The other day, I was driving to work and listening to Arcade Fire in the car and I started to cry. I sat in the parking lot and tried to figure out why.
Last year, I worked really, really hard on a 33 1/3 proposal for Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. It ended up being something like 90 pages. It was all I worked on for about six-eight weeks. I listened to the album over and over. I listened to each song over and over as I wrote chapter summaries for each song. I did tons of research online and took books out of the library. I knew it was a long shot. I wanted to finish it before a scheduled trip to the east coast, but I didn’t. I worked on the plane, while the baby slept in bursts of 20 minutes before she woke up screaming. I worked on it in the mornings before she woke up. And I even took a day to go to a coffee shop in Queens to finish it just before the deadline. I was really, really proud. Proud of the work, proud that I finished. I was just starting to figure out how to be both a writer and a mother, and finishing a proposal of this magnitude was a big deal for me.
It didn’t even make the long list. It got cut immediately. I pushed all my feelings aside and went to work on the next project, but I stopped listening to that album. I took the CD out of the CD player in my car. I couldn’t bear to listen to it. It made me feel shame, horror, embarrassment.
But the other day my daughter was upset in the back seat and I dug out the CD and put on The Suburbs because she loves that song and it always makes her stop crying. She had spent the first year of her life listening to it every time we got in my car. So, the morning I was driving to work, the CD just started playing when I put in the key. I had missed these songs so much. Love them so much. All the shame was gone.
I never told anyone this—that I had stopped listening to my favorite album.
As we move through different stages in our writing careers, we have to deal with various forms of rejection: rejection from literary magazines, agents, editors, and presses, then we have to deal with more personalized rejections: the bad review, the negative comments. And underneath all of this is something we don’t talk about—Shame. The shame that comes from comparing yourself to more successful peers, and the shame that comes from achieving a level of success and nothing coming from it, no one sees or seemingly cares.
This week, we asked Entropy contributors to share their stories of rejection—how to rationalize rejection, and how to overcome this integral and necessary part of the process, and their stories of shame that come from the rejection and reception of our writing.
I have two modes of rejection-survival. 1) bizarre rituals, and 2) effective bad-feeling-mitigation structural fixes.
In category one, I have a box shaped like a book in which I keep small, weird tokens my husband has gifted me, one for every story I’ve sold. When I’m bothered by a rejection, I take these tokens out and arrange them, or just riffle through them. In category two, I have a rejection email address that I use only for submissions, and I do not allow myself to check it until after 10pm, right before bed. I’m allowed to wallow in despair for however long it takes me to fall asleep that night…but the next morning, almost always the sting is gone.
The single greatest rejection antidote, though, fits into both categories. So long as I am currently writing, and writing consistently, I am 1 billion times less sensitive to rejection. The opposite is also true: if I’ve allowed “life” to get in the way of a consistent writing routine, I probably shouldn’t be sending work out, as the rejections feel way more brutal and inhibit me getting back to the chair & the work.
I used to say, “Divorce…that’s the whole reason I’m never getting married.’ But then I just had to send out my work. I was compulsive and shy. I was too afraid ever of how my voice sounded and so couldn’t do readings. I was nervous about every step in the parade…writing, submitting, reading, getting rejected. Once I nervously typed out five slightly different cover letters and mistakenly mailed all of them with my entry. Carolina Quarterly rejected me, but did so with five slightly different rejection letters. So sure, I felt a stab when my work was turned down, but I’ve stopped caring about rejection from publishers. I’m working hard. They’re working hard. We’re all working hard and sweaty and we’re all in this life together. The rejection that knocks me over is the quiet kind. I had a dream or the dream had me. Some voice in the wind lively-upped my shadow. I saw something. Wrote something. Then an editor was like, “I wouldn’t be afraid to put this up.” But only 20-30 people ever saw it, dashing through some clicks, or if it were printed, maybe a few of the other contributors might see it if my name were close to theirs, in the bios or something. Rejection isn’t great, but it beats the world’s apathy to the only thing I ever smiled about with my whole face.
Erin Hart Wisti
I definitely deal with rejection much, much better now. I’ve talked to a lot of writers who have been rejected a lot, writers who now have books out and are getting solicited by bigger presses. It’s just a numbers game and occasionally a matter of getting to know the right people, which is frustrating but somehow comforting at the same time. It feels less personal this way, as a lot of presses get a ton of submissions. Even if a piece was good, it may not have been read thoroughly due to time issues, may simply not be a good fit for a given magazine/journal, or may be really good but unfortunately there’s limited space. I’m going into my third year out of my MFA program, and learning to accept rejection and keep writing has been invaluable to me. I no longer take rejection as a reflection of myself as a writer, which I think is vital if you want to stay in this field.
I start out most mornings by sitting down to doubt my basic comprehension of the English language.
Dennis James Sweeney
I know as you get older and wiser you’re supposed to get more graceful about rejection, and in some ways that’s happened. I realize more and more what others are saying: it’s a subjective process, it’s not personal, and it’s just part of the job as a writer.
But I feel like I’ve gotten more confident in my writing too, so I’ve also begun to realize that in a way rejection IS personal. Not in a cruel way, but in terms of a given editor’s taste. When my work was rejected in the past, I used to be more willing to believe that the work wasn’t good enough. These days, if I’m more confident in a piece, there’s a small part of me that I allow to think the editor is crazy. A small part – not enough to be completely delusional, but enough to make me want to send the piece out again.
