On Rejection | Issue 5
Coping with rejection as a writer
Sometimes I joke with my writing students about choosing writing as a career. I’ll say, get out while you can! Avoid the torture! Why would anyone spend years working on something they care about more than anything — only to have it rejected over and over and over again?
All joking aside, as someone who has spent over 20 years in the writing, publishing and film worlds, I’m interested not only in writing, but also in how writers and artists sustain long-term careers in spite of everything against them.
How do you value your own work when you don’t receive external validation and when you keep coming up against rejection?
Dear Guidance Counsellor, Thank you for telling me I’m nothing
Nothing prepared me more for the life of a writer dealing with rejection and setbacks than being told by the Grade 8 guidance counsellor that I wasn’t “university material,” and I should choose a nonacademic high school stream.
When I told him I wanted to be a psychologist or a vet, he said you’ll never be able to do either of those careers because “you’re not strong in math.’ He told me that statistically student grades go down in the first year of high school. Given my current grades, I was set to fail Grade 9.
His response to my future aspirations was soul crushing. Predictability I didn’t do well in the first few years of high school — I failed two courses and scraped by with the rest. At the time I thought it was because I was stupid, but in reality my home life was not good, I was skipping school a lot (sometimes two weeks at time!), and not doing any work.
Between Grades 9 and 11, I didn’t take school seriously. Since I was told I would fail, I was let off the hook from even trying.
But in the summer after Grade 12, I worked at a corn canning factory and one of my co-workers had just completed his degree in English at Concordia University — the same university my best friend was attending. On work breaks, he and I would talk about books, school, and Montreal. He told me about readings, cafes, and bookstores I could attend. I completely romanticized everything about it and decided I had to go to Concordia and live in Montreal. Suddenly I had a carrot, and in Grade 13, I worked harder than I ever had in my life, my grades went up, and I got into university.
In second year, I took a creative writing class, and for the first time in my life I knew what I wanted to be: a writer.
My first rejections
No sooner had I written my first poems than I began to submit everywhere. It was the combination of no fear of failure, delusions of grandeur, and desperately needing external validation that made me send out my work (often early drafts) to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. Of course I got wildly rejected. These rejections didn’t bother me because they felt like a lottery.
Around the same time, I sent a poem to a now defunct poetry contest from the International Society of Poets which I found in the classified section of Harpers Magazine. The winner would be awarded $10 000 and their work included in a special anthology. I eagerly awaited the results and was beyond thrilled when the letter came telling me my poem had been accepted for publication. I had made it to the big leagues, I thought. I was going to be a published writer. Of course I didn’t bother to read the fine print as I jumped up and down and called my sister to tell her the wonderful news and then read her the letter — in full — which included information about how I could purchase a leather-bound copy of the anthology for only $100.
“I think it might be a scam,” she said.
“But it was advertised in Harpers, I argued. “It can’t be a scam.” And then the crushing feeling set in.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to pay to be published,” she said as gently as she could.
She was right. I’d been duped. I wasn’t going to be published. My professors had warn us about these kinds of vanity publishing scams, and I fell for it.
That high then low felt worse then just a regular old rejection because I got a taste for a brief moment of what I wanted which was not just to get published but to be good at something.
How great I felt about my writing when I thought someone else valued it and how low I felt when they didn’t.
It is these kinds of ups and downs that makes it hard for writers and artists to sustain a long term creative life.
Once I started to really care about my writing and dedicate myself to it, rejection became much more painful, and I had few skills for how to deal with it. Sure I could deal with failure when I didn’t care or when nothing was expected of me, but as soon as it mattered, I didn’t know how to cope.
If something good happened like getting a publication or accepted to a graduate program, I let the validation fill me up too much which made subsequent failures and rejections all that much harder.
The first time I was workshopped in my MFA program I had (what I thought) was a harsh critique, and I considered it “proof” that I was a terrible writer and shouldn’t be there. I went home, burst into tears, and couldn’t leave my bed for a week. My whole body hurt. It was like I had the flu.
