The Art of Rejection (or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Your Work)

IMG_5773There is one universal truth about living creatively: you have to deal with rejection. A lot of it. And often it never comes with an explanation or reason. You submit something into which you poured your lifeblood, spent endless hours crafting and recrafting; then wait weeks or months for the result. When the email comes, it’s typically two or three sentences long, but only one word matters: “Unfortunately…” Maybe they say the story wasn’t right for them at this time, or they had too many pieces to choose from. The reason hardly matters, anyway – you didn’t make it.

A rejection opens floodgates of self-doubt and existential terror. It throws your individual work into question; and sometimes that translates to your entire purpose. If this story didn’t make the cut, after all that work and love and care, then what will? Why did you spend so much time working on that piece if it wasn’t good enough? Why did you think it would be good at all? When a rejection like this comes in for me, it sparks a physical reaction. My body gets heavy and my thoughts slow down. It’s hard to go about the day with that knowledge oozing through the mind – the knowledge of failure.

But, as I’ve learned while working in the industry for a while, rejection can occur for many different reasons. Magazine and contest readers are individual human beings. I’ve been judging for screenwriting contests for a few months now, and the process has taught me that these decisions are subjective – while most organizations require two readers to analyze each submission, the judgment still originates from someone’s internal reaction. People’s tastes are all diverse, and always change depending on their mood or circumstances. If a reader doesn’t appreciate your work, maybe it just wasn’t meant for them. This is a factor that you can’t control.

Even more arbitrarily, sometimes there just isn’t room for your submission. Lesley Conner, editor of the renowned Apex Magazine, explains his selection process in this essential tweet thread. He notes that, due to the volume of submissions and very limited space in the publication, he constantly has to reject great stories. Why? Because he has to. Sundance Film Festival programmers delivered a similar message in this article several years back – with thousands of submissions and only a few spots, they must choose films that aren’t just good, but unique. Their personal favorites sometimes get left behind because they’re too similar to another selection. They have to fill gaps in the market, provide something for every audience. That’s the truth of programming.

So, what it comes down to is luck. You do have to reach a pinnacle of creation, of course – your work has to be good. And when you don’t know whether you’re being rejected because your work isn’t good enough, or simply because it didn’t catch on, it’s hard to know where to improve. Magazine editors and contest judges don’t have time to give detailed notes. Educational spaces – creative writing workshops, grad school, close friends – can provide that feedback, but these are often expensive; and even these spaces can be discouraging, if your peers don’t understand or acknowledge your vision.

Without that core group of support, the rejections can often create a vacuum in the writer’s mind. Trying to solve your work’s problems on your own causes disconnect, echoes, confusion; there may be gaping holes that you just can’t see because you’re looking too close. Some pieces may become mangled beyond repair. The sense of purpose and self degenerates as the echoes knock around your mind until you’re a wreck. But all of this is part of the creative process, isn’t it? Does it have to be?

Instead of agonizing over continued rejection, I’ve tried to ask myself why I am writing, and why I am telling stories. Is it for publication and success, or is it for personal satisfaction? Is it both? For me, the latter reason is more appealing, because it’s something that I can control. If I know that my work accomplishes that I need it to, that has to be enough – and if someone else enjoys it as well, that’s a bonus. In the end, you’re the only person who can judge your work.

This mantra is much simpler to state; implementing it in actual life is a challenge in and of itself. I certainly haven’t found a way to keep it in mind when it counts most. But, there is an art to receiving rejection. Part of creative life is constantly bettering your work without compromising your vision. It’s essential to create that balance – otherwise there won’t be any work to reject. Writing doesn’t have to be such a painful, existential nightmare. Accepting that there’s no clear path to success, and redefining what success means, can help the writer maintain sanity. I hope.

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