Wrestling with Rejection

I will not pretend that I am able to handle the disappointment of “no” as well as others. I’ve read so many great pieces on rejection and one would think that over time my skin would have turned to hide by now, thick and durable. Except it’s not.

Rejection fucking hurts.

Today I found out that my work didn’t make it through the second round of cuts in a 4 round writing contest. I know they had to trim – from the thousands that entered, I made it through the first cuts to 790. From there, the harder cut to 160…funny, when I do the math it actually takes a little of the sting out of not making it.

Just enough to let me write about it here.

I think it’s healthy to compete with your writing. It can be fun. You could win publication and/or money. More likely, however, you will not win anything. You will submit something you like or even love, and it will dissolve into the internet like powdered creamer into hot coffee.  You’ll accumulate enough rejection letters to wallpaper a room a very gloomy shade of Times New Roman.

It takes courage to put your work out there, especially when you like what you’ve created…

***Oncoming Ramble/Backstory***

This makes me think of a really annoying professor I had in high school – art teacher.  For our very first project  we spent the whole class on a drawing that would be graded at the end of class (we had block scheduling, so classes were about ninety minutes). He walked around, critiquing and giving notes. We all worked dutifully on our creations. At the end of class, he brought out a giant rubber trash can.

“When you create something, and you submit it, you have no control over what happens to it. Learn to distance yourself from your creations. Now, destroy your drawings and throw them away. Welcome to art.*”

I had spent an hour working on my rinky-dink little drawing. Staring at the trash can, I felt high-school fury. I had made a thing! It was not the best thing, but I had put effort into creating it! I held my art to me, protectively. The teacher looked at us, smirking.

“What? This is a valuable lesson. Chuck your projects in the trash. Learn to let go.”

My obedience kicked in – a teacher was giving an instruction. The majority of my self fought against it, but I walked forward, crumpled up my drawing, and put it reluctantly in the trash can. I don’t think I had the courage to glare at him, but I did give him a look. I quit class that week, switched out to…probably music. It was high school, decades ago, but I remember how much I hated him in that moment for telling me my work was nothing to anyone but myself, and that the sooner I distanced myself from self-love, the sooner I would be able to….

Like I said, I quit his class. Perhaps the next lesson was what I would learn from not caring about my work when I was done with it. I do remember how my mother, herself an artist, reacted when I came home and drew a crappy picture of a piece of paper for that evening’s homework: “That’s partially true…but what an idiotic way to teach it.”

***End Ramble***

*I’m not sure the teacher said “Welcome to art.” I know he said something really unhelpful like this. He may have said “Take it from me, a professional.” or “Learn from my life.” or “Georgia o’Keefe is a hack.” 

What is the point of this rambling story?

Well for starters, I didn’t realize Banksy was one of his students.

It took years, but I think I finally grasp one of his core concepts. We hold on to our work, even the work we know is probably not world changing, with pride. Creation is not easy, and letting go of the thing we create is even more challenging. Yet if the goal is to entertain others, or to share ideas, we have to put those little glass sculptures and delicate pages out into the cold world.

How do we navigate when the world eats our work?

One of the key points that we have to go back to, over and over, is that a passing judgment on our work is not a passing judgment on our person. In a recent column in the Atlantic, a therapist helps a young person facing rejection from their dream university (I feel ya, young one).  A key idea that jumped out and resonated when I faced my own rejection today was on differentiating between rejection of item and rejection of self:

“…the problem with pinning your identity on something outside of you is that your identity becomes precarious. Nothing—not a particular school, a particular partner, or a particular job—can stand in for your true identity. An identity is shaped from the inside, and nobody gets to choose it but you” (Gottlieb, May 2020).

I think that is what that (jerk) teacher was trying to get us to see, all those years ago – that you can’t mistake someone accepting your art or writing as accepting your person, just as you shouldn’t take rejection as a referendum on you.

That is what I go forward with in the face of this latest rejection – it’s not me. They just didn’t like this one thing I wrote. I will now go eat a sad cake and get back to work.

Notes for me, and for you, the other writers out there:

  1. Give yourself space to be sad – loss and negative feelings are not unhealthy. Explore them, and ask why you’re feeling them.
  2. Don’t immediately go and reread whatever didn’t get accepted. You will either get defensive if you love it, or you will throw your medium out a window in a fit of self-loathing.
  3. If you get feedback, give yourself a little space before you read it. You can learn from constructive feedback! Alternatively, be on the lookout for personal critiques that don’t actually help you. “Oh, romantic poetry is so cliche…” doesn’t mean your romance poetry is bad, just that the judge/reader was predisposed to not care for it.
  4. When you’ve finished eating your grief food, admit that you are still alive, still capable of writing, and are going to keep at what you love.

Keep writing, keep submitting, keep your voices singing.