Rejection is harrowing in all areas of life. In writing it is the same, it just occurs more often.
When Stephen King first began seriously writing and sending his story manuscripts to various publishers, he pinned his rejection slips on a nail in the wall of his bedroom. After years of the same process, the nail bent under the weight of the rejections, so he replaced it with a spike. Even while looking at the mound of rejections pinned to his wall every day, he didn’t stop writing. His only sentiment that serves as a partial explanation for the vicious force with which he wrote in his teenage years was, “when you’re too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure” (On Writing).
There is definitely a good amount of truth in that statement. I have been writing for the last ten years of my life, but because I was always a teenager, and because writing was always something I did on the side (school being my main focus and priority), I never expected success. Any rejections I received slipped by like leaves in a river. Rejection was part of the process, I knew, or, at least, that is what I had always been told. It wasn’t until this year, when I turned twenty, that I became concerned about the fact that years had gone by and my main priority was still school, though I loved writing the most, and I hadn’t made any physical progress in my craft. Suddenly, each rejection became like a crack in the jaw from a heavy fist. Before, rejection was a symbol for progress; now it was simply a loud voice screaming, “failure!”
Part of my problem was that I hadn’t learned to utilize my rejection. Stephen King thoroughly understood this concept: those rejection slips pinned to his wall were not an acceptance of his failure at writing, they were his motivation to keep moving forward, to remind himself that he wasn’t where he wanted to be. It should be emphasized, though, that there is a fine balance between using one’s rejection as a motivational tool, and discarding it and moving on. Not all would do so well as Stephen King to have their failure stuck up on the wall by their bed. There is a point when motivation becomes self-torture, and no one wants his or her writing to be a torturous event.
The wonderful thing about learning to properly deal with rejection as a writer is that it teaches a person to deal with all aspects of life. These rules and tools are not for writers alone, they are for anyone trying to succeed in anything, including basic living. It just so happens that writing has a much higher rejection rate than most other professions.
Confidence and Perseverance
Confidence and perseverance may seem the most obvious tools to success, but for a writer they are often the most difficult to maintain. Confidence is especially important. When I was younger I believed writers were inherently the opposite of confident. I viewed them as being naturally quiet, solitary, and extremely humble. Their work was something they presented to an audience like a sacrifice, their throats exposed and ready to be sliced open by the critics, and their hearts poised beating and bleeding on the page, stabbed by the eyes of the reader. There was no hard work or practice behind the words; there was nothing that the writer could gain confidence from. I suppose I was influenced by what I didn’t know was the Romantic view of art and literature — Wordsworth’s legendary idea of a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” which bypassed logic and reason and skipped right to the imagination and emotion. Writing well was an act of magic — and it still is, I assure you — what I mean is that I believed good writing came literally out of no where, out of some deep unconscious recess of one’s mind, perhaps, or from a friendly but detached spirit as ancient as the idea of the Greek’s muse.
Unfortunately (or fortunately for those who don’t have a natural talent for writing) good writing is learned. It comes from many strenuous hours of practice. And writing is such a particular practice, I have found, that it is difficult to determine if improvement is even taking place. It may appear that the writer is remaining stagnant, the increase in skill level is so imperceptibly slow.
Neil Gaiman, the author of Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and many other amazing pieces of work, describes his early years as a writer as being filled with confidence: “The great thing about not being very good yet is I didn’t know I wasn’t very good yet. I thought I was brilliant. And thinking that I was brilliant gave me the confidence to keep going until I actually happened to learn my craft enough to not be crap” (The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell). Gaiman claims confidence was the key to his perseverance. This is something, I believe, that every new writer must learn. There comes a time, in the face of constant criticism, that he or she must throw aside all fears of failure and really start to believe in him or herself. I have only recently begun this process myself. It has taken years of writing for me to tell strangers, as well as my closest friends, that I am a writer. I have only two pieces of published work to my name, and yet I am a writer. I write. That’s what I do. I attend University, yes, and I take care of my grandmother, yes, but I am first and foremost a writer. This is the confidence and fearlessness one needs in order to receive email after email proclaiming that his or her writing is not good enough, and to keep writing anyway.
The Goal Behind the Work
Now I will speak to you directly, writer to writer.
A question you must always ask yourself as a writer, when sending your work to publishers, is what the reason is behind what you are doing. And it must be the real reason, not the reason you’ve formulated in your mind and recited over and over to your friends and family when they ask. Really, truly, why do you write?
If it’s for money, you’re bound to be sorely disappointed, as I’m sure you already know. If it’s for fame, well, good luck to you. If it is to please your readers, you’re getting a little closer. Now, if it’s for the intrinsic value of writing to write, you are the most likely to come out of the whole process (writing and submitting work) unscathed. Of course, it is always nice to have the affirmation when publishers choose your work, but there is something perfectly beautiful about the act of writing for no reason other than to write and produce art. Franz Kafka, the author of “Metamorphosis,” wrote an incredible amount of stories and novels in his lifetime, in spite of working at an insurance company during the day, and, at the end of his life, suffering from tuberculosis. He published only a few pieces of work while he was alive, and on his deathbed, he made his good friend Max Brod promise to burn all of his unpublished manuscripts. Fortunately, when Kafka died at the age of forty-one from his disease, Brod abandoned his promise and published Kafka’s work, unleashing upon the world the haunting and often confusing writing of his friend. Many conclude that it was because of Kafka’s insecurities and a possible mental illness that he didn’t want to publish his work. Even if this is true, there is something to be learned from the story. It begs the question, what if no one ever read your work, even if it was the best work in human history? What if it was burned? Would you be satisfied?
Asking these questions is not only a way to regain focus in your writing and fend off the emotional weight of rejections, it also makes you a better writer. It is important, as they say, to take into consideration the target audience, but I think it is more important to write what you want to write, in the way that you want to write it. I have tried, over and over, to write in a fashion or style that I believe publishers want to see. It always comes across forced, fake, and it is without fail incredibly boring, to the reader as well as myself. Imagine this: the entire world has been decimated around you, and you are the last one left on planet earth. Besides using it as a tool to lessen your loneliness, would you write? What would you write about? Whatever it is that you would write, you should be writing that now.
Margaret Atwood puts it this way, “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it” (The Blind Assassin). This is the way to write pure stories, the stories of the heart; this is also the way to erase entirely the scars of rejection. If your purpose as a writer is clear, it doesn’t matter if every person in the world thinks you aren’t good enough. Constructive criticism is always, always to be recognized in order to maximize improvement, but the opinions of others must not become your own.
After staring at those rejection slips throughout all of his younger years, King writes that “if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever” (On Writing). Nothing can give a writer more confidence and perseverance than to know that his or her writing runs deeper than the next paycheck. True writing, writing that exists for no other reason than to be art, can subvert the most distinguished criticism and disapproval. This kind of writing stands alone, and this kind of writer is untouchable.