Re-framing Rejection

Mysticartdesign Image – Pixabay

Recently I re-read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and for me, it still stands out as one of the best books focusing on ‘the craft’. The memoir conversational style of writing throughout creates a very honest and accessible account of King’s journey to becoming a best-selling author, with the technical advice neatly threaded into the narrative in a way that makes you think this guy clearly knows what he’s talking about, as you can read he’s a natural storyteller within the pages of this book.

Things that struck me this time around when I was reading was the fearlessness and tenacity King showed as a young writer when he would study the stories in numerous short story publications, then submit, submit, submit. If he got a rejection (and there were many as he started out), he simply kept going, often re-working and quickly re-submitting elsewhere, all the time consciously developing his craft. He did what we should all do really – don’t dwell on the ‘no’, just strive to get better and to find your story a home where it fits. (Keep reading on and I’ll share a challenge which might help with this)

Ironically the one time King nearly gave up on a piece of writing was with Carrie, his debut novel that launched his career. When he started to write Carrie, it was as a short story, and he felt it just wasn’t working. I love the way King threads in stories about his wife Tabitha, often reminiscing about how she has supported him at key moments throughout his career. Nothing better illustrates this than when Tabitha retrieves the crumpled pages of Carrie out of the bin and tells King to keep going because she wants to see how the story ends. King reflects on what his experience with Carrie taught him and I’ll quote an abridged version here;

Don’t stop a piece of work because it’s hard (emotionally or imaginatively). Keep going even when you don’t feel like it, and ‘sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is shoveling shit from a sitting position.’ pg.82

Another section which stood out to me was when King described ‘the first time in (his) life, (when) writing was hard’. This was when he was working as a teacher, and even although he acknowledged the good parts – loving the kids and co-workers – he described ending the week feeling like he had ‘jumper cables clamped to (his) brain.’ (pg. 76) and it was the one time he, ..’came close to despairing about (his) future as a writer.’ I’ve included this in this post as it’s something, even with dropping a day at work, that really resonates with me. With a caseload of close to one hundred young people (doing indepth one to one work), and I’m now in an education setting one day a week, I understand the ‘jumper cables clamped to my brain’ description very well. It takes a lot to decompress, and stay creative.

Staying motivated to write when you have a lot of other things competing with your time is difficult. Especially if you don’t always see much reward.

So, something else I read lately which caught my attention, and actually gave me a spark of motivation, was an article about setting yourself Rejection Goals. You can read ‘Why You should aim to get 100 Rejections a Year’ here (The author of the article Kim Liao actually references King’s On Writing and the way he collected his initial rejections, nailing them to the wall, like a badge of honour).

The idea behind the 100 rejections goal is the more you submit, the more acceptances you are likely to get, and it quietens ‘your fragile ego.’ The perfectionist in me, never mind my fragile creative ego, thinks the psychology of this one is quite clever – if I can trick my brain into thinking my aim is to reach 100 rejections, I’m going to let go of any nagging doubts that I’m not good enough, and to let go of any disappointments of ‘set-backs’ because that simply is no longer the objective of my task.

So if you’re reading this and it seems like a great new challenge to embark upon, why don’t you join me?

We can sail into 2023 with the aim of racking up a lot of ‘nos’, or in the case of modern publishing, a big empty silence of never hearing back …

Good luck!

What does writing success look like?

Last year when I was trying to decide what direction to move in, (keep sending out Promise Me to agents, or try to independently publish), I reflected on the question: What does writing success look like to me?

I think this is an important question all writers should ask themselves every so often as I am sure the answers will probably change from year to year.

Years ago I would have given quite starry-eyed answers along the lines of: be published by one of the ‘Big Five’, have a best-selling book that’s on display in all major bookshops, be invited to speak at book festivals and big writing events, get mentioned in ‘important’ press coverage, have my book optioned for film (that one will never stop being a dream), be nominated for prestigious prizes…

Mostly now what is important to me is knowing that my work is being read, and connecting with an audience, whatever form that audience takes (i.e. I don’t really care about talking at big festivals anymore, though of course I’d never turn down an invite!).

