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,” my post on the Lit Coach, Erin Reel’s blog.
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So true!! I've finally reached the point where I can see criticism of my work as something separate to criticism of me, but it still hurts every time someone points out something less than brilliant. I tell people I want criticism and I really do, but deep down, I wish they'd all just tell me it's awesome and leave it at that.
Re having other irons in the fire, I totally agree. I found after finishing my last book that my brain was overflowing with creative energy, but wanted nothing to do with prose. I ended up writing screenplays for two weeks until I felt I could handle a novel again. Strange, but it worked.
You're right, Anne-Marie. As writers, we get so invested in our work. The worlds and the characters become real to us, and it is our job to protect them (even though, it's true, we do sometimes let bad things happen to them throughout the course of our stories). Still having more than one project eases the helicopter-author phenomenon. Your sojourn into screenplays sounds like a great way to refresh your efforts!
Such a wonderful post, and exactly what every writer needs to keep in mind. Thank you!
Thank you so much, Melissa! I really appreciate your kindness. This was a hard story to share in some ways, but I thought it might be helpful for other writers.
Well my throat tightened when reading this post. That doesn't happen very often.
It's because I knew this post was honest and difficult for you to write.
How did I know that? Because you were writing in the vein of my own experiences. I can build magical worlds but sharing such details are outside my realm.
Another author friend recently gave me what-for because she hasn't seen anything new from me. She's a dear heart and you've just backed her up. ;o)
Thank you so much, Teri for opening your heart and sharing this with the world. There are authors out there needing reminded of this wisdom every day.
Thank you so very much for your kind words, Aithne!
Unfortunately, I don't know an author who hasn't been there at one time or another. Once they published, writers used to be insulated, at least to some degree. Today writing is a business, especially for indie authors, which makes disappointment and rejection a constant reality. This makes it all the more important, I think, to find ways to separate ourselves from the work. The writing communities forming today give me hope.
Thank you for stopping by! I appreciate your visit and your wisdom! Many blessings to you too!
Such a great post, Terri! Thanks for sharing your story. And keeping more than one iron on the fire is SUCH good advice for writers.
Hi Nina! Thank you so much! You are the queen of wonderful advice, so your kind words mean a lot. :)
Beautifully written and inspiring. Thank you.
Thank you so very much, Rebecca! I think, for our own health, it's important for all of us to figure out how to get past rejection and disappointment. I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the post. Thank you for visiting!
This is a brilliant post about an issue that's very common. It's so lovely to read because it reminds everyone we our not alone on our journey. http://lkwattsconfessions.blogspot.com
We're not alone, no, but doesn't it feel so lonely? That's why I love the internet; it gives you a (parallel) reality check! :-)
Great post, Terri. Not only is it important to realize a book is a product and book marketing is sales, it's also important to differentiate between types of rejection. Sometimes the product needs to go back to the drawing board; other times, it just isn't the right time for it.
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Good post. Thanks for tracking back to my post "Rejection letters are funny." We all have to deal with it, and it's great to commiserate on our experiences.
Thank you so much, Tracey! Facing it with a smile is difficult but definitely a more positive approach!