

Of course, all the rejection clichés apply. You have to take risks in order to succeed. It was a learning experience. Next time it won’t be as bad.

But, man, I never again want to have another learning experience like that one. That really sucked.

But I will. In fact, if I continue as a writer, I can see all the new and more-horrible ways that I can potentially be rejected: losing my book deal, going out of print, getting bad reviews, losing awards, seeing blog posts that call my work racist…there is a world of horrible stuff that is just waiting to happen to me.

I don’t think that every profession faces this kind of omnipresent rejection. For instance, it seems like doctors almost never get rejected (which explains a lot about them, I think). If you want to be a doctor and you get rejected by the wrong people, you just can’t be a doctor anymore.

But it’s not like that for writing. For writers, the primary determinant of success is: How well can you handle rejection? If you can’t handle rejection well, then–no matter how good you are–you won’t submit, you won’t pursue new opportunities, and you’ll eventually fade away. If you can, then you’ll persevere and, eventually, will be published. My impression is that there are very few people who submit aggressively for 5+ years without seeing some kind of success.

But I just used the term “handle rejection” as if it’s some kind of skill that you can learn. It’s really not. The “handling” doesn’t mean that rejection doesn’t affect you. Some people say that you shouldn’t feel angry or depressed by rejection. I’d say…good luck with that. Is there some surefire technique out there for not feeling angry and depressed about things? Because a lot of times people give advice that seems to presuppose that with a little effort, you can just stop feeling negative feelings. That is bullshit. There is no such technique. It is very difficult to avoid negative feelings. They will descend upon you like a horrible black cloud of faulty neurotransmitters and there will be nothing you can do about it.

No, all that I mean by “handle rejection” is that writers should operate as if the fear of rejection is not a consideration. If you want to be a successful writer, then you shouldn’t avoid doing things, just because you’re afraid of the pain that comes from being rejected. You should pursue all the opportunities that you see. You should submit to all the markets that you want to be in.

Perseverance is a super simple lesson, but it’s one that I have to keep reminding myself about. However, at least I’ve seen the benefits of perseverance. I feel sorry for all you jerks who just have to take my word for it. Good luck with that.

6 thoughts on “Does it ever get easier to handle rejection?

  1. Tristan

    The rejection that finally did it for my artistic career was imagining myself at age 45 or so. It seemed all too realistic that I would be at best modestly successful–a book or album or two, mostly out of print and forgotten; a thankless and poorly remunerated academic post, etc. (A character in a “professor novel” as you put it earlier.) I saw other people in that position–at ages 45, 60, and older–who were beaten down, depressed, truly REJECTED. Some of them felt it was worthwhile regardless, to have lived the life they chose and produced art that was meaningful to them. But that’s not something I thought I could stand. That’s much worse than anybody saying yes or no to a particular project.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Oh man, getting a thankless and poorly-renumerated academic post would be the tops =)

      Yes, I’ve imagined the same scenario. I think all aspiring artists have to face down that particular demon. And I think I’m okay with it. After all, right now I have nothing, and it’s not so bad. But it’s something that everyone has to face. I was talking to a professional colleague of mine recently, and some of his comments made me realize, “Wow, most of the people I meet have literally no respect for what I am doing.” I mean, they’d respect me if I was successful. But there is no respect for aspiration, in the same way that there’d be respect for someone who was moving up the corporate or legal or academic ladder.

      And that’s fine, but I imagine that it’s even WORSE when you’re 45 or 50 and only semi-successful as an artist. I think that’s probably something I’ll have to face. But I think I’ll be alright. At some point you just have to make your choice. It’s difficult to predict the future. And it’s really difficult to predict what will make you happy (I read a whole super-awesome book about how we are bad at imagining what will make us happy: “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert), so you kind of just have to close your eyes and choose something.

  2. duende

    very well said. the constant rejection is one reason why i waited until i was in my 30s before submitting my writing anywhere–i simply knew i wasn’t resilient enough as a younger person. after awhile, life kicks you in the balls enough times (and hard enough) that you gain better perspective, and realize that while having your writing rejected hurts, it’s not going to devastate you–you’ve gotten through worse and you’ll get through this. but of course you have to go through that journey yourself before you can understand that.

      1. duende

        yeah, i guess what i meant by ‘devastated’ was more in the sense of being destroyed to the point of not continuing. i think it’s unavoidable to lose many days to rejection-related angst no matter how resilient you are.

  3. Widdershins

    The short answer is … no. It doesn’t get easier. If it did then we have lost our passion for our work. If rejection doesn’t sting anymore then perhaps we have not invested enough of our Selves in it.
    What we do is take that passion, mold it into another story and try again. If we have learned whatever lesson from the previous rejection, then we have a net gain.

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