As writers, we pour our heart and soul into our work. While the details in our stories or novels may not mesh with real life – our protagonist may not even share our philosophies – the thoughts, emotions and underlying belief system are ours.
No wonder it’s so hard to separate ourselves from our work!
Yet, for the sake of our writing – never mind our sanity – it’s important that we do.
Conflating self and work shifts the emotional emphasis from work as a product of labor to work as an expression of our personal identity. Acceptance or rejection, criticism or acclaim – these subjective, often idiosyncratic, judgments become an assessment of us. Great when the assessment is positive, not so great when it’s not.
Because it’s so difficult to separate from our work, every rejection – however subjective – feels personal, like an assault on our being. After a painful rejection, a lost or unfulfilled contract, a negative review, it can be hard to bounce back.
Despondent after failing to find a publisher for his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole committed suicide. The novel, published posthumously, won the Pulitzer Prize. Toole is an outlier, of course. Most of us don’t go to that length after a rejection, but I’ve seen writers fall into depression. I’ve struggled myself.
Several years ago, my first novel was under contract with a small publisher. When the deal fell through, even though we’d separated by mutual agreement, I felt like a loser, the loss personal, a rejection of me, a statement of my ability and potential. I forgot all the wonderful support and encouragement I’d received – the agents, the editors from major houses who’d complimented my writing and called me talented.
Instead, I revisited every rejection. The book was too literary. It wasn’t literary enough. It was too depressing (I’d since changed the ending). I’d focused too much on the children . . . Nobody wants the book, I told myself. Ergo, nobody wants me.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, because it’s so self-obsessive and pathetic, but that’s exactly how I felt.
In the year before the release of this novel, instead of focusing on a new project, as I should have, I spent all my time developing marketing strategies. Marketing is important, sure. Investing all my energy in the book kept me emotionally attached, and left me vulnerable. When I lost the publishing contract, I lost everything. I had nothing to fall back on, nothing to energize me. I couldn’t start a new project. I tried.
My attorney suggested self-publishing, but I couldn’t muster the confidence, or the energy, to do it. For months, I stagnated. My concentration wasn’t there. I’d begin a story or an essay and the piece would meander and lose focus, and I’d put it aside. I threw myself into revising that same first novel – yet again – writing and rewriting. If only I could perfect it, the book genie would swoop down, and whisk it to Madison Ave.
Problem was, I couldn’t perfect it. No book is perfect. At some point, you have to tell yourself you’ve done your best, and let go. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
It was not until my new project, Nowhere to Run, began to take shape that I stopped wallowing in self-pity and came to. Like my first novel, Nowhere is a family story – but the similarity ends there. Nowhere is a contemporary psychological thriller with a historical twist. Although I love reading thrillers, I’d never written one. To get a feel for structure, I had to read. A lot. That helped. To get the history right, I had to do research. These diversions distracted me, taking my obsessive mind off my first book.
I compiled notes, wrote character sketches, collected photographs for the setting. I can’t say the writing took off immediately – it didn’t – but that’s OK. Novels take time to develop, and false starts are common, particularly for authors who don’t plot the story before they write. Within a few months, I’d finished a chapter, and another.
Once I knew what I was writing about, I took notes and developed plot points. Now, the first novel, which had been draining me, slipped to the back of my mind. One day, I realized I hadn’t opened the file in months. It may sound silly, but that came as a shock. When I did open the file or glance at the ARC on my bookshelf, I felt a gentle tug, like the nostalgia you feel seeing a photograph of a forgotten childhood friend.
The book wasn’t my baby anymore. I’d finally let go. It was no longer a part of me.
That’s when I decided to publish. Emotionally distanced, I saw the book as a product – which, in reality, whether we like it or not, is what our books are. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care about reviews or whether readers like my novel or not. Of course I do. I want every reader to love it. But that’s unrealistic, and I know it, and I accept it. Had I not gained emotional distance, I’d be shattered by every negative remark.
Do I have a point? Yes, I do. Is there a lesson here somewhere? Yes, there is.
Always keep more than one iron in the fire. A friend gave me that advice early in my career, and for a long time I lived by it, and it sustained me. I don’t know why; for a few years, I dismissed it. And I lost hope. If not for my stubborn streak, I’d have quit.
Always keep more than one iron in the fire. The minute you put a manuscript in the mail, or publish your book, in that first flush of excitement, when you’re full of energy – start another. Working on a new project will distance you and give you perspective. Sure, rejection will still disappoint. But if you’re invested in the new project, believe in the work, the older will feel less immediate, and rejection won’t devastate you. It will be easier to tell yourself it’s OK, this is the one, and move on.
You’ll have hope.
Oh, and by the way, that first novel was In Leah’s Wake. It has gone on to win awards and, even more importantly, touch readers’ hearts. What more can an author ask for really?
For other coping strategies, see “Rebuild: 7 Ways to Pick Yourself Up After a Painful Rejection,”