Rejection doesn’t bother me much, maybe bc I’m an editor and know how subjective the whole process is, and how much acceptances can be about individual tastes that don’t have anything to do with any supposed intrinsic “goodness” of the work. That said, every now and again I’ll be really excited about something and end up feeling disappointed, but it passes quickly.
Shame: yes. It is weirdly shameful to write a book, have it come out, and hear very little back. I try to make some meaning out of that but it always comes out so depressing. For what it’s worth, those 33 1/3 proposals are so hard, and so few get accepted! I don’t know what the sweet spot is for those, but it’s a small one. There is a kind of shame I recognize in making something so filled with your own passion and love that seems to disappear upon entrance into the public sphere which is sometimes so particularly heartbreaking, like someone looking at you and seeing a ghost.
It’s just another form of swiping left. Everyone has their reasons.
I stopped going on Goodreads after I read my first bad review on there (the review in its entirety: “Ugh, don’t bother.”) Just closed the browser and never looked again. To this day, if I have to go on Goodreads for some reason, I make sure to stay away from my author page like it’s covered in angry bees. I’m pretty good about rejection, usually, in the sense that I am able to compartmentalize it with a mental “Nope” and move on. But there is that moment before the compartmentalization kicks in. My chest seizes up, I take a deep breath, cross whatever it was (agent, publisher, journal) off the list, and push it down the oubliette. Healthy, right?
Every day. I carry a secret shame that has everything to do with what I wasn’t able to do–be it failed promises or failed relationships or failed concepts or novels/books I believe have failed in some way shape or form.
I have had to deal with so much rejection in my writing career that I’ve kind of gotten used to it. It’s a “Water off a duck’s back,” sort of thing by now. I keep meticulous records of all my submissions for the past five years & at the moment I’m looking at 81 rejections to 15 acceptances. I send poetry out cyclically. Every time it gets rejected I just send it out more.I currently have a query out for my punk Portland nineties novel SCAFFOLDING at a small press that looks very promising that I have very high hopes for & I am just crossing my finger and hoping for the best. I know I’m going to be crushed when/if it’s rejected but given agents usually reject my work I’m pretty much used to it by now. My solution to rejection is log it in my spreadsheet then just send it out somewhere else. I try not to let it get me down too much because I understand that that’s just how the writing game works.
As much as I feel a lot of joy and validation from my writing I too feel a deep sense of shame because of my transgressive material. Thus is you actually read one of my books/essays/poems, you know a lot about my dark side. I write openly and graphically about mental illness, STDs, promiscuity, drug addiction, alcoholism, the catastrophic failure of my first marriage and my brief stint writing porn for money and repeatedly I feel that if one actually gets through one of my wretched books one must know what a terrible person I am. That is why I am always so nice to those rare few fans who identify themselves to me because it’s like they’ve seen my dark side yet they forgive me & that feels so precious & rare.
Yes. I feel it too. Vulnerable. Weirdly it’s helped me to have kids bc I can be kinder to myself when I see their struggles. Mothering myself as I mother them.
I think one of the most shame-provoking aspects about being an author (a word I increasingly detest; the implication is that writers can’t achieve authorship until they publish, as though publishing is the end-all, be-all validation of a text’s artistic qualities) is the massive indifference into which your work disappears. And not just indifference from some “faceless public” who will never learn about your book, never care about its subjects or care for its style, never want to take a chance on it, never etc. I mean the kind of indifference you encounter within the community. For example, I have sent out countless complimentary copies of my novel. I have been very conscientious (or so I would like to think) about identifying other writers whose work I admire and who I believe might find something worthwhile in my book. (BTW, I receive emails like this myself every so often, and I always respond to them, and not just out of a sense of obligation; I like learning about new writers, and meeting potential new colleagues) I contacted these writers and explained to them that I am not soliciting reviews, or blurbs, only looking to bring the book to their attention in the hopes that some conversation might follow. The book itself is incomplete without readers; readers are essential to completing the work of art only begun by the writing of the book itself. Surely every writers believes this as well, and their aesthetics, however different from mine, respect that principle. Last summer, I corresponded with one such writer and received a positive response: yes, thanks for the offer and please do send me a copy of your book. Fast forward to December. I see there are several 1-penny copies of my book available from second-party sellers on Amazon. Well, I do need a few more copies to comp, and I’m assuming these are copies sent out for review but never reviewed. So I buy them up, and they begin arriving. And one of those copies? The copy I mailed to said “fellow writer” in July. I know because I had personalized the copy for this individual, and there is my inscription, right there on the flyleaf.
The work itself, the making, is ultimately all that matters. Some days I dream of George Oppen-ing or Bob Kaufman-ing myself in order to best follow through on those committments. But then the excitement of sharing new work kicks in. One of the things I’ve pledged myself to this year especially is to resist the urge to share first via submission and to share first instead with my closest friends and faithful readers. To get back to giving gifts that, because they have no intrinsic value beyond the trust to which they are a testament, are most fungible, and most invaluable.
Yes, I feel shame, but I don’t know how to talk about it.
Like Kristen said– yes, but I’m not sure I want to talk about it.