Writers will often describe the feeling of being criticized or rejected as a “pinch” or “bite” or “sting” or “burn.” For me, it feels like being dropped into a hole that you can’t crawl out of.
If a writing rejection is particularly difficult for you, you’re not alone. Rejection is physically painful. Getting your writing rejected is a form of social rejection, and scientists have discovered that the pain of being socially rejected is not different from physical pain. Rejection hurts. Literally. And the reason lies in an evolutionary need to be part of a group for survival. Rejection equaled death in earlier societies, and for some writers rejection can feel like an emotional or spiritual death.
In Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries, author and psychologist, Guy Winch writes: “Rejections can cause four distinct psychological wounds, the severity of which depends on the situation and our emotional health at the time. Specifically, rejections elicit emotional pain so sharp it affects our thinking, floods us with anger, erodes our confidence and self-esteem, and destabilizes our fundamental feeling of belonging.”
This is what writers are up against when it comes to having our work critiqued, overlooked, or rejected.
Understanding how rejection operates on a physical and psychological level may help writers better understand what they are going through and hopefully will allow them to give themselves a break.
While being rejected physically hurts, it doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible writer and should give up.
There are a few things that we can do to mitigate the pain and quicken the recovery time.
Normalizing rejection as part of the writing process is really important — especially for those mentoring new writers. This not only helps writers psychologically prepare for rejection, but also makes them feel less alone.
For most, rejections will far surpass acceptances.
Even if a writer manages to break through and get a book accepted, the problem then becomes how do you get readers? And for writers at large presses, if your first book doesn’t sell then it’s difficult to get another contract. According to the Association of Canadian Publishers, over 10 000 books are published in Canada each year.
A writer’s chances of not getting published are higher than of getting published. Once a writer is published making it to ‘best book of the year’ lists, getting reviews, or winning a major award is slim to none. Of course, there are a lucky few who win an award or get a lot of press and it skyrockets their career. But betting an entire career on winning this kind of lottery is not a good long-term strategy — especially if you love to write.
My first poetry book was rejected over 40 times, every short story I’ve ever published has been rejected at least 10-20 times, and every publisher I’ve worked with has rejected me at some point in my career. I’ve been rejected for grants and writing residencies, film festivals, writing and film labs, teaching jobs, and more.
To say that rejection is par for the course is an understatement.
I used to keep my rejection letters as a badge of honour. Last year I found a pile of my early writing rejections in my mother’s basement, and I did a surprising thing: I threw them out. I don’t need to obsess over rejection. I need to normalize it for myself and the writers I work with and then move on.
A new trend I’m seeing on social media is writers sharing when they get rejected which I absolutely love! This helps to destigmatize rejection and show the reality of the writing life.
Rejection is the norm, not the exception.
Acknowledge the pain of rejection
Many writers give themselves permission to lick their wounds after a painful rejection. Some engage in self pity, others vent, a few even lash out. The lashing out can be the most self-destructive because it can impact future opportunities. As a writer I’ve certainly felt like lashing out. As an editor I’ve been on the receving end of writers lashing out, and it doesn’t feel good.
Consider instead acknowledging your feelings and name what has been lost for you. This can help you process the rejection and eventually move on.
Author, Marie Meindl allows herself to wallow for 24 hours. “EPIC self-doubt. Then bum in seat the next morning. Phase 1 can't be skipped, unfortunately, or the angst will appear somewhere where it doesn't belong.”
Writer and editor Andrea Bennett says, “If it's a rejection that stings. I let myself feel that sting until it subsides and I feel good enough to re-pitch or re-submit.”
For me, if it’s a particularly painful rejection, I will give myself a week sometimes two to get over it. During that time, I’m allowed to feel bad and ruminate. Sometimes I’ll use the Julia Cameron “morning pages” technique to vent about a particular rejection and why it is so painful. Just writing it out can help me get over the terrible feeling.
After that I try to let it go and decide what to do next.
