We’ve had a little setback recently—a little one, mind you. More of a pseudo-rejection than a full-blown rejection. We’re not out of the game, and as my agent is fond of saying, we have not yet begun to fight. There is no cause for alarm … well, no cause for inordinate alarm. I have had several people remark on how non-freaked out I am by this. I am, in fact, less freaked out by rejection than I was by waiting for what turned out to be rejection, and probably less freaked out by rejection than I would be by acceptance. (Sane? Who said I was sane?)
But while I’m sitting here all by my lonely, rejected self, I’m having a few thoughts about rejection that might help the other writers, musicians, and other artists in my life when it’s their turn.
1. Rejection does not always have to be about you. In fact, it probably isn’t about you now. I’ve gotten rejected for some pretty interesting reasons over the years—my personal favorite was the boss who fired me for “asking questions we don’t know the answers to”—and a surprising number of those rejections have been utterly impersonal. Try to remember that sometimes rejection is as random as the weather—maybe the person who rejected you had indigestion, or just couldn’t stand any piece of writing with the word “purple” in it. Don’t laugh. I’ve seen editors ready to scream at the word “rabbit.”
2. Rejection is not the same thing as criticism, and even when it is, not all criticism is necessarily helpful. This one took some getting used to. Most of the time, if you’re professional enough to get rejected by pros, you will get a reason. This reason may be good, and it may be complete hogwash. Sometimes it’s the standard and well-intentioned, “Your work does not meet our current needs.” Do not let yourself go crazy trying to guess what those needs are, and then trying to meet them. If someone gives you a more specific reason for rejection—say, they thought your main character wasn’t funny enough—ask yourself whether modifying your work to meet a demand like that will actually improve it. If you never intended your main character to be funny, the fact that someone doesn’t think he’s funny enough is pretty much irrelevant. It’s like saying your elephant isn’t green enough. What you need is not green paint for your elephant; it is someone who understands that elephants are supposed to be gray.
3. Rejection is an opportunity to learn. I know, this one seems counterintuitive if you read the last item, but trust me, there is a point here. Sometimes criticism is incredibly useful—which is why I have a policy of taking any advice I get that makes my story more fun for me to write and read. And sometimes the way in which the criticism is unhelpful is useful, too. Should you change your basic assumptions about your work? Should you change your strategy in submitting it—maybe take a different approach and submit to different places?
4. Rejection will only make you crazy if you let it. This is something you don’t see often on lists of advice for artists. Emotional maintenance for artists is just as important as mechanical maintenance for a car. If you don’t deal with stuff, you’re going to overheat and maybe burst into flames at an inconvenient moment. So whatever you do to stop things from eating at you—employ it in the face of rejection. Go for a walk. Play with a dog. Sing. Work on another project. Watch a movie. Spend time with people you love. Whatever it is, set aside some time for it in the event of rejection. Because I’ve seen people get eaten alive by depression and I’ve also seen people get eaten alive by stifled emotions, I have developed my own personal safety valve. I set a time frame in which I’m allowed to be upset about something. I don’t get to take it out on anybody else—at least, not if my primary emotion is anger—and if I have to get weepy, I use a designated listener. I take time out, even if it’s just a few minutes, to do something I enjoy and console myself. I’ll often reread a favorite book or work on a sewing project that requires me to focus on the task at hand while the back of my brain processes. Figure out what you have to do to handle the emotional side of rejection, and it won’t make you crazy when the time comes.
5. Remember that rejection can be the best thing that ever happened to you. Okay, you are now allowed to scream epithets at me. I have done exactly the same thing at people who gave me sunny platitudes when I was in the throes of rejection. But it doesn’t make this particular platitude less true. My first experience with real soul-crushing rejection (well, as a writer) ended up making Masks about a thousand percent better. It also forced me to sit down and figure out whether I was really serious about this book thing. I found that I was, which saved me a lot of angst and soul-searching later. Repeated rejection, with repeated reappraisals of my work in light of those events, forced me to get to know my own story much more intimately, until I was rock-solid certain of what had to be in there and what could change if I needed it to.
None of this means that rejection doesn’t suck like a Dustbuster in overdrive. But if you’re smart, and handle it right, it can be one more thing that makes you a great artist.