Photo by James Homans on Unsplash
Despite what you might think looking at my CV, I am actually the Queen of Rejection.
There are things I’d love to be good at, and I had to learn the hard way that I’m not good at them. I can’t carry a tune–either with my voice or on an instrument–to save my life, and I tend to hit myself in the face if I try to throw anything. I’ve definitely been rejected by individuals I’ve liked, both in friendship and in love. Oh, and I’ve bombed auditions, try-outs, and interviews. Finally, I’ve definitely been second, third, or maybe even nowhere on the list for a number of things.
But I’ve also been blessed (or cursed) with an almost stupidly bolshy personality. I am constantly seeing things and thinking, “I’ll have that,” even if I’ve got no idea whether it’s actually a possibility. This attitude worked remarkably well when I thought, “I want to write a novel,” but it failed miserably when I thought, “I want a Rhodes Scholarship.”
So I’ve tried out for a lot of things that were way out of my league, such as Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship, and that really hot senior. But every once in a while I achieved something that seemed equally out of my league, such as publishing a novel. My seemingly endless cycles of rejection and success, meanwhile, has taught me so many valuable lessons about myself.
Indeed, rejection is one of those things that can help us grow, if we let it. The trouble is learning to interpret rejection. How do we know what a particular rejection really means?
(This blog post is now going to devolve into a series of lists. I wish I could make this into a flowchart, but I was also rejected by science.)
First of all, there are two kinds of rejection: rejection you can keep working at and rejection that’s final.
I can’t go back in time and re-apply for Harvard or for the Rhodes Scholarship. The hot senior is now a bloated crackhead (I’m not kidding!).
I probably could have kept at singing, or playing the guitar, or throwing balls and hitting myself in the face. But upon doing these things, I discovered my ineptitude at around the same time I discovered that I didn’t really care I was inept. I didn’t really enjoy working at those things, I just liked the idea of being able to do them.
Then there are the things that we really do want. Unfortunately, sometimes, even though we really want something, it’s not for us, either at that moment or ever.
When I went into the Rhodes scholarship application process, I did not go in thinking, “I absolutely don’t deserve this.” I knew competition was fierce, but I thought I had a shot. And therefore when I was summarily rejected in the first round, despite how excited my university had been about my chances, I was really disappointed. I thought, “Why?” Eventually, however, I saw who did win. These people had brought vaccine programs to villages without medical care. They’d already been involved in studies to end poverty. They’d rebuilt shanty towns.
They deserved to win.
I couldn’t go back in time and start building international programs, so I had to accept my rejection. Weirdly, however, I’d argue that that sort of rejection is easier to deal with than the more nebulous kinds of rejection, like getting a query letter rejection or a “no” for an editor pitch. After all, I had one shot at that scholarship. I had to move on when I was rejected. But I can always find more agents and editors to pitch a particular project; they are literally being born, as I type this. And just because they don’t like a particular project, doesn’t mean they’ve rejected me as a writer. Right? Or wrong?
There are three stances to take on rejection: “Shit, I do suck,” “Dude, YOU SUCK,” and “Okay, fine, this needs work.”
Let’s say I’ve nanowrimoed a novel. I’ve spent a whole month of my life writing what I think is my magnum opus. It’s got thrills, chills, and a frank exploration of the perfect love I share with my pet pig, Petunia. With great pride, I send “Petunia’s Pleasures” out to agents and they tell me that a) no one will ever buy my manuscript and b) I might want to get a good lawyer as what I’m describing is illegal in most of the continental United States.
What I have to think through at this stage is, “Shit, do I suck?”
Nobody wants to be that person on American Idol who sings like a kangaroo accidentally sat upon a corncob, all the while insisting that he or she is the next Streisand. As reality TV has taught us, however, such crazily delusional people do exist.
So when a hundred agents have told me they want nothing to do with “Petunia’s Pleasures,” should I just give up?
I’m going to go against the American urge To Tell Everyone They’re Always AWESOME No Matter WHAT and say, “Yes. Maybe you should consider quitting.” Only do this, however, after you’ve reassessed your reasons for writing, in the first place. I might ask myself if I really want to be a writer, or if I want to have my names on books. In other words, do I want the hard job or the kudos? I also might ask myself if I really want to go beyond exploring my love of Petunia. Did I write what I wanted to write, and there’s nothing else in the kitty? Finally, I need to ask if it’s really worth it, to me. Did I enjoy doing the writing? Being a writer is tough for a month, what’s it like for the long run? Do I love the writing, itself, enough to sacrifice all the time it’ll take to get to a professional level?
Let’s say I’ve asked myself all these questions, and I know I want this. I want to be a writer, I’ve not even tapped into the sequel potential on how many ways we can love barnyard animals, and I am in for the long haul. And yet, “Petunia’s Pleasures” got no love from the industry? Could THEY be wrong?
