The Pains of a Writer’s Rejection

No writer likes rejection. It’s so personal. It’s not just our work that was rejected, we were.

Most adults build their identity around their work and its results. A carpenter doesn’t just say, “I hammer nails.” He says, “I build houses. Do you see that house? I built it.” A doctor doesn’t just say, “I prescribe medicine.” She says, “I help people. Do you see that kid? I saved his life.”

It’s that way with writers. We don’t just type, we create entire bodies of work that inform, entertain, and persuade. Having that work rejected means we have been rejected as people. Our thoughts, ideas, and experience, which made up our words, are not good enough to be read by others.

“Remember, it’s not personal,” say the veteran professional writer, smiling in that annoying, knowing way. “It’s just business.”

Sad puppy

When you reject us, this is how we feel.

He remembers all too well the last time his work was rejected. He remembers, because if he’s a real writer, it was last week.

The new writer looks at the old pro like she wants to stab him in the eye with a pen. He remembers that look too. It’s the same one he gave his mentor 20 years ago, when he wanted to stab that cranky bastar in his eye. He smiles, but prepares to defend himself. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the dictionary makes a better club.

Anyone who wants to be a writer will learn to deal with rejection. Real writers eventually get used to it, and sigh resignedly the next time they get a rejection letter. They all have the same low opinion of editors: slack-jawed mouth breathers who wouldn’t know good writing if it whacked them with a dictionary.

(Note: This does not apply to my editors, who are salt of the earth, cream of the crop, princes and princesses among men, and can recognize sheer genius when it stands sobbing outside their offices in the rain, swearing it won’t go away until you just give me one chance.)

Writers have many coping mechanisms to deal with rejection: they rage and curse against know-nothing editors. They scream into their pillows. They weep silently on the bathroom floor. They entertain wild fantasies where they win the Nobel Prize, bump into that editor at the valet station outside, and ask him to bring the car around. But they mostly drink.

My coping mechanism was probably the stupidest of all: I went into sales. I thought it would be much safer, because no one gets rejected, and everyone is friendly and respectful in sales, right?

If you want to learn about real rejection, try dialing for dollars for a living. You’ll realize that the occasional editor’s “no” every couple of weeks is a walk in the park compared to the 20 “no’s” you’ll get every day in sales. For the next seven years.

Other than going into sales, the only way to get over rejection is to write more and get rejected more. A lot more.

Because the only way you’re going to get better is by developing a thick skin. And fantasizing about handing your editors a copy of your latest New York Times best-selling book, and they promise to read it, but then their manager yells at them to get back to the fry station.

And then one day, you won’t be Rejected. You’ll be Accepted.

Accepted!

It means you’re Somebody now. You’re that dorky kid in high school who got invited to sit at the cool kids’ table, and they all listened in rapt attention to your story about your little sister and the time she got a popcorn seed stuck up her nose.

You’re no longer just a writer, you’re a Professional Writer. (Because getting a $10 check and two copies of the magazine makes you a Professional.)

You’ll celebrate with a $20 dinner, and you’ll promise yourself that you’re going to remember this feeling forever. That this is the beginning of a long and distinguished career, that started with this one step.

Until the next day, when another rejection letter arrives.

Eventually you’ll learn to accept the rejections. Even welcome them sometimes, because you don’t have enough time, what with your next book and three speeches you have to give next month.

That’s when some new writer will come to you, asking what’s the best way he can deal with rejection, because he just got his first one, and he wants to quit writing.

You’ll look at him, knowingly, searching for the right thing to say, to let him know that it will work out in the end.

“Remember, it’s not personal,” you’ll say. “It’s just business.”

Just make sure you have a dictionary handy first.

This post was originally published at Erik Deckers’ Laughing Stalk blog.

Photo credit: hackett (Flickr)