Competitions have had a massive impact on my confidence as a writer, reassuring me at key points of my career that I should keep going, and giving me a much needed boost. Lately I have been lucky enough to have a couple of competition successes, winning first place in the Writing Magazine school-themed short story competition, which you can read here. I also just found out this week that Promise Me has made the Finalist round for the Book Award category of the Page Turner Awards. I think it’s important for writers to acknowledge and take stock of any successes and wins, as we get so many knock-backs along the way, and some of the lovely feedback I’ve had for my short story really has made my month!

But there are downfalls of course if you focus too much on the need for external approval, and in the latest chapters of The Artist’s Way, (yes, I am still working my way through this!), Julia Cameron talks about how if ‘creatives’ constantly chase ‘Fame’ and ‘success’, which is measured by others, it can be a massive block to our creativity and distracts from our enjoyment of the process.  On page 172  Cameron says, ‘… addictive, and it always leaves us hungry. …The desire to attain it, to hold on to it, can produce the “How am I doing?” syndrome’, which she points out then makes us start to question our work in terms of, ‘not if it’s going well for us’ but ‘How does it look to them?’

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks of something similar, when creatives let their Egos get in the way. ‘An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call a “hungry ghost” – forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed’ (page 249) She also warns of viewing creativity on a ‘limited human scale of success and failures’ as it takes away from the ‘glory of merely making things, and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations.’ (page 70) In this section she quoted Harper Lee, (in response to questions around when her next novel would be released), “I’m scared…when you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.”  (page 68).

Authors such as Harper Lee who had phenomenal success, in terms of sales and recognition, then ceased writing, fascinate me. Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and sold 2.5 million copies in its first year, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was published in 1936 and sold 1 million copies in six months, and also won the Pulitzer Prize. Harper Lee of course did eventually publish another novel Go Set A Watchman in July 2015, one year before her death, but a lot of controversy surrounded the release, with the revelation that the book was in fact supposedly an original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and many said if Harper Lee had been of sound mind, would not have agreed to the release.

Regardless of this, there is no denying that Lee obviously felt pressures after her debut success. Some articles I came across have quotes where she said, “Success was just as scary as failure.” “Public encouragement, I hoped for a little, but I got rather a lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening.” (The Telegraph, Feb 2016 – read full article here)

In articles I found about Mitchell, it appeared that she had devoted so much time to writing and researching Gone with The Wind (eight years), that she had no desire to go down that road again, and was quoted as saying to a NY reviewer, ‘I wouldn’t go through this again for anything.’ (see Georgia Women article here) Mitchell was also thrust into the spotlight, accumulating thousands of fans, who would send her fan mail, with Mitchell attempting to respond to every letter. In one response she addresses a fan’s question about writing a sequel , ‘Even if I had the urge to write another book, I do not know where I would find the time, for my life, since the publication of my novel…has been lived in the middle of a tornado.’ The full letter can be viewed here Other articles cite that Mitchell was heavily involved in political positions and then World War II struck in 1939, which would have of course been a distraction. Mitchell also met an untimely death in her late forties when she was struck by a taxi, so who knows if she would ever have changed her mind about penning another book.

A writer I have much admiration for is Donna Tartt who has written three books in thirty years. You can see her being interviewed here When the interviewer asks her ‘If she could become prolific and get faster with effort’ I bet she felt like slapping him (like she isn’t already putting in a lot of effort?). Instead she smiles sweetly and says, “I’ve tried to write faster and I don’t really enjoy it.” Her debut novel The Secret History was a best-seller, and had an initial print run of 75,000 (as opposed to the publisher’s usual 10,000), so you could say Tartt has the luxury of a decent sales history (see what I did there), to allow her time to create, but I am sure she must have kicked back against immense pressure from the publishing industry to produce more; faster, after her initial success.

In a world which is obsessed with producing and consuming it’s kind of refreshing to see a writer who will say, I’m doing this my way, at my pace, and you can all just wait for my genius to unfold.