The “Dude, YOU SUCK!” Attitude, or: How to get Nowhere Fast
I think that an immediate response to finding out someone has rejected us is to say, “Dude, you just don’t get it. In fact, YOU SUCK!” And this sometimes is true. When I first started querying, I had an agent reply MINUTES after I sent her a query, and her response was basically, “What is this bizarre combination of URBAN and FANTASY that you’ve written?? No one will ever buy such nonsense!” I stared, puzzled, at the email for a bit, then did some more research on her. Turns out, she’s infamous for saying things such as, “Romance? Why on EARTH would people want to read about other people’s happy relationships? You’re crazy!” or “What is this MYSTERY of which you speak? Detectives solving crimes . . . how insane!”
In other words, she apparently really was a bit of a lunatic. But what happens when every agent and every publisher on the planet says, “Thanks, but no thanks?”
You CAN always self-publish!
I could assume that they all suck, and they are incapable of understanding my vision of a perfect utopia where love between a girl and her pet pig is considered beautiful. It’s important to remember that I do have the option to self-publish. Nowadays, with self-publishing options so readily available, I can slap that bad boy up on the internet within minutes.
If my whole purpose in life was to tell my pig and me’s story (musical to follow), then I’ve done the right thing. If I ever did want to get into traditional publishing, however, then I need to be careful. For example, I need to refrain from publicly, and in great detail, using the internet to swear off the whole publishing industry as bigoted pedants while insisting that my vision of person-pig love doesn’t need them to be released into the world. If I do that, I burn my bridges making a public fuss AND, if it’s the case that I secretly still want “Petunia’s Promise” to get picked up by mainstream publishing, I’ve shot myself in the foot by slapping my work up, in its entirety, onto the internet. Unless I do discover there are secretly hundreds of thousands of pig-loving readers out there willing to download my book, a la The Shack, I’ve insured no agent or publisher will touch it with a ten-foot-pole.
That said, I could very well discover that I love self-publishing, and that it was absolutely the right thing for me and my project, at that time.
But if I do still want to get into NYC publishing, and I’m not even trying to listen to what these rejections are saying about my work, then I’ve learned nothing by avoiding all self-examination. I’ve not learned what will sell, if “Petunia’s Pleasures” isn’t the way to go. I’ve not learned if it’s my query or the manuscript that’s turning off readers. I’ve not learned what I can do better, next time.
Which Is Why Sometimes We Must Suck It Up and Say: “Fine, This Needs Work”
Admittedly, a lot of hard questions have to be asked at this stage. What are people reacting to in their responses to me, if they give responses? In my “Petunia” example, people seem to be telling me they’re actually offended by my manuscript.
But what if I’m just getting blanket, empty, pre-fabbed rejections. It might be the query letter, and there’s a number of places you can have those vetted. I’m also creating a Teachable course where you can get some insight into what query letters should look like.
You can also find or start a critique group and start workshopping your manuscript, if you haven’t done so yet. If everyone questions the same thing, maybe there’s something wrong. I always use the “three-person rule” when it comes to whether or not it’s me or them. If one person says, “I hate this name,” I take it on board but might not act on it if I really like the name. If another person says, “I hate this name,” then I ask a third. If they agree, I change the name. I don’t care if I love it.
Sometimes, even Dr. Peeler is wrong. I know it’s hard to imagine a world in which that is the case, but it’s true.
Finally, you might have to admit to yourself that this MS needed to be written, but not for publication. It needed to be written because you needed to finish that first big project, to prove to yourself you could. It needed to be written to get that story off of your chest, so you could move on. It needed to be written because you needed to practice, and learn from everything that didn’t work very well that first time, for your next time.
I think that, ultimately, rejection is what we make of it. It will hurt, and sometimes it is unfair. But oftentimes rejection is fair. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not ready, or we need to work harder, or we need to nail down some groundwork that we’ve been avoiding. Even more importantly, oftentimes rejection is, quite simply, final. We can’t change someone’s mind once they’ve made a decision, or turn back the clock for a do-over. Sometimes we just have to pick ourselves up and start from scratch.
Doing so isn’t easy, and that’s why how we react to rejection not only defines who we are, as people, but also helps define how successful we become. If I’d taken my first (dozen) rounds of serious, personal rejections and said, “everyone’s an idiot, no one understands me, I’m perfect, and I’ll never change,” I’d still be sitting on my thumbs in my hometown. I’d be angry at and resentful of the world, continually insisting on a personal greatness that had absolutely no real-world evidence.
I bet you’ve encountered such a person at some point in your life.
Instead, the way to succeed is to continually self-examine after each and every big rejection. Is what you’re striving for something you really want? How can you improve to get it, next time? What did you learn this round that you can apply for next round?
Rejection by others is, for the most part, out of our control. But how we deal with rejection is ours to control. Indeed, it is the space in which we prove our maturity, our ability to learn, and our ability to have that vitally important perspective on ourselves and our talents that we need to succeed.
Rejection should never define us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use a little refining.