There’s a little excel spreadsheet on my computer, which I refer to as my hall of fame and shame.
It’s where I keep track of the pieces I’ve submitted to competitions or literary journals. I write the name of the story, when it was submitted, and in the third column I record the outcome.
It makes for mixed reading.
In the last two years, five of my 13 short stories have achieved either a placing or publication. Seven have been rejected (some of them multiple times) and one is still on submission.
So that’s roughly a 40/60 strike rate.
In other words, my work has failed as more often than it has succeeded, that is, if one defines ‘success’ as achieving external recognition.
I gather this is not unusual. In fact, I’m led to believe most writers go through it. Advice articles on how to deal with writerly rejection are almost a genre on their own. Usually, they boil down to three key messages 1) rejection is part of writing 2) it’s not personal 3) you should keep writing anyway.
The problem is, most of these articles are written by published authors, those who have overcome their rejections to achieve success.
Stories of legendary authors being knocked-back are now themselves the stuff of legend, giving rise to what writer Siobhan Lyons describes as the ‘myth’ of rejection – that is – that failure is an almost necessary path to success.
Writing in the current issue of Kill Your Darlings, Lyons spells out the truth. ‘The odds of being published are small, and even if you do get published, the odds of becoming a well-know author, not just a published author, are marginal… While the stories of rejected writers who become Pulitzer Prize winners flood the internet, we never hear the stories about writers who never become established authors, simply because we have no interest in the life and personality of an unsuccessful writer whose books will never be read.’
Quite right. Though, it must be said, I actually would be interested in reading about a ‘failed’ writer, if only to grasp how they dealt with the rejection.
For this is what matters. Not just the rejection, but how it is dealt with.
Here’s what Lyon has to say. ‘To survive the scourge of rejection, it is often easier for writers who genuinely love writing as a passion rather than those writing in order to get their work published, because there is at least one reader: the writer themselves… The writer who loves to write feels the rejection of their ideas, their expression and their thoughts, rather than their inability to get ‘out there’ and gain recognition.’
I appreciate what Ryan is saying but it does seem a strange (and perhaps peculiarly Australian) notion that to be disappointed by rejection, or even to seek publication somehow makes you less of a writer.
The argument also fails to take into account different types of writing.
For instance, while I write a journal primarily to record experience (and certainly not to publish) I write fiction with the aim of entertaining, surprising, delighting or establishing a new ‘truth’ for a reader. But can I surprise or delight myself as reader, when I am also the writer?
There is a performance aspect to the writing of fiction which, just like other forms of self-expression (art and music, for instance) seems to demand an audience.
For me, rejection has (so far) been an instructive experience (Read here about a short story of mine that went from rejection to publication). Even the silent ones have something to teach us. Thanks to my ‘failures’, I now think more carefully about my story ideas. I revise until I can revise no more. I understand that stories need to be tailored to particular journals and competitions.
For all that I have learned, there’s still the truth – rejection hurts – and some hurt more than others, as my fellow emerging writer, Monique Mulligan, wrote in a lovely, heartfelt post this week.
‘But it’s your writing they rejected, not you,’ is often the platitude that gets shared (with good intentions) when a writer fails.
I’m sorry, but my writing is an extension of who I am. Just as I am a mother, a wife, and a friend, being a writer is a part of my being. My ideas, thoughts and expression make me who I am. Words and language are the means by which I (and everyone else) construct myself and the world around me. When I put pen to paper, I am putting myself on the page.
So, if writing reflects who I am, do I let it destroy me when the writing gets rejected?
For a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m the first to admit when I know I can do better. In most cases, I can (with some hindsight) see the rejection was deserved.
Secondly, I understand that it’s a subjective business. You only have to look at the success of a book like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ (which began as an indie title) to know that quality writing isn’t even a necessary ingredient of success. In fact, it’s questionable whether anyone (including publishers) really understands why certain things resonate. Just because my writing isn’t to a particular judges’ or journal’s taste doesn’t automatically make it bad. The reading community is a broad church.
Finally, and I don’t think this point is made often enough, there’s a fair degree of luck involved. Luck and timing.
I have little doubt, the third column on my excel spreadsheet will continue to feature the word ‘rejected’ many more times.
And, if you don’t mind, I’d like to wallow in it, for just a minute, before I move on to the next story, which I promise you, will be better…