Rejection hurts. Unless you’re an emotionally devoid robot. If that’s the case, then we have other issues to discuss. Since birth, we’ve been programmed that the word ‘no’ has negative connotations. It even has a blunt sound to it compared to its alternative word ‘yes.’ Admit it, you just said those two words. I know because I did too. Rejection comes in all shapes and sizes. Examples include rejection letters from publishers, failed wedding proposal, a child’s request to a parent. Maybe you spill your feelings to someone who informs you that they don’t reciprocate them. Like I said, all shapes and sizes. We, as a species, hate to be told ‘no.’ Humans crave approval just as much as we crave certain foods and drinks. So what happens when we get denied that fix we’ve been hankering for? How do we shrug off that feeling of rejection and move forward?
As a writer, rejection is just another part of the job. There’s a joke I hear floating around the writing community that you’re not really a writer until you’ve received your first rejection letter. There’s this story Stephen King tells in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, about his own battle with rejection as a writer.
“By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing,” King writes.
Now, I already know what you all might be thinking. He was only fourteen at the time. You know what I have to say to that? Rejection doesn’t care if you’re fourteen or forty. No still means no.
I’ve got my own share of rejection letters too. All but one are for short story submissions. One is from a publisher that already agreed to publish my books, I signed the contracts and everything, and then the publisher sent me a letter a year later stating that they were cutting about half of their authors. Since I wasn’t an established author (not having anything published), I was cut. That rejection hurt more than the short story rejections. I was still in college at the time. So going around gloating that I had a seven part book deal in my creative writing club was probably a bad idea. The college paper even interviewed me about the deal. I felt like a literary giant. That contract cancellation letter served as the rock that defeated Goliath.
I questioned the quality of my writing at that point. I questioned whether I was on the right path. Questions like “should I give up on writing” and “what was wrong with my writing” floated through my head as I reread that cancellation letter. It didn’t matter that the publishing company axed a huge amount of their new talent. It didn’t matter that during that year long association with that publisher there were similar events where new authors were purged. None of that mattered as I tried to process why I was sent the cancellation letter. It happened to me and that’s all that really mattered at the time.
Eventually I got over those feelings and pushed past the questions of self-doubt. A few months after I received that letter I resubmitted to another publisher, Burning Willow Press, LLC, and was quickly accepted. We’ve published two books together with another five on the way. I’ve got short stories in two of their anthologies with another coming soon. I even work for them as a submissions reader. To say everything went fine is an understatement.
If you want my advice about how to get over rejection (you probably aren’t still reading this if you didn’t), then here it is: Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.
Yes, I just quoted Dory from Finding Nemo (2003), but here me out. It’s excellent advice. What would have happened if fourteen year old Stephen King had quit after receiving all those rejection letters? All those movies, novels, comic books, and the fear of clowns (among a laundry list of ordinary objects) would be gone. Instead, he just kept swimming.
I had recently suffered some rejection and I really didn’t want to do anything. Sunday came around and I was woken by my best friend walking into my house. He has a key. Looking at my watch, I saw that if I got dressed I’d be able to stop by Burger King for coffee before church. To be honest, I didn’t want to go (I didn’t really want to do anything for that matter), but I went strictly because I hadn’t attended in quite awhile. I was glad I did, too. The normal pastor was gone that day and one of the elders was speaking. He quoted Rocky Balboa which was both something I didn’t expect and something that I needed to hear.
“It ain’t about how hard you’re hit, it’s about how you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward,” Rocky says in Rocky Balboa (2006).
Don’t let your rejections shape the type of person you are. Stand up, shrug it off, and keep going forward. Just because you’ve received a rejection letter from a publisher, it isn’t the end of the world. I knew a guy in college that wrote several books. I once asked him if he’s tried getting them published. He tried, but after rejection after rejection he moved on from those books. He was going to college to learn how to better master the craft. Even though he quit submitting to places, he moved forward in a different way.
This advice is applicable to every facet of our lives when it comes to handling rejection. What’s the cliched phrase, “There’s more fish in the sea?” Is it just me or am I mentioning fish one too many times in this column?
The moral of this story is if at first you don’t succeed try, try again? Eh, I like Dory’s advice better.