I participated in #PitMad today and ended up with a hit on this tweet. I have mixed emotions about this.
I also had a hit for a different novel last year that resulted in some solid critique from an agent. While he ended up not representing me, it was a sign that I was close to breaking into the business.
That’s been my story for a long time. I got in to Viable Paradise, but couldn’t convert my time and learning there into sales. I get requests for partials (and even full manuscripts), but I can’t quite close the deal. I send out short stories (which are, admittedly, not my favorite thing, nor are they something I’m comfortable writing), and rarely get anything beyond a form rejection.
I did manage to win the Boskone/NESFA short story contest a couple of years ago, but alas, that story has also remained unsold. I compared notes with a couple of other people and realized that while my rejection count (mostly agents and novel queries, but also a good selection of short story submissions) is approaching 200, I should keep submitting, because I’m nowhere near the upper ceiling of most professional writers.
I’ve long been a perfectionist; I’ve long been prone to anxiety. In terms of personality, I am a functional extrovert (meaning I can be extroverted if I believe the situation requires it), but I mostly prefer intimate settings with trusted friends and family. When I create art, it is informed by not just my imagination, but by an out-pouring of my feelings/emotions. Some of it is experiential–my struggles in life, the emotions I deal with on a daily basis. Combine these personality traits together with a yearning for expression and you have a recipe for someone who takes rejection poorly.
Here’s the thought I can’t escape: rejection of my writing is a rejection of everything that is me. Oh, I’ve heard the arguments. It’s not personal; there’s thousands of slush submissions; I should read slush so that I see how much better my submission is than the normal stuff. There’s a rational counterpoint to every specific thing that I feel about rejection, but therein lies the problem.
I am unable to bridge the gap between rational evaluation and emotional investiture.
But even if we consider the rational aspects of it, I still feel like I come up short. Look, I’m a lucky guy–white, straight, upper middle class. I’m post-college educated with a senior position in a global company. In academic, athletic, and professional endeavors, it is rare for me to experience failure. Most of the time, I can apply discipline and sweat and get exactly what I want.
What I can’t wrap my head around is that years of effort and investment in the craft of writing has yet to result in success. It’s not strictly entitlement (although I have to be honest and say that I, at one time, felt that way); it’s more of the idea that I’ve put in the work, the time, and the resources necessary to accomplish a goal and I’ve yet to accomplish it.
It’s not that anyone owes me anything. Please don’t mistake my argument. It’s the old American dream idea–work hard, achieve your dreams. Believe in yourself. Luck comes to those who are well prepared. (Add any other cliché you’d like.)
When you’re listening to your pillow pound in your ear at 1:30 AM after your most recent rejection, it’s easy to say that you’re not good enough. The voices of anyone and everyone who’s ever said anything disparaging about you, your craft, or your work ethic become loudest. Do this frequently, and you believe it. And if you’re already prone to anxiety and depression, and you’re already saying that about yourself in other areas of your life, you start to build a false and very cohesive narrative. Rather than using rejection as a means to improve and grow and change, you use it as an excuse to remain stagnant and stubborn.
The results are heart-breaking. You snarl at people you love when they experience successes with their art, or when they try to tell you that “you’re good, keep trying” or “you’re so close, you can’t give up now.” You compare yourself to others and find fault with their work. You work with a chip on yoru shoulder, and it comes across in everything related to your craft.
Truthfully? I’ve done more damage to myself and my partnership with Kate through my own self-loathing and bitterness than I ever could have done with intentional insult(s).
Maybe what I needed was to have a different way to face a horrible truth: as a creator who is submitting art to a curated market, maybe Pete isn’t good enough. Maybe all my hard work hasn’t paid off. Maybe I haven’t learned what I needed to learn. That realization isn’t negative–it’s an opportunity to change for the better. To adapt. To grow.
A common criticism I get on my writing is that while I am technically and mechanically near-perfect, I miss on emotional depth. I produce super-clean manuscripts. I plot well. I plan well. My world-building is inventive and fully realized. But do you know what I lack? Connection. Intimacy. Tiny character details that make someone live and breathe. Sometimes I’ll get these right by accident, but it’s never consistent.
Why? There’s a lot of reasons, but I think the most profound reason is fear. I fear rejection. I’m already putting myself out there, and if I take that extra step to make my writing just that much more authentic and impactful, I’m more vulnerable. Fuck vulnerability, right?
So what does this continually tell me? What can I no longer deny, as comfortable as it is to remain bitter and jealous and afraid?
I have a choice. Continue as I have been or do something different?
I’m going all in on the idea of new beginnings in 2o17. For too long, I’ve let fear be the dominant voice in my head. Fear of rejection. Fear of feeling/looking foolish. Fear of the future. Fear of FAILURE.
I can offer myself some hard-won epiphanies. I know they’re true. People in my inner circle have told me these things over and over, but I’ve had to learn them for myself to really grok what they mean. (That Kate has been so patient with me in this process is a fucking miracle that I don’t deserve.)
- Bitterness, jealousy, and resentment are just excuses for not reaching your full potential.
- Art is art. (Reflexive property of algebra, right?) If you are driven to the act of creation, that is an end in and of itself. If you require the accolades of others to vindicate your art, then maybe you’re doing it wrong. (Full disclosure: I’m doing it wrong. At least I recognize that, now.)
- You are not your story, your poem, your essay, your painting. They all have identity independent of your sense of self. They do. (I’ll keep reminding myself of this.)
- Anxiety and depression make creation an order of magnitude more difficult, but the end result can be more impactful and relevant than you ever thought possible…if you allow it.
- The success of others does not preclude your own success. If everyone on the planet produced something creatively, it doesn’t mean that no artist is successful or able to be heard–it just means that Earth would be a fucking dynamite place to live.
So do me a favor. Create something. Invest in it. Dare to be vulnerable. See what you actually have to say if you can let your guard down.