One of the biggest rejections I had was when a feature film script I had worked on for five years didn’t get funded. Not only did I have to deal with the pain of that, but also I had to change my writing goals since this project had been all encompassing. I decided with nothing to lose I would apply to the Canadian Film Center. I was accepted to their film residency program and in order to the attend, I had to quit my job as an adjunct composition professor at a community college. Even though I hated this job, I don’t think I would have quit otherwise. Sometimes a rejection can lead you to a better place.
According to psychologist Linda Blair, “A rejection doesn’t mean you failed. It means you tried. Try again.”
To cope with rejection, many writers reframe it. To be rejected means you’re in the game says, poet, novelist, and filmmaker Michael V. Smith. “Rejection is a product of the work. You can’t avoid it, so you might as well celebrate it as a sign of your commitment to the process.”
Writer Kim Liao flipped the switch on writing goals. Liao, on advice from a friend, set a rejection goal of 100 rejections a year. If you strive for rejections, you’re likely to get a few acceptances as well.
Poet Claire Kelly says, ”I try to use it [rejection] as part of the editing process. The poem or poems being with magazines or publishers gives me time away and that time gives me fresh eyes. But sometimes I just need to say: this hasn't found the right reader yet.”
In “Reframing Rejection,” on his blog Writing the Wrong Way, writer, poet, and critic Jonathan Ball writes, “Rejection doesn’t mean I’m not a “real writer.” Quite the opposite. Only “real” writers get rejections. Even a form rejection — in fact, especially a form rejection — means that they are treating you like everyone else — and everyone else is a real writer too.”
Other writers use the rejection as a motivation for sending out the work right away like writer and filmmaker Fiona Tinwei Lam:
It’s not you it’s them
My perspective on rejection really shifted when I began publishing the creative works of writers and artists and reading submissions. Much to my surprise most of the work was good. I assumed going in that most of the work I would be reading would be bad and the great work would rise to the top. That assumption was wrong. A large portion of work I had to reject was publishable, making the selection process so much harder and completely subjective, which is why reading a journal before you submit to it can be very helpful. It allows you to get a sense of the editorial vision to see if your work is a good fit.
Another strategy I undertook as a writer with this new information about submissions was to look through the publication records (via author websites or a simple google searches) of writers who I admired and whose work was similar to my own. I made a list of where they had been published, so I could submit to the same places. And it turned out that was a pretty good strategy.
Reading widely and knowing where your work fits in terms of style and genre can save a lot of unnecessary rejection rather than firing off masses of submissions randomly.
Plan for rejection
Just like you might write an outline for a book, considering making a rejection plan before rejection occurs.
Poet and Editor Mel Sherrer does this before submitting: “I keep a list of places to send a piece in the event it gets a rejection from my first choice pub. One editor’s trash is another editor’s treasure.”
Your plan could involve having a list of places to send your work like Mel Sherrer or it could involve self publishing or it could involve reviewing the work to see if it needs further revision or it could involved reaching out to a writing buddy for some support.
Take a break if you need to
If you know that being rejected at a certain point in time is going to be too much for you, then back off sending your work out until you’re in a better place.
I don’t like sending out work when I’m writing first drafts because I don’t need any more reason to stop writing or feel bad about my writing. I tend to send out work when I’m in an editing phrase and feeling less fragile.
But the bottom line is — you don’t have to send your work out.
You can write freely and joyfully without external validation or criticism and you can decide how much and how often you submit.
How do you deal with rejection? Join the conversation.
Kathryn Mockler (she/her) is a writer, screenwriter, experimental filmmaker, editor, and publisher. She edited the print anthologyWatch Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Books, 2020) and is the publisher of the Watch Your Head website. Her films have screened at TIFF, EMFA, the Palm Springs Film Festival and most recently at the Arizona Underground Film Festival and REELPoetry/HoustonTX. Her debut collection of stories is forthcoming from Book*hug in 2023, and she is an Assistant Professor of Screenwriting at the University of Victoria.
Issue #5 of Send My Love to Anyone
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