(A big thanks to participants in the Book Binders’ Salon for a stimulating conversation last night about rejection. I’m indebted to you for most of this post!)
The hard reality for every writer is that we face rejection prior to publication—from grantors, contests, agents, and publishers—and after publication, in the form of bad reviews (if we’re lucky enough to have our work reviewed), readers’ scorn, and sales numbers. These “lacerations of the soul” are a given. We fear their sting long before we feel it. Once we’re rejected, and rejected repeatedly, it’s impossible not to be affected. We believe the rejections, we form a thick skin, we reject our writing prematurely so others don’t have to do it for us, we despair, we rebel and self-publish, we lash out at the publishing industry, and (hopefully) we return to our desks to continue writing.
It’s so easy to get thrown off kilter.
I’m curious about what a centered, soulful response to this publishing environment might look like. There’s a refrain in authors’ advice about rejection: Return to the work. Trust the process. Remember your path.
“There are still many more days of failure ahead, whole seasons of failure, things will go terribly wrong, you will have huge disappointments, but you have to prepare for that, you have to expect it and be resolute and follow your own path.” ― Anton Chekhov.
“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’“ ― Saul Bellow
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” ― Barbara Kingsolver
“You ask whether your verses are good… You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now…I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.” ― Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.
But wait! the doubter inside says. Maybe my work really isn’t good. Maybe I could make it better. This is true, and yes, you should always strive to grow as a writer. Rejection, well received, can keep us humble. Good rejection teaches us how to improve. In working toward acceptance, we strive for a higher quality of thought and craft. But we should never give editors, publishers, grantors or the marketplace complete authority over what deserves to be written and shared. Even the best gatekeepers are imperfect. And no gatekeeper has authority over your soul. We get thrown off track whenever we give others’ opinions more power than our own, which is why success can be just as damaging as rejection. “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance,” Ray Bradbury wrote.
Experienced authors know that real authority resides in our initial and steady drive to create. We tap a source of inspiration, guidance, and perseverance, and this source is reliable even in the face of an audience. I think the spiritual challenge of publishing (in whatever form) is staying connected and faithful to this source.
If you have any stories about how you do this, I’d love to hear them!