Message to aspiring writers: You know the old saw about writing being 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration? What they don’t tell you is that when it comes to putting that piece of work out in the world, a similar ratio prevails: 99% rejection and 1% acceptance.
You think I’m exaggerating? Of the roughly thirty odd short stories I published starting out, each one was turned down by literary journals upwards of 30 or 40 times before they were accepted. Still others, of course, never broke through that barrier at all.
As for the books—three have never seen the light of day. And may never, though I’m not ready to give up. The ones that did get published went through their share of turndowns, too. For working writers today this is not so unusual.
And don’t even get me started on the film projects.
What this means for you is this: Rejection is the one companion you can always count on in your writing journey. For an unreasonably long time it may be your only companion—boilerplate form letters from a journal, tons of them, that the piece you sent “does not meet our current needs.” Rarely will you get a personal comment about a story. Novels and other book-length works usually garner a sliver of compliment from a publisher (“Beautifully written,” “Engaging premise,” “strong characters”) followed by the inevitable qualifier: “But we regret it does not meet our current needs. Thank you for thinking of Ratfink & Bollocks, Publishers.”
You might be so bold as to imagine, once you’ve finally gotten a few short pieces or even a full book published, that the doors will swing open and you’ll live happily ever after in the sunny light of permanent acceptance, if not international acclaim. This rarely happens. What’s worse, the international acclaim could happen and you could still get what someone once called the 100% boar bristle brush-off for your next offering if it doesn’t fit the mold of what made you popular. (Into percentages today for some reason!)
You can even enjoy a long career in the public eye, as some older writers I know have, only to find in the closing decades of your life that your work is out of fashion, publishers pass on it, and even that hotshot agent who made so much money off your previous books has found a way to quietly drop you (citing the necessity of “trimming my client list” of dead branches such as yourself).
But enough of the dark side! I’m here to tell you that once you understand that rejection will always find you, it can be your friend. Yes, it can. Rejection from the outside world in fact functions much like resistance during the writing process: Like a SatNav, it guides your path. If doors X and Y close, head for Z. (And then A, and B, and maybe by the time you hit M the door will open and you’ll get a yes.)
Once you see that rejection is simply the weeding out of unsuitable partners until (finally) just the right one shows up, it becomes a question not of your worthiness but of theirs. True, you are not the one doing the turning down, but the fact is, you don’t know that much about these editors, their tastes and predilections. It’s by their actions that you learn who they are, what they like and don’t like. If they don’t see the merit in your work, they have shown themselves merit-less in the process of placing it.
A prominent Hollywood agent is famous for simply squawking “Next!” when a project he’s pitched gets turned down. Nothing else, just “Next!” As in fuggedaboudit and move on. Plenty other fish in the sea. In the same vein—and bearing in mind that the rejection process is far more brutal and arbitrary in the film world than the literary one—the actor Dustin Hoffman once mentioned that he regarded the almost universal turndowns he got auditioning in New York as an unknown as nothing more than the inevitable act I of his professional life, just a preamble to what was to come.
And let’s not forget reviewers. Once you get that yes from a publisher, a whole new world of rejection opens up. Let me say straight up, few works get reviewed and even fewer meet with universal acclaim. You must be ready for the critics, or lack of them, too.
I’m not pretending it’s easy to accept rejection. Like everything else, it’s a process, especially if you sense you don’t have the chromium-plated ego some were seemingly born with. With rejection there’s always that initial sting, that sense of hurt and outrage. You need to own these feelings and deal with them right away, not sweep them under the carpet.
I find in myself a tendency to turn the hurt inside out a little too fast. Others let it linger more, and I can’t help thinking this is a good strategy. The novelist Philip Roth reported that it took him a “requisite 72 hours” to thoroughly process a bad review before moving on. A novelist friend sorts it out by taking to her bed for a few days. A playwright I know watched The Poseidon Adventure five times after his play was negatively reviewed in the New York Times. Each time he saw the big liner roll upside down, he says, he felt an enormous sense of relief and well-being. Satisfaction, even. What do you know, the damn thing just bellied up and sank!
So, fellow writers, just know we’re all passengers on this ship of fools together. When your personal Poseidon capsizes for the umpteenth time, take a moment to salute its valiant journey—then kick off hard to the surface. Next!