Riddle me this: what hurts like hell and is something that all writers have in common? Answer: rejection.
Rejection isn’t anything new — 39.9 million Google search results is proof of that. “We all go through it,” the chipper glass-perpetually-half-full published writers say with a glib grin. We do all go through it, yes, but if we’re all stuck on a raft bleeding into the ocean in shark-infested waters, having company doesn’t make the situation any less sucky. The phrase is misery loves company not that company eases the misery.
“Unfortunately, your words aren’t a good fit for us at this time” was the opening line of the fifth email in my inbox the other day. I marked the email as unread, my way of shelving it until I’m ready to process it and continued with my day.
It may have been unread in my inbox but it still affected me. I was snippy and short-tempered. I made my children cry. I burned the dinner. I wept in the bath and binged season 4 of Working Moms. I ate a lot of chocolate. I wrote angsty prose in my anonymous online diary, the one that doesn’t broadcast the fact that I wasted thousands of dollars on two writing degrees and am still considered “a new voice”. And then I Googled.
What did I find? Enough how-to-get-past-rejection platitudes to last me a lifetime. There is no shortage of stories on how to deal with rejection. That’s not what I was after. I wasn’t ready to accept that my submission had been addressed “to the editor who can appreciate my work and that it [had] simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’” as Barbara Kingslove suggested.
“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath
And let’s just call bullshit on Plath’s assertion. She doesn’t come across as someone who loved failing and was content with second place in any of her poetry or memoirs. Plath is measured and controlled, not laissez-faire about her work or her life. If Plath were writing her confessionalist poetry in the 90s she’d probably use adjectives like neurotic and self-obsessed to describe herself. Not plucky and good-natured. But that’s a rant for another piece.
I saught guidance, a map to get from the raw sting of rejection to the point where I was able to start getting past it. I was wading around in a no man’s land of sadness and confusion with an urge to persevere but still stuck.
I know that I will get to the stage where all the how-to-deal-with-rejection platitudes will feel nourishing and I will read them with earnest and will probably scribble two or three of my favourites in my journal. But I am not there yet. I do not know when I will cross that threshold.
In our hurry to keep pushing on and to keep submitting our work, are we giving ourselves time to reflect on our rejections? All of the current advice on dealing with rejection seems to favour repression: slap a Band-Aid on it and find a different publication for the piece.
I’m all for persevering; The Little Engine that Could was one of my favourite childhood books too, but can we get real for a moment? Writing for me is a bit more than just a conveyor belt of mediocre prose. Surely churning out three papers a week of half-baked, drivel is what undergrad was for?
This is the Big Leagues. My writing needs to fund my bank account so that my children don’t starve. I’m spending more time on content now than when I was a college student, writing (half-baked) at three am in my dorm between sips of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I expect my attitude to my craft to have changed and developed too.
The “rejection happens” shoulder shrug isn’t cutting it for me. I know rejection happens. But after spending hours on a piece researching, drafting and workshopping, I want more than to regift it to another publication like a kneejerk reaction.
For now, I am letting myself feel what I feel and then tomorrow or the next day, I will return to the page. For now, I will be asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe . Pass the chocolates.